“The food is different here,” Yi Shan, the director of Hsi Lai Temple says. “You will have a reflective reaction. In the restaurants, the flavors are standard. But the food changes every single day here, based on seasonality and availability.”
This is Hsi Lai Temple, a 15-acre Buddhist temple and monastery — the largest in Southern California. Decked out in gold roofs and long red lanterns, its sweeping grounds are most reminiscent of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. Opened in 1988, it is also home to one of the best vegetarian buffets in Los Angeles County. But of course, they don’t advertise that.
The cafeteria, which charges just eight dollars a person, is tucked on the second floor of the temple. While it is open daily to the public, its primary function is to provide meals to the patrons of the temple. Called The Hall Of Five Contemplations, the dining hall is named after five decrees of mindfulness:
1. Consider the work that went into the food and where it came from.
2. Reflect on my virtues and conduct, and if they merit this offering.
3. Guard the mind against faults, greed in particular.
4. Regard [the food] as wholesome medicine for health and the weakened body.
5. For the sake of attaining the way, I shall receive the food.
Vegetarian Chinese food, which has been in China since the 6th century is its own category of cuisine with a unique set of characteristics. It’s a far-cry from the skimpy salads and seitan burgers typical of Western vegetarian food. Vegetarian Chinese food is hearty, despite the lack of meat. Tofu is stewed for hours in spices so that it is saturated with flavor. Eggplants, gourds and melons are utilized for their texture and cooked in a way so that they take on substantial flavor.
In the greater Los Angeles area, there are entire restaurants dedicated to this unique cooking-style, catering mostly to a Buddhist crowd.
Most notably, there’s an absence of garlic, scallions, ginger, and onions; these ingredients are believed to arouse lust, encourage explosive tempers, and create bad body odors.
The menus are almost always heavy on the faux meats and seitan. The food is meant to mimic meat dishes in texture, flavor, smell, and look.
But at Hsi Lai Temple, you’ll be hard-pressed to find fake meat, which Shan says is typically indicated with MSG and additives.
Instead, the food is mostly plant-based and slow-cooked. White turnip, for example, is stewed for hours with shiitake mushrooms. Bitter gourd is grilled and flavored with black bean sauce. The options rotate daily. The chefs riff off of what is seasonal or what produce is donated to the temple.
“If people bring in carrot we can red-braise it, or turn it into a soup, or stir-fry,” Shan says. “We’re not limited to a menu. We pride ourselves on variety.”
Everything is served buffet-style and in the back of the room, there’s a Western salad bar, which isn’t as popular as the main buffet line.
Some days you might find bamboo shoots or steamed napa cabbage. Carbs include fried rice folded in with peas and carrots or stir-fried noodles. Everything is cooked in a giant woks and pots in the back kitchen. The cooking is spearheaded by a mixture of professional chefs and volunteers.
“You can feel the love of everyone here,” Shan says, “We clean our vegetables thoroughly so that everyone can feel the love.”
Vegetarianism is a fundamental aspect of Humanistic Buddhism, which Hsi Lai Temple was founded upon. They believe in the concept of universal interrelationship, in where all living things are connected.
And according to Shan, there’s a health angle to it as well.
“You feel lighter,” she says. “If you eat meat, you absorb the toxins that the animals produces when they are killed. A lot of people don’t think vegetables have nutrition but we use a lot of beans and those have a lot of nutrition.”
All visitors, regardless of faith, are welcome at the temple. There are English-speaking tours available on the weekend as well as classes like yoga, meditation, or Buddhist chants.
“At Hsi Lai Temple, we welcome all people to attend and if you come here, you are welcome to partake in our vegetarian meals and talk to Buddha,” Shan says. “The door is wide open.”