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[Beijing] Pure Lotus


Kent Wang
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A few weekends ago I went to Pure Lotus with my friends Tavey and Melissa. Melissa is an American who has been studying in Beijing for the past year. She's mostly a vegetarian and considers this place to be her favorite restaurant in the city. There are three locations, I can't remember which one we went to.

Pure Lotus serves Buddhist cuisine, so not only is it vegetarian but they also do not use any "potent" ingredients like scallions or garlic. I'm a huge fan of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine -- though I'm a proud omnivore -- so I was very eager to dine there, especially since this particular subset of Chinese cuisine is nigh impossible to find in the United States. My previous experience with Buddhist cuisine was in 2000 at a restaurant in Xi'an inside a Buddhist temple, so I was expecting something similarly rustic and traditional. To my (welcome) surprise Pure Lotus puts a decidedly modern twist on this ancient culinary tradition.

This "modern-ness" can be seen not only in the food but also in its decor...

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Main dining room. The beads may look a little tacky by Western standards but I think work well here.

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The artwork is changed on a regular basis.

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Private dining room. Pretty, but the acoustics are terrible.

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Even the dinnerware is avant garde.

I didn't get a chance to photograph the menu but the names for dishes are even longer and more poetic than Chinese dishes already are. I'm talking like eight characters long, e.g. "The chicken that drowns in sorrow receives mercy from heaven." I made that one up but they're all something along those lines.

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Therapeutic fruit drinks. The white is coconut milk, the red is I think radish, the orange is carrot.

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Shark. But remember everything here is vegetarian so it's an imitation.

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A bite taken out of the shark so you can see that the texture is nearly identical to the real thing. Also, sausage.

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Roasted duck. Notice how the skin even has "goosebumps" from where the feathers would've been plucked.

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Pork short-ribs, the bones are made of sugar cane. To the side, water chestnuts.

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Steamed chicken.

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Braised pork stew.

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Taro root and tapioca soup. This is a sweet dessert item.

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Fried coconut milk. I'm not sure how this is made but I'm guessing the coconut milk is frozen, breaded and then fried.

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Watermelon cubes on dry ice. The watermelon was not very fresh but it was complimentary and the dry ice was quite impressive.

To those vegetarians not familiar with Buddhist imitation cuisine, To-furkey and Boca Burgers probably come to mind, but this is worlds better. To me, To-furkey is nearly inedible while I actually prefer some of these Buddhist imitation dishes to the real thing: that's how much better the Buddhist dishes are to the vegetarian imitation foods that are available in the West.

The dishes at Pure Lotus were all superb, the shark being my favorite. Some, like the roasted duck and steamed chicken, were not as well executed as I've had in Xi'an. Others, such as the pork short-ribs and shark, were very innovative and one would not expect to find those dishes in more traditional restaurants. The bill came to RMB 175 (USD 22) per person, which is quite expensive for Beijing but an absolute steal by US standards.

I haven't dined at El Bulli or anything of that caliber but short of that, this dinner at Pure Lotus I must say was the most innovative meal I've had in at least a year. It is very heartening to see something as traditional and unique to China as Buddhist cuisine to be updated to modern standards. Pure Lotus is evidence that the future of Chinese cuisine in the face of increasing Westernization is bright indeed.

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WOW! What was the 'shark' made of? Gluten? Bean curd?

The stark modern dining room against the traditional painting is interesting. What are those chopstick holders?

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132364636_8a731ec238.jpg

The artwork is changed on a regular basis.

At first glance, I thought these were special lighting on the wall. Later I realized this seemed to be reflected sunlight from the outside. You can see the shadows casted by the windows. The restaurant doesn't believe in using drapes?

Also, the glass chairs in the private dining room would take some to get used to.

Fantastic pictures! Thanks for posting.

It would be great if you can tell us what they used (gluten? tofu sheet?) to make the mock meat on each dish. Looked really wonderful.

Edited by hzrt8w (log)
W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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It would be great if you can tell us what they used (gluten?  tofu sheet?) to make the mock meat on each dish.  Looked really wonderful.

My guess is as good as yours. I'm pretty sure that the duck and chicken skin are gluten but the shark really puzzles me.

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It would be great if you can tell us what they used (gluten?  tofu sheet?) to make the mock meat on each dish.  Looked really wonderful.

My guess is as good as yours. I'm pretty sure that the duck and chicken skin are gluten but the shark really puzzles me.

I have a 1972 'NittyGritty Productions" Vegetarian cookbook (Gary Lee) who describes mock fish as made by monks on the east coast of China - Monte Pu-tu. He said the monks would use bamboo shoots in a comb shape as the bones for a fish. The body of the fish was mashed cooked bean curd and potatoes, keeping the mix rather dry to make shaping easy. The skin, would be bean curd skin.

Aren't Buddhists allowed some shellfish?

Some author commented on Buddhists not eating animals, but didn't mind pretending --- as in the mock dishes.

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[...]

Some author commented on Buddhists not eating animals, but didn't mind  pretending  ---  as in the mock dishes.

I am being a little cynical today...

This brought up a broader question. Many of the Chinese vegetarian restaurants serve mock meat. Some of them, as illustrated by Kent's pictures, would go out of their way to make non-meat ingredients to look like real meat: chicken, duck, fish - with imitation skin. From jo-mel's description, some would even make fish bones.

So why are the vegetarian restaurant patrons go there, eat vegetables but *think* of eating meat? Are those for true vegetarians, or for carnivores who want to cleanse their systems for a day or two for whatever reasons (but couldn't stop thinking about eating meat)?

W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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Aren't Buddhists allowed some shellfish?

I think it varies greatly from temple to temple, sect to sect. My father told me that the famed Shaolin monks received an imperial grant to eat meat so that they could have the necessary protein to practice their martial arts. That may be legend but it does illustrate the lack of uniformity in Buddhist practices. Even the prohibition of scallions and garlic varies.

So why are the vegetarian restaurant patrons go there, eat vegetables but *think* of eating meat?  Are those for true vegetarians, or for carnivores who want to cleanse their systems for a day or two for whatever reasons (but couldn't stop thinking about eating meat)?

Why did the Buddhists invent the mock meats in the first place? Surely they're "true" vegetarians. I think only the most fundamentalist vegetarians could argue that mock meats are un-vegetarian. As long as it's not actually meat it should be OK.

If you think of making food as analagous to painting, then any source of inspiration that the artist draws from is valid. The chef can make foods that do not mock meats (like the taro root soup) in the same way that a painter can choose to paint abstract colors and shapes. But it is just as valid for the chef to make foods that imitate meats in the same way that a painter can choose to imitate humans by painting portraits.

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So why are the vegetarian restaurant patrons go there, eat vegetables but *think* of eating meat?  Are those for true vegetarians, or for carnivores who want to cleanse their systems for a day or two for whatever reasons (but couldn't stop thinking about eating meat)?

Perhaps it has to do with how before many people became vegetarians, they ate meat. Some people become vegetarians based on moral grounds, so although they may drop meat from their diet, they remember what meat was like, and may even crave certain things they used to have. Those mock meat dishes may help to fill that gap, since their beliefs don't allow them to eat the real thing.

I've been facinated by this style of cooking for some time. I'd like to try it someday, although I'm not a vegetarian.

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The little I've read on this, is interesting:

One bit was that Buddha himself allowed eating meat --- IF-- the eater knew that the animal was not killed for the purpose of eating it.

But altho, vegetarian food can be bland, the Buddhist monks never lost interest in tasty food and since they cooked for hundreds of monks and nuns back in the medieval period, their dishes were many and varied.

Also, at that time, there were many travelers who stayed at their monastaries -- and were fed food that would appeal to even non-vegetarians. (I wonder if that was when the faux meat practice started. )

As other eating places opened up near the temples and monastaries, the monks , in Qing times, were known to add chicken broth or chicken fat to improve the taste of their dishes. In Sung times, restaurants started serving "temple food" which also found its way into royal kitchens.

(edited from Simoons "Food in China"

As Kent Wang said -- it varied from temple to temple and sect to sect. Some groups, it seems followed different guidelines for differing reasons.

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