Buddha Bodai is one of the few, if not only places in Manhattan that serves vegetarian kosher Chinese food, a double-whammy of a restriction for people as obsessed with pork and animal parts as the Chinese.
I hadn't even stepped inside the restaurant, and already there was trouble afoot. A sign on the window read, "No non-kosher, non-vegetarian food or beverages are allowed inside the restaurant."
Oh, disaster! It just so happened that I carried in my purse a bag of Chinese beef jerky, which I was planning to enjoy later that day. I took out the bag and nibbled on a piece, just to help me through this trying moment.
What to do, what to do? I weighed the arguments for and against disobeying the rule. On the one hand, who would know if I were to enter the premises with my meat jerky tucked inside my bag? Yet the idea that the other patrons who come to eat at Buddha Bodai, precisely because they presume they are entering a kosher-safe zone, was an argument for tossing the jerky.
Then again, how would they know there was a traitor amongst them? Who would really know, except some higher power, which, even if others believed in, I didn't? And if I truly didn't believe in these restrictions, then, maybe, no ethical violations were taking place.
I paused. I munched on more jerky. What about the basic contract I had with Buddha Bodai, implicit upon entering the restaurant, that I was to obey their edicts? Did that hold water, or could I be practicing a form of civil disobedience by bringing in treif? Yes, that was it—I could be the Henry David Thoreau of Chinese food. But no, I thought again, for I could have chosen to eat at any joint in Chinatown.
You see where this is going, don't you? I had grown awfully hungry standing outside the restaurant, contemplating the price of eternal damnation (in this case, $9 for a quarter-pound of spicy and sweet pork jerky, sold on Elizabeth Street.) So hungry, in fact, that I had unwittingly polished off all the jerky.
Relieved, I went in and sat down. I cheered up even more when I saw the menu, which is heavy on faux meat offerings. The Chinese are very fond of all manner of soy products, not just tofu.
Naturally, I set out to try them all. Faux tripe. Faux pork ribs. Faux chicken, and so forth. I'm of the opinion that faux meat products taste good if you forget that they're supposed to replace meat. Nothing replaces meat. (Meat, I love you.) However, if you think of faux meat products as interestingly textured soy food, then your whole conception changes, and with it, your ability to appreciate the stuff.
Case in point: the Shredded Vegetarian Chicken Pan-Fried Noodle ($8.95). The faux chicken in there is really quite good, but only if you enjoy it on its own merits. If you close your eyes and try to think of it as chicken, then it tastes like dry, overcooked chicken breast. But as faux "chicken substance," it's fantastic. On my visit the chicken-y soy slices were seared, its edges crispy and brown. The noodles themselves were on the less-salty side, a problem easily fixed with lashings of tableside chili oil.
The Vegetarian Tripe, a dish of white chewy squares dressed in black bean sauce, was also good though it resembled squid more than stomach ($2.95 for the dim sum portion). The only irretrievably bad faux meat dish I tried was the Vegetarian Ribs with Black Bean Sauce , which tasted like non-meaty, non-porky foam ($2.95 for said foam, dim sum portion.)
All in all, I'm happy with my meal at Buddah Bodai, and I'm proud of the way I behaved before breezing through its kosher vegetarian doors. Unless thinking bad thoughts counts as feel, in which case we're all doomed.
And it just goes to show that you never know when your integrity will be tested, even if all you're doing is eating jerky and lunch in Chinatown. But that's how things are. Temptations in life abound.
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.