Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Amitabha Vegan Restaurant, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “In the pandemic, the value of life is even more visible.”
“When the pandemic started, I thought my restaurant would not be able to survive. After all, I have been losing money since the restaurant opened. However, my situation was not as bad as I thought.” Xiaoyan Dong, the owner of Amitabha Vegan Restaurant in Queens, New York, said that although the number of customers had decreased, and the restaurant cannot remain open for dining-in, she’s managed to stay afloat during the pandemic. “The landlord is willing to help and reduce the rent. I work in the restaurant with only one chef to cut down on spending. Customers are willing to order take-out. Maybe in the pandemic, everyone sees the value of life even more.” Xiaoyan readily agreed to partner with the Very Veggie Movement, and to promote ethical lifestyle choices with Tzu Chi.
Xiaoyan still remembers last year when she was looking for a space to open a vegan-vegetarian restaurant in the Fresh Meadows area of Queens. The restaurant originally in this space wasn’t a vegetarian one, and was owned by a couple who were raising two youngsters. The business had been difficult for them to maintain, and the couple often struggled. And thus, they opted to sell. Xiaoyan knew that if she took this space to open her own restaurant, she would not only be able to nurture a business where she could share her passion with others, but this family could be relieved of the challenges running a restaurant had produced for them as well.
So, she took the space, and Amitabha Vegan Restaurant was born.
Amitabha Is an Inspiration
“I have been vegetarian since 2008. The reason for being vegetarian was because my husband was in the hospital,” Xiaoyan Dong recalled of the day she’d prayed for her beloved husband.
“After I became a vegetarian, I found peace within my heart.” Xiaoyan said that she was devout in her studies of Buddhism, and the teachings of Buddhist scriptures have always inspired her. “Later, I also went to the Jing Si Bookstore & Cafe to study. Members of Tzu Chi were very kind. Wherever there is a disaster, Tzu Chi members are willing to help. So I went to Tzu Chi every Friday and prayed sutras in the temple for my husband every Wednesday.” After receiving money from her husband’s life insurance, Xiaoyan decided that she should use the funds in a manner that directly benefits others — which is when she began contemplating the idea of opening a veggie-focused restaurant.
She prayed that he would live, and that their six-year-old son and one-year-old daughter wouldn’t lose their father. She’d made a promise to become a vegetarian on that day. However, a year and a half later, her husband, unfortunately, passed away. She nevertheless kept her word, becoming a vegetarian in honor of her husband and to cultivate good karma. Upon witnessing her profound devotion, her family had been inspired — her son soon adopting a vegetarian diet as well, and her daughter, too, has been a vegetarian since childhood.
Therefore, Xiaoyan took the opportunity to acquire the restaurant and vowed to promote compassionate lifestyle habits. On September 11th, 2019, Amitabha Vegan Restaurant officially opened. Xiaoyan said that she only wanted to open the restaurant on a Wednesday. It wasn’t until later that she was informed of the meaning behind the date in New York as the day a horrifying terrorist attack had once taken place. “I feel an invisible connection. I hope that the good aspirations accumulated here in this vegan restaurant can flow back to the people who lost their lives in the disaster.”
Making Healthful Food With Love and Sincerity
“Dharma is not illusory, it is tangible.” For Xiaoyan, hiring skilled chefs, ensuring her ingredients are fresh and high-quality, working hard every day, and serving each dish from the heart, are how she practices the Dharma in her daily life. “I, myself, eat very simply. But we serve our guests who love delicious food, so we cook tasty dishes in our restaurant.”
Xiaoyan explained that the cooking philosophy at Amitabha Vegan is sincere, healthy, and delicious. “Everyone is connected; if the guests eat happily, that [transfers to] me, too. We all know that, but we need to put that into action,” said Xiaoyan. Most of the veggie ‘meat’ dishes in the restaurant use natural textured soy protein, which is shipped from China without any preservatives, and the rest is made with gluten flour in the restaurant to ensure high-quality meals.
Recommended dishes include:
Crispy Veggie ‘Duck’: Textured soy protein is chewy. To prevent gluten from shrinking, the chef prefers to fry the skin on low-heat slowly, as opposed to quickly, deep-frying in oil. This is how the crispy texture is created. Paired with a special homemade sauce, the dish is crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and delicious all around.
Pumpkin Soup with Fresh Mushrooms: Fresh, seasonal pumpkin is steamed until soft and ground down to make this satisfying soup. Two kinds of fresh mushrooms are then added to deliver a fabulous boost to both the aroma and taste. The soup is initially sweet, but adding a pinch of salt creates an additional layer of flavor. Sprinkling the soup with crushed nuts, such as cashews, adds further character to the soup.
Braised Tofu: Tofu dishes are a central feature at Amitabha Vegan Restaurant, among which, their homemade braised tofu is the most popular. Guests can choose from colorful, healthy, and fresh vegetables — like carrots, white cauliflower, fresh green celery, and beyond. These are then sliced and boiled to retain their crisp, fresh taste and seasonal aroma. Paired with fried tofu, the dish is full of flavor and goes perfectly with a side of rice.
Although Amitabha Vegan Restaurant is known for its vegan Chinese dishes, the restaurant also offers a wide range of other cuisines. Vegetarian sushi, burgers, and french fries can also be found on the menu. Amitabha likewise has Kosher Certification to better serve guests with diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Reflecting on the Value of Life During the Pandemic
“Before the pandemic, I had been putting money into the restaurant and it never turned a profit. So when the pandemic started, I thought the restaurant might not be able to survive,” explained Xiaoyan. Recalling the state of business during the pandemic in the past few months, she said, “Around March 27th, I closed the restaurant. I stayed at home and practiced the Buddha Seven [a focused mediation that lasts for seven days].” Later, when the pandemic began to ease, Xiaoyan resolved to go back to the restaurant and try again. She only hired one chef and decided to do all other tasks on her own. Thankfully, the landlord was also willing to reduce the rent.
Amitabha finally reopened again on May 7th, 2020, and shockingly, Xiaoyan discovered that business was even better than before. “I didn’t expect the tough times, but we can do it,” said Xiaoyan. “Now we only do takeaway, do as much business as we have, remain patient, and the situation will gradually stabilize.”
Before the pandemic, Xiaoyan Dong had a good relationship with Tzu Chi, so when she heard about the Very Veggie Movement, she instantly agreed to participate, expressing that “For as long as you are promoting vegetarianism, I will be willing to participate.” Amitabha Vegan Restaurant offers 50% discounts on different dishes every weekend to guests who’ve signed up for the Very Veggie Movement. Xiaoyan is happy to share her delicious recipes with everyone, and at a reduced cost, more people may be willing to give veggie-focused meals a chance.
“For more than ten years, I didn’t work; I just chanted the teachings of the Buddha and volunteered. Now, I do everything in the restaurant,” said Xiaoyan. “I rarely have time to go to the temple. But my heart is still with everyone, I feel that I am still in the Tzu Chi family.”
By promoting a healthy, environmentally-friendly, and compassionate vegetarian diet, Xiaoyan feels fulfilled after every single busy day that she spends pouring her whole heart into her restaurant.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!