Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “If you think about Chinese food, the southern cuisine is sweet, the northern ones are salty, the east is spicy, and the west is sour. Are these many flavors present in vegetarian dishes?”
Twenty-six years ago, Kent Zhang was moved to take on a vegetarian diet due to his religious beliefs — and because he’s cultivated a deep love of delicious food after many years in the catering industry as well. At Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, located in New York’s Chinatown, Kent has merged his ambition and his love of food to develop enticing new vegetarian interpretations of traditional Chinese recipes. And they’ve certainly won over many of his guests, too.
Although the restaurant has struggled during the pandemic like many others, Kent is grateful for all of the kindness he’s been shown from customers, and when Tzu Chi volunteers contacted Kent about partnering with the Very Veggie Movement, Kent joined with enthusiasm.
Kent’s vegetarian journey began in the Western Hills of Beijing, China. He’d been studying English at Beijing Foreign Affairs University, and his class organized a spring outing. Kent, who ran a restaurant and loves cooking, was entrusted with the important task of preparing meals for everyone. “I set up a grill, grilled fish for everyone, and prepared a Buddha’s delight (a braised vegetable dish),” he said. “I’d thought, ‘if I smell grilled fish and want to eat, then just eat it. But if I don’t feel like eating fish while smelling it, then I am ready to be a vegetarian.'” After testing himself that day, Kent began his vegetarian lifestyle and never looked back.
Where There Is a Will, Action Must Follow
In 1999, Kent and his friends opened a vegetarian restaurant in Flushing, New York. It was indeed a moment of great happiness for Kent. “We are vegetarian. On one hand, there are few restaurants we can gather and eat at, and it is not convenient to go to ordinary restaurants. On the other hand, I was also catering before; when the boss asked me to get fish and crabs for dishes, I had to do it. But I was very, very sad. Now, I no longer need to hurt animals.”
Kent has been a vegetarian since 1994. When he first became a vegetarian, there were few options to choose from and the flavors were relatively monotonous. However, Kent was committed to being a vegetarian. “Because I believe in karma’s causal circle, I am very firm in spirit, and I slowly rejected the taste of meat psychologically. There is no regret.” Whether being a vegetarian or running a vegetarian restaurant, Kent works hard to give his commitments 100% of his efforts.
Over time, Kent saw the fruits of his efforts grow and flourish. The restaurant moved to Chinatown in Manhattan, New York. And with age, the benefits of being a vegetarian gradually became more apparent: “I go with friends of my age to annual medical checks; my indicators are much better than others. Whether it is cholesterol or blood pressure, they are all normal.” Kent said that relieving himself of the psychological burden of his old diet had boosted his spirits considerably, and he now feels more relaxed in general.
North, South, East, and West
Before becoming a vegetarian, Kent worked in the catering industry at Bei Hde Guesthouse in the Houhai area of Beijing. He was familiar with everything from purchasing to operation, and cooking to management. Kent said that he has always enjoyed cooking, and he likes delving into the culture of Chinese cuisine. After becoming a vegetarian, he began to pay more attention to the special presentation of vegetarian foods in Chinese cuisine. “I remember eating an impressive vegetable dish in Beijing at that time. It was called “pine stone and crispy eel.” It was thinly cut with shiitake mushrooms. It was half black and half white, like eel, wrapped in flour and fried. It’s crispy and delicious, and the presentation is very artistic, stacked like a rockery, topped with a cherry, which is so beautiful.” Kent remembered this dish and endeavored to make it himself when he returned home.
Kent tasted all kinds of vegetarian foods from the east, west, north, and south of China. During his gradual accumulation of new flavors and culinary techniques, he collected more than two hundred gourmet recipes for his restaurant.
“There are many people who misunderstand that vegetarian dishes are indifferent and boring. If you think about Chinese food, the southern cuisine is sweet, the northern ones are salty, the east is spicy, and the west is sour. Are these many flavors present in vegetarian dishes?” Kent proudly told us that although his restaurant chiefly serves Cantonese dim sum, it also includes many other tasty meals from all over China.
When speaking of the sweeter southern dishes, Kent mentioned a famous dish from Guangdong known as sweet and sour pork. At Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, Kent carefully adapted it to utilize rice cakes as a means of imitating the fatty meat, and the lean meat is instead substituted with vegetarian ham. Traditional hawthorn, pineapple, and various fruits are used to cook the sweet and sour sauce. Together, the color is vibrant and the taste is rich.
One must-try savory northern recipe is a famous dish from Beijing: “Shredded Pork with Beijing Sauce.” Traditionally, pork loin and Beijing onions are stir-fried with a sweet noodle sauce. Kent has also reinvigorated these ingredients using bean curds to make vegetarian shredded pork, coating it with cornstarch, and frying it until fragrant and tender. Then, Kent uses a sweet sauce for stir-frying, and uses shredded cucumber as the side dish instead of Beijing onion, which not only retains the flavor of northern Shandong cuisine but is also healthier.
Among the eight major Chinese cuisines, many have spicy dishes, but the “Mixed Hot Pot” from the Northeast is particularly mouth-watering. The pot is placed on a fire, and the spicy soup base can be paired with a variety of vegetables, tofu, and beyond.
When the conversation arrived at the more sour tangs associated with western dishes, the “sour soup noodles” from Shanxi were called to attention. Kent said that the original noodles made in the shop sold very well, and then they bought a machine to help press the noodles together. Many noodles contain eggs to improve flavor, but these fresh, handmade noodles boiled and combined with Shanxi vinegar and stewed vegan meat certainly do not want for anything.
Uniting to Advocate for Vegetarianism
At Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, the meals are clean, healthy, and flavorful, attracting many non-vegetarians as well as long-time vegetarians. “I remember once a table of South American customers ordered a lot of dishes and ate very happily. At the checkout, I stepped forward to greet them and asked them which one is vegetarian. They looked at each other and wondered why I asked. I said, ‘this is a vegetarian restaurant.’ They exclaimed that what they just ate was vegetarian!” During his time operating the restaurant, Kent has encountered many more interesting misunderstandings just like this one. Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian’s dishes have not only accumulated a large number of vegetarian customers, but opened the eyes of non-vegetarians.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a huge blow to the restaurant industry. Because Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant is located in the central area of Manhattan, a large portion of its customers are tourists. Nowadays, with entire countries quarantined, tourists have nearly vanished from the area, and restaurants continue to suffer heavy losses. “Living all these years, we really haven’t experienced anything like this. We closed the door for two months without any guests, and we couldn’t bear to let the workers take the risk to go to work,” Kent recalled of the early days of the pandemic. After the situation eased in July, Kent, who lives in Bayside, Queens, drove to pick up restaurant employees in Brooklyn every day to help limit their exposure to other people. After posting the reopening news on social media, Kent received calls from several customers. Some gave him gift cards, and some said that they would set up a credit card with him for a few hundred dollars to order his food. “That kind of support is really touching,” said Kent sincerely.
Kent’s relationship with Tzu Chi began early; before opening the restaurant, Kent participated in Tzu Chi’s choir. Later, as he started to manage the restaurant and time had to be handled carefully, those at Tzu Chi always remained in his heart. “Understanding that my business is recovering slowly, several senior brothers and sisters from Tzu Chi have come to recommend the Very Veggie Movement to me. I think this concept is very good, so I participated and offered a 50% discount on different dishes every week. I hope to attract more people to try vegetarian food.”
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