Most of us don’t realize Buddha’s Delight, that predictable vegetarian entree at every Chinese restaurant and takeout joint, was created more than 1,000 years ago in Chinese monasteries as edible transcendence. Its Chinese name luohan zhai actually means “vegetarian food of the accomplished ones” and its ingredients are icons. Bamboo shoots represent new chances, mushrooms opportunity, tofu transformation and since the peas stay in the pod, snow peas typify unity. When all 18 traditional components are assembled, Buddha’s Delight becomes the four cosmic elements that sustain human life: earth (peas, carrots…), water (lotus root, black moss…), fire (tofu which comes from fermentation) and air (mushrooms). The dish is meant to harmonize the body with the invisible world of the spirit. Since we humans started cooking in caves, we’ve had unshakable faith in the power of food to energize our soul. We so desperately want to break through the limits of our body, even now when we cook in condos, noodles, rice, wheat, as well as milk, salt, lamb, corn and tofu are not just normal groceries to fill the stomach. Like Buddha’s Delight, they come packed with spiritual nutrients.
Sandra Garson is the author of Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking and How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers’ Market. As a longtime student of Tibetan Buddhism and well-known cook for Dharma centers from Maine to Mongolia, she became the first food historian to explore the Buddha’s influence on how the world now eats. This led to exploration of more religious beliefs about food.