Practicing your religion often means changing your diet. Catholics used to divide the year into meat days and fast (or fish) days, which many Coptic Christian sects still do. Jews and Muslims give up pork, many Buddhists and Hindu castes renounce meat of all kinds, Rastafarians avoid salt, and Protestants — well, sometimes we give up good taste (have you ever tasted the food at a church potluck?).
Last spring, Alice Poon opened her second branch of Enjoy Vegetarian at Kearny and Washington. It specializes in strict Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, most of which qualifies as vegan: no meat or fish, of course; little dairy or eggs; no MSG, for modern customers; and also no onions or garlic. The Buddhist proscription against wu hun, "five strong-smelling foods" — onions, garlic, chives, shallots, and leeks — may go back thousands of years to the religion's Indian origins; some religious groups in India, such as Jains and yogic ashrams, still avoid cooking with them. In fact, they cite the same reasons as most Chinese Buddhists: Vegetables in the allium family are said to excite the senses, even encourage lust. Poon herself says she thinks wu hun ingredients make practitioners smell. (When you're meditating for hours at a time, the smell of the person next to you does matter.)
Making savory, satisfying food given the cuisine's restrictions is like giving kids a box of red, green, and purple markers and telling them to draw a lifelike bowl of bananas and lemons. Enjoy Vegetarian's food is universally fascinating, but irregularly appealing. Half the dishes demonstrated a level of creativity that was inspiring, with fresh, clean flavors and more varieties of fake meat than Rainbow has ever stocked on its shelves. The other half I'd never order again.
Poon's original Enjoy Vegetarian on Kirkham at 12th Avenue, with its bright tangerine walls and big metal statue of the Buddha, has been a destination for vegans since it opened four years ago. For her second restaurant, she picked a strategic (if not symbolic) location on the border between the Financial District and Chinatown, aiming for a more polished, if colder, look: buttercream walls, jade-colored tilework accents, slate floors, rosewood-stained chairs.
The new Enjoy seems to draw Chinese Buddhist and Western vegetarian diners in equal numbers. The waiters fluidly switch between Cantonese and English, and the 100-item menu appeals to multiple subtribes of the veg nation: lemon chicken and pepper steak for the tentative, fatty pork with cabbage and lotus root with lily bulb and gingko nuts for everyone else.
That said, cooking Buddhist vegetarian style presents cooks with quite a conundrum. Omnivores unthinkingly rely on meat and seafood products to provide umami, that barely definable sensation of roundness and depth that people nickname "the fifth taste." Vegetarian and vegan cultures around the world have found other sources for umami. But both vegetarians and omnivores use onions and garlic to give stocks and sauces a savoriness that may be strong-smelling to ascetics, but appetizing to the rest of us.
And so a number of the dishes I tried at Enjoy came off thin and dull: The tofu-corn soup that showed up with lunch tasted like water thickened with cornstarch. A rich-sounding coconut sauce with gluten puff, taro, and pumpkin ($8.50) had all the appeal of a bottle of Elmer's glue. Pea sprouts ($13.95) stir-fried with misolike fu yu (preserved tofu) and ginger threads had too little of both seasonings to give the vegetables any dimension. And a stir-fry of lotus root, gingko nuts, lily bulb, and snap peas ($9) had little flavor, though its mix of textures sparkled in the mouth: the porous crunch of the lacy lotus root, the egg-yolk creaminess of the gingko nuts, and the delicate snap of the peas and lily bulbs, which resemble onions (they're related) but have a turniplike sweetness.
What the food lacked in punch, it made up in textural variety. Enjoy takes two simple proteins — tofu and wheat gluten — and smokes, presses, deep-fries, braises, seaweed-wraps, and forms them into shapes both familiar and strange. (Poon says that her cooks prepare some of the proteins themselves and import others from Taiwan.) A appetizer combo plate ($5.99) showed off the range — ribbons of dense pressed tofu scented with five-spice powder; sweet and sour gluten puffs, braised down into sauce-saturated sponges; thin slices of soy pork basted in barbecue sauce; and vegetarian goose, a dozen sheets of tofu skin rolled around one another and cross-sliced so that they seemed to flake away in the mouth.
The fake meats could approach outright mockery. An appetizer of fragrant crispy chicken ($5.99) resembled every factory-formed nugget you've ever heated up for your six-year-old's dinner. On first bite, I would have sworn the thin strips of soy beef stir-fried with green beans ($8.50) were flank steak until I zeroed in on their flavor and noticed they lacked that gamy, farm-funk undertone. The award for sheer ballsiness went to the sliced fatty pork ($8.50), or mock pork belly: The lean half was made up of pressed tofu, the translucent fat half yam-starch jelly. The strips were scented with five-spice powder and braised with cabbage and finely chopped mustard greens — not as good as the Hakka classic, to be sure, but good in its own right.
Enjoy's spareribs ($8.50), braised with daikon and carrot, were a remarkable facsimile of beef. The chunks of dark-brown wheat gluten broke down into long, chewy strands seemingly held together with filaments of fat and gristle. But it wasn't the illusion of meat that most intrigued me about the dish — it was the sauce, which hinted at black mushroom, a little cinnamon, a pinch of sugar. It had richness and more depth than I expected.
The dishes that best compensated for the lack of "strong-smelling foods" were the ones that substituted other strong-smelling ingredients. Iceberg lettuce cups filled with a confetti of finely chopped tofu, carrots, cloud ear, corn, and pine nuts ($13.95) tasted dry until we smeared on a spoonful of penetratingly aromatic, molasses-black hoisin sauce. The fermented bean paste and chiles in the satay sauce coating a dish of eggplant and tofu ($8.50) collided with the perfume of the fresh basil leaves tossed in, casting sparks. And it was hard to imagine how the strongest, spiciest dish of them all, smoked gluten stir-fried with pungent preserved mustard greens and salty fermented black beans, wouldn't excite the senses.
In fact, the black bean sauce was potent enough that I cut it with swigs from Alice Poon's one concession to her non-Buddhist customers: a bottle of Tsingtao beer. There's only so much that a human, religious or no, can do without.