Vegetarian food and 死话头 at the Chan Meditation Center

In one tray, glistening patties of tofu lay in neat rows. Another tray contained a salad with cooked greens, wood ear fungus, and roasted tofu. The row of trays contained other treats: pickled bamboo, spicy noodles, figs, and cookies. And, of course, a pot of rice sat at the end of the table. This is the kind of vegetarian fare that has drawn people to Buddhist temples in China for centuries. Standing over this display of foods, one can understand why the kitchens at these temples are often called Fragrant Vegetarian Kitchens.

But this was not China. I was at the Chan Meditation Center in Queens.

The nuns at the Chan Meditation Center refer to it as a temple, and indeed it performs all the functions of a temple, but its appearance might surprise people used to the most spectacular Buddhist temples of China, with their imposing architecture and statues. Within the Chan Meditation Center is a long room that feels a little like a lecture hall, with folding chairs facing a table at the far end. Behind the table is a modest shrine made of unpainted wood, on which rests a Buddha, flanked by a bronze bowl-shaped gong and a large gourd. Behind the Buddha is a line painting of Guan yin and two pieces of Chinese calligraphy.

This Sunday, open house at the Chan Meditation Center began with a discussion by the Venerable Chang Zhai on the essentials of Chan practice. In particular, her discussion focused on stopping wandering thoughts. This proposal requires some soul-searching for me, since I more or less make a lifestyle of wandering thoughts. It is comforting, however, that one of the methods she described uses rather than rejects words. She spoke of huatou (话头), which can be translated as “origin words” (literally, “head words”). These are questions that cannot rationally be answered. She gave three examples: “Who drags this corpse around?”, “Who is reciting the Buddha’s name?”, and “What was my face before I was born?” These are all what she called sihuatou, or dead huatou, since they have come down to us from antiquity—but we can make up our own.

When the discussion was over, someone clapped with wood blocks, the Venerable Chang Zhai retreated to another room, microphones and cameras were rapidly removed, and the trays of food were brought out. A nun came to the table and helped herself to a modest portion of food, and then turned to me and invited me to follow.

I tried a little of everything. All of the dishes had been prepared with a similar vision: they all highlighted the natural flavors of their ingredients, mild with a cleansing freshness. The tofu was savory but light and the salad was rich with different flavors, but left the palate clean. This was an excellent meal.

“Have you ever been to any Buddhist events before?” a fellow sitting next to me asked. I told him I had some exposure to Tibetan Buddhism.

“Same thing, different flavor,” he responded.

Chan Meditation Center
90-56 Corona Ave
Elmhurst, NY 11373

Open house
Sundays, 11am – 4pm
$5 donation suggested for lunch

Hand-pulling noodles in Elmhurst

Where the Port Washington-bound LIRR crosses Broadway, a bright red awning advertises hand-pulled noodles and northern dumplings. Under this awning is one of the homiest restaurants in Elmhurst. Tall windows and glass doors wrap around the front of the building, admitting plenty of light to the dining area. The dining area is roomy (if crowded) with a high ceiling. A large bronze relief sculpture depicting river boats hangs on one wall.

There is no table service; after ordering at a counter, you sit where you please. I ordered lamb and hand-pulled noodles, and then went to watch my noodles being made. There were a couple of stools in front of the noodle-making station, apparently especially for people to watch. The noodle-maker was happy to have an audience.

This noodle-maker’s method was:

Let the dough rest (right), then knead vigorously (left)

Pull, fold, and knead some more



Pull and twist

Break into segments, and roll out





He was remarkably fast. A lump of dough became handfuls of noodles in a few minutes. (“About a year,” he said, when I asked how long he’d been doing this.) I believe this was the Lanzhou method of pulling noodles.

The noodles came mixed with slices of lamb and cubes of liver, as well as stalks of bok choy. The soup was lightly seasoned. Much of the flavor came from the stewed lamb—but ginger and garlic rounded out the flavor to make a tasty broth.

The noodles had a remarkable mouth feel. They were chewy, but also slightly wiry, like very thick ramen noodles. Excellent.

老北方 (“Northern Dumpling House”)
8305 Broadway
Elmhurst, NY 11373

11am – 11pm every day

Mooncakes and Chairman Mao’s braised pork; a walk in Flushing

A small mooncake from 88 Bakery & Cafe, “The Best Bakery in Town”

October 5th: The moon is full tonight. Some people may know this full moon as the Harvest Moon. Many people will not think of it at all. But in Flushing’s Chinatown, this full moon is the occasion for eating mooncakes.

Mooncakes are small, round cakes with a filling, often red bean paste or lotus-seed paste. Larger mooncakes (the size of the palm of a hand) usually have a salted egg yolk in the center. The origin of mooncakes is not very clear, but they may date back to the Song dynasty (tenth century).

This year the festival started on the 15th day of the month on the lunar calendar, or yesterday—so I went with a friend to Flushing to eat mooncakes.

The almost-full moon was dazzling, but life on Main and Roosevelt Streets showed few signs of change. As usual, fruit-sellers stood behind boxes of fruit, yelling their prices, and pigs’ feet and roast ducks were on display in shop windows and on tables in front of shops. Pirated DVDs were also on sale, and between a massage parlor and an herbal shop, a sign directed visitors to an “adult entertainment” shop up a flight of stairs.

But, as ever, the main attraction was food. In unnamed malls—corridors lined with tiny shops leading from the street to the back of the building—families sat in tiny, fluorescent-lit noodle shops having dinner out. The menus at these restaurants were remarkably long for such small establishments, featuring noodles with pork and vegetables, but also with every imaginable kind of offal, duck blood, pigs’ ears, and so on. And all along Main Street and its tributaries people stopped at bakeries, dumpling shops, and restaurants for food.

No corner in this neighborhood is too small for something interesting to develop. My friend stopped at a florist on Roosevelt Avenue and pointed out a tiny stall selling a variety of treats—but mainly douhua, or creamy tofu. Behind the window, a woman tended a vat of soy milk and a cooker full of hot tofu; cups of sweet ginger syrup sat in stacks to her side. I took a sample of this home. Mixing the sweet ginger syrup with the douhua makes an excellent treat—simple, mildly sweet, and very tasty.

We walked along 40th Road (where I’ve previously written about Shanghai You Garden), looking into the densely packed restaurants, many well-known, and eventually went into a door with a sign reading 天天 缃上 and a menu titled “Traditional Hunan Style.”

天天 缃上 in daytime

Inside was a long dining area with walls painted blood red, and screens painted black. Abstract patterns suggesting rolling clouds or waves were painted with black, angular strokes on some walls, along with a stylized painting of a river surrounded by houses. This river, I suspect, is meant to be the Xiang River (缃) alluded to in the restaurant’s name. (The Xiang is the largest river in Hunan.)

The menu offered mostly dishes from Hunan and Sichuan, as well as some intriguing dishes of unknown provenance, such as leaping fish (which I had not the heart to order) and frog casserole.

We ordered Mao’s Braised Pork, a classic dish of Hunan, and spicy Sichuanese fish.

The spicy fish came first, in a great bowl of soup filled with peppers, noodles, cabbage, and fish. It was hot, with a strong chili flavor, and a little sour. It was very good (although, alas, it did not have the distinctive peppercorn flavor that I hope for in Sichuanese food).

The braised pork came mixed with roasted peppers and covered in sauce. The first bite is surprising: a candied flavor, like honey-covered walnuts, fills your mouth. This is a captivating dish. It is no wonder Chairman Mao (a native of Hunan) liked it so much.

Finally, we had mooncakes, bought from a stall on Main Street. Mine was filled with lotus-seed paste, with a salted egg yolk in the middle. An excellent way to mark the harvest moon. (I think the text below just says, “egg yolk, lotus seed paste.”)

Soy Bean Chen Flower Shop
13526 Roosevelt Ave
Flushing, NY 11354
7am – 9pm every day

天天湘上 (Traditional Hunan Style )
135-23 40th Rd Flushing, NY 11354
11:30am – 11:00pm Sun – Thurs
11:30am – 12:00am Fri – Sat

Uncle Zhou’s, from Luoyang to Elmhurst

The menu at Uncle Zhou’s in Elmhurst is divided by noodle type: hui mian, la mian, and dao xiao mian. Hui mian, the wide, braised noodles of Henan, top the list. This is natural. Uncle Zhou is from Henan, and his restaurant proudly specializes in its cuisine.

“Henan cuisine, as representative of the Henan cuisine cooking of Central Plains civilization, originated in Luoyang,” begins a text on the wall. In a dizzying discourse full of mysterious associations and grammatical innovations, the text goes on to mention Kaifeng, another great ancient city in Henan, and several dynasties from the Shang to the Northern Song.

It is impossible to understand most of this text (to select an early instance of its difficulties: “’And’ refers to dissolve the East as a whole, unified, soluble salt hot and sour to sweet for a tripod for the blind, for the and.”). But the details don’t matter. The point is that Henan bears the imprints of countless generations—the Buddhas carved in Henan’s caves and the stories of “devil’s markets” of Kaifeng that opened at midnight and closed at dawn—and the cooking of Henan has a similarly rich background.

Naturally, I had to try Uncle Zhou’s hui mian. I ordered what the English portion of the menu describes as “Dial Oil Hand-drawn wide noodles”. I believe the Chinese name, 油泼烩面, is better translated “Hand-drawn wide noodles sprinkled with oil” (I am guessing the oil is just peanut oil).

The dish brought to me was a bowl full of folded, strap-like noodles with bok choy, smelling like peanuts. I immediately bit into the noodles, but the waitress came to my table and corrected me. “You have to stir to get oil.” So I stirred the noodles, and they became coated with reddish oil.

The menu marks this dish as hot, but it is a pungent heat, like that of horse radish, and on the mild side. It is accompanied by sourness and a little bitterness. The noodles are chewy and satisfying. These noodles sprinkled with spicy oil are a little like a pasta salad.

I came another time to try Uncle Zhou’s dao xiao mian. Dao xiao mian (often translated in English as knife-scraped noodles) do not originate in Henan, but in the more easterly Shanxi Province. I do not know the subtleties of the preparation of all the different kinds of noodles, but it is said to take someone who already knows how to prepare la mian several months to learn to prepare dao xioa mian, so I think there are differences in the way the dough is kneaded for the different kinds of noodle. The definitive step seems simple enough: to make dao xiao mian the noodle maker takes a loaf of kneaded dough and shaves noodles off the loaf into boiling water with a knife (in contrast to pulled noodles, which he stretches, and twists, and stretches, and twists repeatedly).

I ordered spicy beef knife-shaved noodles. They arrived in a soup spotted with chili oil, mixed with slices of tender beef. The noodles were about an inch wide, thick, with a spine running down the middle, and dense. They could almost stand on end. The soup was spicy—hot enough to make me sniffle. This was an immensely satisfying dish.

The décor at Uncle Zhou’s is traditional, and not very imaginative. Red paper lanterns hang in a row from the ceiling; Peking Opera masks frown across the room from one wall, and a statue of Guan Yu frowns back from a shrine on the opposite wall. Nevertheless, on a weekday evening, you may find many young people eating here. It is a nice place to share noodles with a date or a friend.

The text on the wall concludes: “From Kaifeng, Northern Song dynasty handed down since the ancient building, night markets, into the night is still uproar, especially now when the legacy.”

The legacy is worth trying, uproar or no.

Uncle Zhou’s Restaurant
83-29 Broadway,
Queens, NY 11373
(718) 393-0888

Wed – Mon, 11am – 10pm