Ahimsa, the Buddhist principle of compassion, mandates not eating slain creatures, but it’s useless pretending bacon doesn’t taste friggin’ great. Cooks in Liang-Dynasty China some 1,500 years ago spawned a culinary tradition that has been perfected over the centuries and is still practiced at many Buddhist temples worldwide, where tourists and monks alike line up for multicourse vegetarian meals in which the meat is meatlike in every way but one: It isn’t made from anything that ever walked, swam, flew, or crawled.
If Fast Food Nation grossed you out, devout Buddhists might just have the answer. They usually do, when push comes to shove. Peace, compassion, karmic retribution — and now, more than ever, fake meat. It’s the latest rage in Beijing, where over the last three years vegetarian restaurants have been cropping up like — well, mushrooms. Some are vegan as well, and — practically unheard-of in that heartland of unfiltered cigarettes — smoke-free.
These days the East Bay is bursting with false flesh, too. Layonna Vegetarian Health Food Market (443 8th St., Oakland, 510-763-3168) is a totally meatless grocery store stocked floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with locally and expertly crafted analogues, from fried “chicken” to “tuna” burgers to “beef” balls to “fish” nuggets to Peking “duck” to “ham” to “cod” to “bacon” — even tiny “chicken” drumsticks complete with dowel-stick “bones.” Some of these products come in presealed packages; others are sold in bulk, ranging from $3.95 a pound for small pale sausages to $6 for pink slabs of barbecued “pork.” Some is fresh, some frozen; some dehydrated, some in sauce. Steamed buns and chewy red jerky are familiar complements to such never-in-7-Eleven rarities as soybean albumen fish. (There’s also a Layonna Kitchen restaurant at 358 11th St., 510-763-3168. Soothing Buddhist-chant music plays over the speakers in both restaurant and shop.)
Further opportunities await at 99 Ranch Market in Richmond’s Pacific East Mall (3288 Pierce St. next to I-80). Cans of wheat-gluten concoctions simulating all kinds of birds, beasts, and fish — manufactured in Asia and selling for a buck or two each — form colorful arrays on shelves in this huge general-interest supermarket, while freezer and refrigerator cases yield fake meats from numerous companies closer to home. Strips, slabs, chunks, balls — even exotica such as vegetarian “shrimp” for tempura, made of konjac (a Japanese root), mushrooms, and barley. And fool your friends with mock gooseflesh, sold here fresh and appropriately bluish-gray, complete with stippling.