A tranquil space for lunch or tea

On that busy stretch of Mass. Ave. between Harvard and Central squares, a sidewalk vent lets out a sudden gust from below. The Red Line rumbles underfoot.

A few doors away, inside the Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center, everything is peaceful and quiet. A large golden Buddha in the far corner of the adjacent meditation hall adds to the tranquility. But you don’t have to be a practicing Buddhist to enter. You can stop by for lunch, tea, or dinner and a lecture.

“This place is not a temple; it is a cultural center, open to all,” says spiritual director Venerable Man Kuang. The center is a chapter of one of Taiwan’s largest monasteries Fo Guang Shan. “You can sit in the teahouse: watch people go by, bring a book to read, or chat with friends,” says the affable nun, a graduate of Queens College in New York.

Ten years ago, a Chinese restaurant called Mimi’s Oriental Grill stood here. “So we essentially inherited a kitchen,” says Kuang. The center offers dim sum-like snacks, including turnip cake, dumplings, and spring rolls. Lunch, a mainstay of the teahouse, is $6.95 for soup, brown rice, and four side dishes. Initially patrons were encouraged to leave a donation instead of paying a fixed price. “But people did not know what amount was appropriate and kept asking how much money they should give,” says Kuang. So she established reasonable prices.

The kitchen, overseen by Kuang, is run by Xiao Min Le, a chef from Shanghai, and a host of volunteers – all members of a lay organization associated with the monastery.
For those who can’t get here during the day, the center has a $10  event dubbed “Thank Buddha It’s Friday,” which is held the second and fourth Fridays of each month.

Officially known as Dinner With Dharma, the evening includes a buffet followed by a talk. Topics are not  confined to religious matters. Recently, Justin Situ, an amateur photographer whose work is on display here, addressed the audience.
The chef works with seasonal vegetables and soy-based products. Chang Shing Tofu, Inc., a factory in the Kendall Square area, supplies the center with free tofu in the Buddhist tradition of “making merit.” Even the skin of the soy milk is transformed into a tasty side dish. Through a translator, the chef explains that vegetables must be cut just so in Chinese cooking, and he prefers to do the prep work himself. Volunteers give him their best recipes; they also wait tables, help with the clean-up, and make tea for customers.

More than two dozen floral, fruit-based, and herbal brews are served here,  hot or cold. You can order tapioca pearls added to the tea and slurp the gelatinous bubbles through a fat straw. Some Taiwanese specialty teas – jasmine, lotus, and osmanthus – are essentially blends of dried petals and herbs, with little, if any, green tea. “In summer, osmanthus blooms all over the mountainside, spreading that special fragrance,” says Ting ting Wu, a new resident of Boston. The wife of a Harvard researcher, Wu says she has made many friends as a volunteer.

With its vegetarian slant, the menu isn’t for everyone. “Even our chef enjoys eating meat,” says Kuang. Not all practicing Buddhists are vegetarian, she adds; giving up meat is not mandatory, but advanced practitioners often choose to.A young tattooed woman in jeans, who is dining here, leans in to say that she’s a regular and enjoys the food. But her boyfriend prefers to go to a Chinese restaurant.
Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center, 950 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-6670, www.ibps.org/boston/GBBCC