Perhaps the most pleasant surprise throughout my entire three month stay in Seoul was my discovery of the joy of "Korean Temple Food." I came across this unique and fascinating cuisine through a combination of fate and luck. I always check the Michelin Guide for any city that I travel to (especially the budget "Bib Gourmand" section) and the entry for Balwoo Gongyang in Seoul piqued my interest.
The restaurant is fascinating because it served food based on the food cooked, consumed, and eaten by Korean Buddhist monks, nuns, and temple visitors. Some of the more memorable dishes include a soy sauce fermented for ten years, sipped out of a shot glass as an appetizer. My favorite was a rather simple fried mushroom dish with a sour, fruity sauce. My initial curiosity piqued because when one of the monks referred me to the Temple Food Information Center, and from there I learned valuable lessons in cooking that permeated into other areas of my life.
Although I am no expert of temple food, I hope to share the limited knowledge I have gained to spread my new favorite cooking style to my friends at home.
The main principle of temple cuisine is it's strict adherence to veganism in order to minimize the suffering caused by eating animals. Although it is normally incredibly challenging to abstain from eating animal products, you could happily eat temple food for every meal without missing meat. The concern with animal welfare comes from one of the five Buddhist precepts - abstinence from killing. Temple food extends this concept a little further: not only do many temples have a vegetable garden where they grow their own organic food, but often some food is offered to animals around the temple in order to share food with other living creatures. Eating is viewed as a form of meditation, and is often done in silence with austere simplicity.
An important idea I learned from this cuisine is that food comes from nature. When we eat, we should be aware of the consequences of our consumption, and consider the interconnection between ourselves, the meal, and the world around us. This means we considering the source of all the ingredients, the effort put into the growing of the crops, the energy to transport the food to you, and the labor required to cook and prepare each individual dish. In an essence, each meal represents the complex network of relationships that everything in the universe has with one another.
On a more practical level, many of the techniques are rather simple (not to an unskilled chef like me, but in relation to modern cuisines influenced by molecular gastronomy and scientific approaches to cooking). Most of the dishes require few ingredients but much time and effort. In this sense, the food is focused on the ingredients raw potential, not on the chef's creativity or skills.
Another great opportunity that came from my involvement with temple food was the opportunity to visit various temples around Jirisan, the holiest and tallest mountain in Korea. I was fortunate to stay at Hwaeomsa temple near Jirisan, the holiest mountain in Korea. The region is famous for it's wild-growing teas picked in the mountainous forests as well as its local mushrooms and fungus that are both delicious and healthy. I would recommend the rural area of Korea for anyone interested in learning about living a more nature-focused, holistic lifestyle.
In Seoul, I attended a weekly simple cooking course taught by nuns. I still can barely cook at all, but some of the dishes require so few ingredients and yet, are very delicious. I have attached pictures of a vegetable pancake made from potato. You grate vegetables together, add some salt, and pan-fry them in perilla seed oil. The dish has the same delicious satisfaction as pancakes, but with healthy benefits.
If you ever get the chance to visit Seoul, I would highly recommend that you stop by the Korean Temple Food Center to try one of their English language classes, or make a reservation to try Temple Food at Baru Gongyang or any of the temples in Korea.
Now that I am in Japan, I miss temple food every day. Fortunately, Japan also has it's own variety of Buddhist cuisine known as shoujin-ryouri. It follows many of the same principles as Korean temple food, although the two styles have their own unique intricacies. The best way to try Japanese temple food is by visiting a temple (usually a reservation made in Japanese language is necessary to eat at most temples, so ask a local to assist you), or by visiting the restaurants Sougo or Daigo in Tokyo or Ajisen in Kyoto.
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