The well-loved fermented and pickled foods that make up a huge part of Korean cuisine are in fact carried down from Buddhist traditions — or sachal eumsik, Korean for “temple cuisine”. For centuries, Buddhist monks have fermented what they foraged from the forest and preserved it for consumption in the colder seasons. This in turn has helped shape the landscape of vegetarianism in the country. And yet, while temple food has been known to improve well-being, it slipped into obscurity.
In an example of culture coming full circle, Seoul’s most revered chefs are bringing these ancestral cooking practices to life. A number of chefs with Michelin-starred restaurants around Seoul have jumped on the wellness bandwagon, putting temple cuisine on gourmet menus.
At two-starred Mingles, in Seoul‘s Gangnam District, chef Kang Min-goo leads the charge with standout dishes that include homemade doenjang paste — soybeans fermented in large clay pots — mixed with raw meat and other ingredients to produce yukhoe.
There’s also seon, which at Mingles began as a vegan dish specially prepared for important Buddhist guests. To include it in the main menu, Min-goo took inspiration from one of his mom’s recipes — the result was a steamed dish of green pumpkin, zucchini, yellow zucchini, cold-brewed anchovy broth and salted shrimp. And in line with the tenets of temple cuisine, one of which is appreciation for the earth’s bounty, no ingredients from making seon go to waste. Min-goo turns any leftover veg into zucchini consomme and jam for jeungpyeon, or steamed rice cake.
Chef Tony Yoo’s restaurant Dooreyoo, near Bukhansan National Park in Seoul, offers both temple-style vegetarian dishes, alongside full-course han-jeongsik meals. Tony says, “We look for a different kind of Korean beauty — my creations look contemporary, but they come infused with the older flavors of Korea.”
Pillars of the cuisine
Venerable Wookwan, temple cuisine expert, tells us about cooking and eating practices in the jogye order of Korean Buddhism
Tell us more about Korean temple cuisine. It’s a cuisine that reflects the tenets of Buddhist monastic practices. The food is prepared without the five pungent spices and vegetables — onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leek — which are said to hinder spiritual practices. Based on the belief that no life should be sacrificed for one’s own survival, no meat, fish or shellfish is used either. The cuisine harmonizes the changing of the seasons with traditions of the various local regions. Some dishes include bibim-guksu (spicy noodles with assorted vegetables) and bugak (Korean temple vegetable chips).
And how does mindfulness tie into everything? Mindful eating refers to appreciating food as per the Buddhist practices, rather than consuming out of temptation. You’re being thankful for the providers and the people preparing the food, who are also enabling you to commune with others.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Smile magazine.