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Korean Buddhist Temple Cuisine: Plant-Based Korean Cooking

Korean Buddhist Temple Cuisine: Plant-Based Korean Cooking

Korean Buddhist Temple Cuisine: Plant-Based Korean Cooking

Discovering the Depth of Korean Temple Cuisine

The chewing sounds were deafening—at least relative to the calm outside the 6th-century Buddhist monastery Hwaeomsa (화엄사), located in the foothills of Jirisan mountain in Korea’s Jeolla Province, a four-hour drive south of Seoul. Among the chomping (and the occasional slurp) is where I found myself on a recent morning, having traveled with my Koreatown coauthor Deuki Hong and photographer Alex Lau to get a sense of how Korea’s ancient temple cuisine is prepared honestly and spiritually as a culinary practice in a workaday temple of more than 30 practicing monks and nuns.

As we stood in the corner of the spotless dining hall at 5:10 a.m., watching and listening to the monks eat breakfast, a well-considered buffet-style spread unfolded before us. Deep flavors and tongue-snapping fermentation characterized many of the Korean national foods like doenjang-jjigae and baechu kimchi, all prepared without any animal products, onions, garlic, leeks, chives, or other astringent flavors. This wasn’t the Korean monk-chef cooking made famous on Netflix a few years back, with its concerto of Vivaldi violins. Instead, we found temple food presented in multitudes, with passionate chefs preparing it that showed as much creativity as humility. And the bowl of plant-based jjigae, shaped with a stock of kim (Korean seaweed), foraged shiitake mushrooms, daikon radish, and the chef’s stash of homemade doenjang, was one of the most satisfying bowls of Korean soup I’ve ever tasted.

Korean Garden Boston is committed to bringing you the best of Korean cuisine, including the rich and sustainable traditions of Korean Buddhist temple cooking. As we delve into this fascinating culinary world, prepare to be mesmerized by the depth, innovation, and profound connection to nature that Korean temple cuisine embodies.

The Rise of Korean Temple Cuisine on the Global Stage

When Chef’s Table dropped the first episode of its third season in February 2017—a season featuring well-known American chefs Ivan Orkin and Nancy Silverton—relatively little was known outside Korea about the cuisine of Korean Buddhism, a practice first introduced 1,700 years ago. A few years prior, Jeff Gordinier had written about a monk-chef named Jeong Kwan and her culinary tutelage of the chef and Buddhist Eric Ripert in the New York Times Magazine. But it was the global reach of Netflix, as well as Chef’s Table’s visionary approach to food documentary filmmaking, that had the world mesmerized.

“I make food as a meditation,” Kwan says at the close of the episode. “I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom.” The episode happened to premiere during a time of rising mainstream interest in meditation and mindfulness along with plant-based eating, and it was followed by visits to Kwan’s temple from chefs including Noma’s René Redzepi, Maison Aribert’s Christophe Aribert, and more extended residencies from well-regarded Korean chefs Mingoo Kang of Mingles in Seoul and Kwang Uh, formerly of Baroo in Los Angeles and currently of Shiku in the city’s Grand Central Market.

“The spirit of temple food that monk Jeong Kwan mentioned is respect and gratitude for all life, and all life is connected,” observes Younglim Kim, a team lead at the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism. “All of the monks and believers in Korean Buddhism think the same way,” she adds. “However, the food culture varies, and the temple food of Jeong Kwan does not apply equally to other temples or other regions.” Kim likens the varying styles of temple cuisine to that of kimchi, noting that the food prepared by monks and nuns in northern Gangwon may significantly vary from that of the Busan region and the Jeolla region, where we were watching the nun chef Kyungjin Lee prepare morning jjigae for residents and guests.

Exploring the Diverse Landscape of Korean Temple Cuisine

Kim, who leads the Buddhist Monastic Cuisine program in the Culture Corps, views the diversity of temple cuisine as a gateway for outsiders to learn about Korean heritage, partake in Buddhist traditions, and eat rustic cooking that eschews the stereotype of Korean food as exclusively a barbecue and bibimbap affair. In pre-pandemic 2019, more than 460,000 Koreans and 70,000 foreigners partook in a temple stay program—and the number is expected to grow significantly as the world continues to embrace Korean food and culture.

For our second temple visit this fall, our group traveled north of Seoul to Jinkwansa Temple (진관사), tucked on the edge of the hilly Bukhansan National Park, which, on this cloudless day, had autumn’s electric leaf display cranked up to 11. While Hwaeomsa had the feeling of a summer camp—albeit a well-ventilated, impeccably clean rural lodging—Jinkwansa was more slick and polished (Jill Biden visited in 2015), featuring a gift shop selling books and prayer beads, manicured vegetable gardens, and a hospitable and chatty monk named Sun Woo.

Jinkwansa is also one of the few all-female monasteries in Korea, and on the morning of our arrival, our group was led to meet with chief monk Gye Ho to talk about the rise of temple cuisine in Korea before making some fresh dubu using the most traditional methods, which involve soaked soy beans, a large grinder called a maet dol, and Gye Ho’s smiling directions.

With our group seated in a sunny room of blond woods and rare Korean flag, the national Taegeukgi that dated back to the Japanese colonial period, encased in glass across the room, I asked Gye Ho how the rise of temple cuisine, and the Jeong Kwan effect, has altered the trajectory of temple food in Korea—and what it means for her personally.

“It’s like a medicine for the human body,” she says through a translator. Gye Ho, now in her 70s, became a nun at age 19 and channeled a love of cooking into her practice, studying under several master monks. “Cooking is the extension of my practice. Feeding the body is the same as feeding the mind.”

Navigating the Nuances of Meat Consumption in Korean Buddhism

The conversation began moving in an interesting direction, broaching a subject that had been in my mind since we shared tea with an enterprising monk at Hwaeomsa the day before. While pouring us cups of maehwa (plum flower) and ssuk (mugwort) tea, he had casually mentioned his fondness for samgyeopsal (pork belly). Huh? Had he, a dedicated monk, actually consumed meat without shame? He confirmed, nonchalantly, his occasional taste for animal products, though stressing that it was very infrequent.

I had to ask Gye Ho for clarification. “Don’t kill animals or any living beings,” she says sharply, referencing both meat and fish. “But for some monks over 80 years old, it is okay for them to take in meat or fish not killed by themselves.” While the issue of meat consumption within Korean Buddhism is complex and cannot be answered in a few interviews, it reinforces the fact that Korean temple cuisine is hardly a monolith, and that the Jeong Kwan narrative is only one of many stories.

During our recent time in Korea, and on previous trips and travels, I’ve observed temple cuisine in many forms. I was once served a small nest of sauteed burdock root, sweetened with ganjang (soy sauce) and orchard fruits, as part of a multicourse tasting worthy of high critical praise (if not only the highly dubious Michelin star). I’ve had a messy bowl of rice porridge (juk) streaked with sesame oil for breakfast. I’ve even tasted Jeong Kwan’s cooking at Le Bernardin in New York, during a special guest luncheon hosted by Ripert.

On this recent visit, I sampled the chef Kyungjin Lee’s plant-based baechu kimchi. It was sweet and fresh, only a day marinated, and it changed the way Deuki and I thought about so-called “vegan kimchi.” We’re working on a recipe now for our next book, Koreaworld.

“Over 1,700 years have passed since Buddhism was introduced to Korea,” Younglim Kim reminds me. “And since recipes are being passed down, Jeong Kwan cannot represent them all.” Nor should we expect representation from a single chef. Jeong Kwan—and her skilled marketing and publicity team—deserve credit for evangelizing temple cuisine through media and events around the world. But the future will offer so much more than a single viewpoint for an $8.99 monthly subscription.

Honoring the Diversity and Evolution of Korean Temple Cuisine

The first time I tried Korean Buddhist temple cuisine, I was around twelve years old. My mother, her closest friend, and I sat on the floor at a traditional low table in Sanchon, one of the oldest existing temple cuisine restaurants in Seoul. As the table quickly filled with multitudes of small dishes featuring plants and vegetables I had never seen before, I turned to my mother in confusion.

“They’re Korean mountain greens,” she replied simply. I rolled my eyes, as my mother really couldn’t say much more—there are simply too many of these obscure mountain greens in Korea, and they certainly couldn’t be found in the fields of Virginia where my family was.

Now, whenever I come back from trips to Korea, my bag is filled with these greens if I can find them. Not because I grew up with them, but because for me they represent one of the most exciting aspects of Korean cuisine. Since that first meal in Sanchon, I also try to have a Korean Buddhist meal every time I visit Korea, with my current favorite being Baru Gongyang, which is tied to the Jogyesa temple in Jongno-gu, Seoul and serves an elevated and visually arresting tasting menu of Buddhist dishes.

This is vegan food like none other, and I want to learn to make all of it. Luckily, the Jogyesa temple also runs a cooking school for those who want to learn to make Buddhist temple cuisine. After spending months poring over Buddhist cookbooks I bought in Korea, I recently went to the Jogyesa cooking school and also stayed in a temple north of Seoul to get a glimpse of life in a temple and the food within it.

My cousin accompanied me on a trip to Daewonsa temple, a two-hour drive north of Seoul, near Gapyeong. We found out when we arrived that we were the only guests at the temple, as the winter doesn’t see many visitors due to the bitterly cold weather. During our stay, we learned to appreciate the slower pace of temple life, with its set schedule of bells, prayers, meditation, and meals.

“Many people come here for the weekend to rest and restore themselves so they can go back to work on Monday with full strength,” the presiding monk told us with a warm laugh. Even with the structured routine, there was a lot of quiet time—a gift I don’t often have in my daily life.

For the last 1,700 years, temple cuisine has been a core part of Korean Buddhist monastic life, with mindfulness and interconnectedness at its heart. Meals are eaten in silence, after giving thanks. At the start of the periodic formal monastic meal called baru gongyang, this prayer is said by the presiding monk:

“Where has this food come from? May I be worth of receiving it. May I renounce the unwholesome mind, especially the poison of greed. May I take only food enough to sustain the body and prevent illnesses, and may I accept this food to attain enlightenment.”

Eating is a spiritual practice in and of itself, with temple cuisine adhering to Buddhist tenets of compassion and avoiding harm to any living beings. This means the cuisine is completely vegan, with no meat, dairy, or eggs. Monks are not permitted to kill for food, nor purchase food that is the result of animal suffering.

As the monk at Daewonsa temple told us, monks can eat meat if they are given it by someone else (such as when monks ask for alms). But within the temple, all of the food is vegan. Temple cooks have to carefully construct their dishes to ensure the food is nutritious and nourishing both physically and spiritually.

Recognizing that food has the power to influence both the mind and the body, Buddhist cuisine actually forbids garlic, green onions, and other alliums, which are considered to be heating or stimulating, specifically of the libido. Temple cooks instead have a fluency with the medicinal effects of various plants, roots, and herbs that they forage for, which the West is currently catching up to.

Buddhist recipes also use cooking techniques that highlight and not diminish the medicinal benefits of ingredients. Temple cuisine is inherently seasonal, as the Buddhist practice includes cultivating and foraging local plants and herbs. Springtime is a glorious time for temple food due to the abundance of those famous Korean mountain greens, while autumn means preserving fresh produce in any way possible, from drying in the sun to pickling and fermenting.

Another key element of Korean Buddhist cooking is a zero-waste philosophy. At the daily communal meals, one only takes as much food as one can eat, and you are not permitted to leave any food in your bowl. This spirit also extends to how food is prepared so that all parts of food are used. Fruits are usually eaten with their peel, the cloudy water used to wash rice is saved for soup, and leftover vegetable bits are thrown into a stock.

With their seasonal, adaptogenic, fermented, foraged superfoods and plant-based, zero-waste mindsets, Korean Buddhist temple cooks since the 4th century have quietly been living the food-related principles that contemporary society is now talking about. It’s just a matter of time before a Korean temple restaurant opens in Williamsburg or Silverlake—I just hope that it’s mine.