Balwoo Gongyang: discovering temple-food

In South Korea the first starred restaurant whose menus follow Buddhist rules in detail

A picture of the very many small and big courses s

A picture of the very many small and big courses served during a meal at Balwoo Gongyang, in Seoul

Buddha works in mysterious ways. In Seoul, Buddhist monks of the Jogye order have proven that fine dining has changed, or better still that there no longer is just one model. Indeed, in the traditional neighbourhood of Insadong, on the top floor of a building dedicated to Buddhist culture, there’s Balwoo, the first temple-food restaurant to receive, in the first Korean edition of the Red Guide, the sought-after star.

Not only does the fine dining concept change at Balwoo. Many typically western common places also disappear. Good is healthy, simple is sophisticated, appearance is substance, spiritual is material. Opposites reconcile: Yin and Yan are in harmony.

Extraordinarily contemporary, the cooking at Balwoo is in fact the result of the millennial culinary tradition of Korean Buddhist temples. Here there’s no famous chef in the kitchen. Following etiquette, menus change every season and each menu is conceived as a sequence of trays.

Every tray, made of various plates and bowls, rather than a course is a meal in itself. We choose Maemum, the menu consecrated to the mind and to meditation. It’s a real banquet made of 5 different trays, each in turn representing a concept and having a specific function.

Suljuksim, includes seasonal vegetables in soy sauce and baedeok root with pear and pine nut sauce: it serves to whet the appetite or, as they say here “to wet the spoon”.  Juksang, with cereal porridge paired with water kimchi made with lotus root, is the meal that according to Buddhist rules is eaten when monks pray at dawn.

There’s no trace of the animal world in the trays, and you don’t miss it. Even tea, the only drink allowed, is made with mushrooms. Sangmi, with herbs and roots, both cooked and raw in a collage of vegetal geometries, is dedicated to one of the 10 Buddhist categories of taste. Seongso is instead the tray destined to make the apprentice monk smile, with traditional noodles, tofu and Korean pancakes.

Each tray is a really painting of mystic landscapes: wuthering heights, brooks and springs, musk, lichen, luxurious hills, rocky coasts, seas and inaccessible islands. These are the landscapes that you can contemplate from the various Buddhist temples scattered around the Korean peninsula and this is where the recipes come from.

Dammi is instead destined to the pleasure of chewing and to the research of different textures. It virtually begins the climb to the impervious Korean forests. In the middle, the beautiful sealing wax box holding a precious selection of mushrooms picked by the monks on those remote mountains. They are paired with tubers and equally mysterious forest acorns. They have mystic and unknown, almost magical flavours.

There’s a sequence of ancestral techniques, from salting to smoking to dehydration in a hymn to the contemporary element of origins. You have to be seduced by the magic of fermentation, conveyed into the many versions and affecting every possible ingredient, far beyond kimchi. It’s the art of converting decomposition into a source of healthy food, in a rare balance between cooked and raw. Fermentation is also a sign of human intervention, the moving from natural to cultural that creates new aromas and flavours, and multiplies them.

Then there’s Youmi, the main tray, dedicated to the mind’s repose. Inside a huge silver leaf of lotus there’s a handful of very aromatic steamed rice made with ginko acorns and chestnuts. Rice is the main character. Its pureness is in contrast with the intense flavour of the 6 dishes paired with it in a rule-less journey.

It’s a dance in which guests are free to create and pair the different flavours to their liking. Rice calms the intense flavours of roots, mushrooms and herbs, which at the same time give sapidity and depth to the rice, in endless free combinations, mouthful after mouthful.

A short break. Then the persimmon mousse with yam and pear and the half-moon rice cake arrive. This is Ipgasim, the final tray cleansing the palate and favouring digestion. A few mouthfuls and we’re already dominated by Buddhist mysticism. Can’t wait to be back.

Balwoo Gongyang
56, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu
Seoul, Korea
Tasting menu: 25, 37, 54, 79 euros


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