Temple food in Seoul
In South Korea, discovering the incredibly current millennial diet of Buddhist nuns
Venerable Buddhist nun Gye-Ho in front of dozens of onggi, traditional Korean containers used to store fermented and marinated food. This is the most exciting moment in our visit to th temple of Jingwansa, just outside Seoul. A day dedicated to the discovery of the millennial secrets of local Buddhist cuisine
Vegetables pulled out of the earth and cooked without ever seeing a fridge (Americans’ farm-to-table). Bowls with the right amount of food to feed guests without wasting anything. Food with anti-cancer properties, low cholesterol and fast to digest. Fermentations and marinades that preserve food while adding umami (= delicious and more complex flavours). Dishes to be shared with each of the guests sitting at the table.
Is this the restaurant of the future? No, it’s not, it’s the canteen at Jingwansa, a Buddhist temple built in 1010 a few kilometres West of Seoul, one of the most important places of worship in South Korea, run by nuns alone. They are guided by the charisma of venerable Gye-Ho, a spiritual guide and cook who spent a day guiding us through the their millennial yet surprisingly current diet.
«Cooking is one of the ways to ascend to the divine», is how the most-celestial-ever cooking demonstration began, «as long as you eat with a heart free of corrupted thoughts on the side. And, as main ingredients, you use pure raw materials, prepared with joy».
What raw materials? Only vegetables because Korean Buddhism forbids the use of meat and fish: «In Nirvana Sutra», says the venerable, «it is written: ‘Eating meat means extinguishing the seeds of compassion’. Killing animals means interrupting the harmony of the universe». The same goes for alcohol «because it dulls the mind». Is this vegan cuisine? No, as milk and dairy products are allowed. Other forbidden food «leeks, onions, shallots and garlic: when cooked, they generate hormones; if raw, people lose their concentration and become irritable».
One of the simplest recipes in the temple: cedrela sinensis, sesame seeds and sweet rice starch. Once the preparation is completed, the leaves are dried in the sun for 3 days and then fried in vegetable oil
She says so while pulling out of her basket, and inviting us to do the same, some leaves of cedrela sinensis, also known as Red Toon or Chinese Toon [see Wikipedia for details]. Dozens of nuns pick them every morning, a foraging activity that has been lasting for millennia, on the beautiful sunny and windy hills of the surrounding Bukhansan National Park. Once picked, the leaves are brushed with sweet rice starch, made by mixing powdered rice and water in a one-to-one proportion. They then add sesame seeds and leave them to dry in the sun for 3 days. Later, they are quickly fried in seed oil, like our vegetables in batter.
This is perhaps the simplest recipe the nuns created over the centuries. They have to deal with the country’s rather harsh winter, when it is very hard to find vegetables. This is the reason behind the extraordinary heritage of fermented food in South Korea, a topic we will soon analyse in detail. For now, we can just say that each family South of the 38th parallel has two “fridges” at home: a classic one and one with fermented food, the latter to be opened as little as possible.
Gye-Ho jokes with Jordi Roca, pastry chef from restaurant Celler de Can Roca in Gerona, Cataluña. The visit to the temple was part of the programme of the Seoul Gourmet Festival. With Roca there were also Massimo Bottura and Giorgio Nava
At Jingwansa temple fridges are forbidden. Hence Gye-Ho leads us to a terrace in the shade of one of the four temples forming the establishment. Here, with a strong scenic impact, there are piles with dozens and dozens of onggi, oval terracotta containers with kimchi, jang and jangaji, the country’s signature preparations: vegetables marinated in soy sauce, bean paste preserved in vinegar, very hot fermented peppers. These fermentations can last years and at the end you will taste some of the most incredible soy sauces in your life.
For further details and recipes
Korean Temple Food
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born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, he's been working as a co-author and coordinator of both Identità Web and Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook for the past 7 years