Buddhist monks and nuns in Korea have lived by the principles of zero waste and veganism for more than 1,600 years. In that time, Buddhist culinary practices have come to inform much of what we consider to be typical Korean cuisine today. With an emphasis on using sustainable and locally sourced ingredients, Korean temple food is all about crafting tasty recipes that are ecofriendly, minimalist and vegan.
Earthy, salty, spicy; crunchy, chewy, firm – Korean temple cuisine takes natural ingredients and turns them into a cornucopia of tasty and textured dishes. These seasonal, wholesome recipes include tofu stews, rice soups and kimchi, often combining preserved vegetables with fresh, seasonal produce. Forget the Korean versions of barbecue and fried chicken – these aromatic, healthy concoctions are what form the backbone of the average Korean person’s diet.
While it’s tempting to view veganism and a zero-waste lifestyle as trends, in South Korea, the slow food movement has thrived for centuries. The key tenets of Korean temple cuisine are rooted in Buddhist philosophy, emphasising the importance of staying healthy, ecofriendly and minimalist. Eat only what your body needs, and waste not even a single grain of rice.
Buddhist monks and nuns have long used plants and herbs found growing on the mountainsides near their temples for their medicinal properties. Some of these are naturally abundant at certain times of the year, including naengi, or shepherd’s purse, one of the first plants to emerge from the frozen ground at winter’s end. Shepherd’s purse is often sautéed, using the plant and root, with flour and water to make a savoury pancake that has a cabbage-like flavour.
Korean Buddhists refrain from eating plants in the allium family, such as garlic, chives, shallots and onions. Their pungency is considered disruptive to spiritual practices like meditation, something which would go against the temple food concept of harmony and balance between humans and nature. Like all good art, temple food shines because it is created within these boundaries. Its limitations are its strength.
Abstinence from consuming animal products and garlic has led to time-honoured dishes like bibimbap (although many newer versions do now include meat, garlic and egg). However, the Buddhists were not averse to taking on new ingredients as they were introduced to Korea, provided they could be grown and cultivated locally. Who could imagine kimchi without it being covered in spicy red gochu pepper flakes ? Yet it was unknown until the 16th century, when Portuguese traders brought the chilli pepper to Korean shores.
During the Joseon dynasty (1392CE-1910CE), Buddhism underwent relentless suppression. Pushed underground or into remote mountain hideaways, it survived largely through its gastronomic gifts to the nation. Processes developed by monks and nuns to preserve food are still used today, such as jjangaji, using soy sauce or soybean paste to pickle leafy greens and lotus roots.
The traditional kimchi-making process is a lovely metaphor for Buddhism at this time. The prepared ingredients are buried underground in huge ceramic pots, called onggi, to ferment during the winter. Out of sight, the kimchi continues to ferment, slowly obtaining greater probiotic benefits, to emerge healthier than ever when the time is right.
Jjangaji and kimchi are commonly served with every meal all over the country as side dishes, known as banchan. Often, they are tailored to complement the main dish, although in Korean temple food, an assortment of a dozen or more banchan can be the meal itself. Given that there are around 200 types of kimchi alone, the range of vegan side dishes in Korea is vast.
Thanks to this adaptability, and the tradition of using locally sourced ingredients, there are plenty of regional variations in temple food across Korea. For example, baek (white) kimchi, which does not include chilli, is likely one of the oldest forms of kimchi – predating the arrival of the chilli pepper – and is still served at temples in the central and northwest regions of South Korea.
In Jeolla province, in the southwest, kimchi is often made using deulkkaejuk, a rice porridge or paste made with ground sesame seeds, giving the kimchi a unique, nutty flavour that is enhanced by the addition of regional plants such as brown mustard and bamboo shoots. Also in the south, Haeinsa temple specialises in Korean temple food, serving unusual dishes to guests who stay there, such as meouitang, a soup made with the herb butterbur, or songibap, a seasonal rice dish using prised matsutake mushrooms.
Never before have these Buddhist philosophies of veganism and sustainable interaction with our environment seemed so prescient. Across Korea you will find examples of how simple, healthy dishes using sustainable, vegan ingredients can be innovative and ecofriendly. Korean temple food may be centuries old, but it has a 21st-century conscience in mind.
As well as simply offering meals, a growing number of temples open their doors to visitors for short or long stays. In addition to Haeinsa, Jogyesa, in central Seoul, offers two-day temple stays, including three meals. One of Korea’s most beautiful temples is Bulguksa, near Gyeongju, which also has a temple-stay programme. Nearby, a restaurant called Hyang Jukwon (향적원), run by Buddhist nuns, is well worth a visit, particularly if one of your party can speak Korean. Other temples offering stays with Korean temple food include Golgulsa, also near Gyeongju, Ssanggyesa temple in Jirisan National Park, and Jeungsimsa, near the southwestern city of Gwangju.
In the South Korean capital, Seoul, there are a number of specialist temple food restaurants where visitors can try this Buddhist cuisine for themselves. Two excellent restaurants near Jogyesa temple and nearby Insadong shopping street are Balwoo Gongyang and the beautiful, leafy Sanchon restaurant. And if you’d like to take your understanding of Korean temple food one step further in Seoul, the Korean Temple Food Center, outside Anguk metro station, runs regular cooking classes.
To discover even more about Korea’s compelling culture and to start planning your trip, visit english.visitkorea.or.kr