In June 2014, I reached Seoul, the national capital of South Korea, which is the world’s second-largest metropolis with over 30 million people. As I was making my way from the airport, I saw the Han River; a great economic boom around this epic river has transformed the city from the ashes of the Korean War from 1950-53 to what is today.
This fantastic place was to be my home for 10 days, and I would go deep into every aspect of Korean culture and cuisine. High on the list was an exploration of temple cuisine, which provides healing not through medicine or exercises, but through food.
I pulled every contact I had to get myself a table at Gosang, a well-regarded restaurant located in the busy office terminal, Jung-gu. Gosang’s temple food menu is selected from items that were served to the royal families of the Goryeo dynasty (10th-14th century). Buddhism prospered during its reign and the food is prepared in accordance with the Buddha’s philosophy on food.
For over 1,700 years, in Buddhist temples across Korea, monks and nuns have prepared meals using only fresh, seasonal vegetables in accordance with Buddhist principles. Today, Korean Temple Food, the original “slow food”, has a growing international following of those who appreciate the healthy, simple, yet, flavourful fare.
An interesting fact: Korean temple food does not use any animal product, except milk and milk products. Korean Buddhism forbids meat intake because according to the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha said: “Eating meat is to extinguish the seeds of compassion”. Buddhist compassion teaches that one should embrace all living beings as oneself. The dietary culture of Korean Buddhism is revered all around the world.
In addition, Korean temple food does not use alcohol or the “five pungent vegetables”. Alcohol is not permitted because it clouds the mind, and the five vegetables — spring onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leeks — produce certain hormones when eaten cooked. Eaten raw, they may lead one to become irritable and may mitigate one’s ability to concentrate. The prohibition of the five vegetables is a preventive measure, to guard Buddhist practitioners from possible distractions during concentration practice. Also, it is meant to prevent any attachment to taste aroused by strong spices, which may also disturb the Buddhist devotee’s practice.
So, the meal starts with some fruits — dehydrated chips of apples, orange and local berries. This is to stimulate the appetite and it acts as an amuse-bouche. Then comes the porridge of lotus stem with pickled Korean plums. It’s a great dish: there is no salt in the porridge, and the moment you mix the plums, the saltiness and tanginess starts to build up. A friend, who accompanied me to Gosang, told me that all modern Koreans have started to take the “three whites” — sugar, salt and flour — out of their life.
After the fruit starters, I am introduced to the medicinal god of ingredients —ginseng — this time in the form of a salad, shredded, sitting atop some fresh asparagus with a citron sauce made with oranges, yuzu and local lemon. It was fantastic to find such diversity of flavours which build upon each other without a flutter.
Next was the soup course. This is one dish that I had been exposed to before: layers of ingredients like tofu, eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, and cirsium setidens, an interesting ingredient that is also known as “rat-arsed”; I’m not joking. It tastes like seaweed. A lotus leaf cake, which was lined with vegetable stock in a pot, was plated at the table.
The tofu course consisted of two small rectangles of tofu: one made with black sesame, and the other with pine nut, sitting on a sour, chopped kimchee with wilted spinach and baked grains. Again, this was a very simple dish, but a heart-quenching one.
The next offering was probably one of my favourites — Korean-styled tempura of fresh ginseng with a soy meat patty and citron sauce. The ginseng was fried in a typical Japanese style, and with an addition of coconut powder, it looked like branches of a tree, the patties resting on them like a nest.
Finally, we had glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf, with minor cereals, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, lotus root served with six pickles, a soup made with seaweed, miso, mushrooms and white sesame seeds. It was a great way to end the meal.
The author is chef de cuisine, ITC Hotels