Temple food: next wave in K-cuisine

The temple has been leveraging its expertise in temple food through its temple stay and food experience programs for the masses.

Sam Kass, the then White House assistant chef, visited the Jinkwan Temple in 2014.

According to temple officials, Kass decided to visit the temple after reading its brochure.

During his visit, the American chef tried his hand at making bean-soup-based cold noodles and water pickle kimchi.

On the day of the interview, Monk Kae Ho, a Bikkhuni monk, was talking to officials from various temples around Seoul who had visited to learn more about temple food.

She spoke rapidly to the officials, spreading her wisdom on temple food cooking with every second. "When we are making food, our minds should be peaceful and clean," said Monk Kae Ho.

During the interview, she prepared two representative temple dishes for early autumn: a nutritious rice dish cooked with chestnuts and ginkgo in a stone pot and grilled "deodeok" or mountain herb. She did not use "ohshinchae"or the five ingredients often used in Korean cooking, namely garlic, green onions, leeks, wild rocambole and Chinese squill.

This is because these five ingredients bring bad luck, evil spirits and lust according to the Tripitaka or the various disciplinary rules, discourses and teachings of Buddha and Buddhism. "Because temple food is consumed for the Zen practice, for meditation, the five ingredients are not used," the chief monk said but added that it is okay to add small amounts for the lay believers.

The dishes, which were prepared in only 30 minutes, were delicious and comforting to the stomach. They tasted differently from the temple food this reporter had eaten nearly three decades ago, which was bland and seemed to consist only of rice and mushrooms.

Temple food is supposed to be bland because it's food made of natural ingredients and food that is consumed not to fatten ourselves but to help us meditate," said Jeong Mi, the chief monk's culinary assistant and head of a temple food research team at the Jinkwan Temple's Temple Food Research Institute. On that day, however, Monk Kae Ho made an exception, using an abundant amount of soy sauce, red chili pepper paste, salt and grain syrup.

While preparing the dishes, the chief monk advised eating cold and sweet food in the fall, during which the body is recovering from the heat during the summer. In addition, she recommended eating smooth, sour and salty food in the summer as the body sweats a lot; spicy, salty, sour and sweet food in the winter and bitter and sour food in the spring to strengthen the bronchial tubes.

For 600 years, the Jinkwan Temple has been the bastion of temple food, despite the presence of numerous other temples around the nation, because it used to execute the grand national Buddhist ritual of "suryukje" or wishing and leading the soul of the dead to heaven through sutra-chanting, food ceremony and ritual.

Chief Monk Kyeho said she accumulated her culinary know-how by having to cook for venerable monks such as Ven. Seongcheol, who used to stay at the Jinkwan Temple. With the introduction of the temple stay program when Korea co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the broader public was introduced to temple food. Because of the virtual non-taste and lack of ohshinchae and animal proteins such as meat, seafood and egg, not everyone became a fan of temple food.

But well-known experts such as Monk Daean and Monk Seonjae at the Jangan Temple in Bundang have published books on temple food, and as healthy eating continues to spread in Korea and the world, temple food could become more popular.

"The distinctive quality of Korean temple food is that it's the food of meditation, but we also grow the ingredients to make the food more attractive to the masses," said Monk Kae Ho after the demonstration. When asked if adhering to Buddhist principles regarding food means disregarding taste, the chief monk said "No." "We consider taste," she said, explaining that taste is an important part of the Buddhism community's efforts to reach out to the broader public. She says the community is making these efforts "because people can heal through food, just as they heal through meditation.

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