The more I learn about South Korea and its food, the more curious I get to travel there. It was through my sister and Chef, Lisa that I first experience homemade South Korean traditional food. She had the fortune to live in South Korea for a couple years and of course, became a master in making some of the most iconic foods from there.
Through Lisa I met Soojin, a designer, visual story-teller and gastronome, born and raised in South Korean, and hence ended up experiencing a Korean Temple for a 6 months. My first thought was, "what in the world does she mean by Korean temple food?", I was clueless.
When I learned about this, Lisa and Soojin had cooked a delicious meal for us to try, a fusion of traditional and temple Korean cuisine:
✨ Bibim Naengmyeon, a buckwheat noodle salad dressed in a cold and spicy broth topped with sliced cucumber
✨Ssam, which literally translates to “wrapped” in Korean, are lettuce wrapped in a variety of vegetarian fillings like, pan fried Tofu topped with mushrooms, fermented Chi varieties like pickled cucumbers with jammed figs and strawberries, daikon, crumbled Tofu mixed in soybean paste, kimchi, and spicy sauces.
Fascinated and very curious about the topic, I paid close attention to everything Soojin shared with us that dinner. I later went home and had to dig deeper into this 1700 year old tradition, these are some of the things I learned:
✨ Korean temple cuisine originated from the local Buddhist temples, following the concept that food is an agent to produce a pure and healthy vessel towards fulfilling Buddha's dharma. Dharma is the universal truth, or doctrine, proclaimed by Buddha.
✨ There is a strong emphasis on not being attached to food itself, meaning in the temple, practicians only consume the amount needed, and avoiding leftover or waste.
✨ No animal products, except for dairy, are used in Korean temple foods.
✨Monks and nuns in the temple do not cook with onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leeks, also known as the five pungent vegetables.
✨ In order to consume food in its purest forms, and not overeat, additives like artificial flavors in salt, or sugar are not encouraged.
✨Instead, they utilize many fermented goods that naturally add umami, and lower cholesterol levels, cancer-inhibiting qualities, and age-related illnesses.
✨ It reminds practicians of the natural circle of life, where humans, just like food, are born from nature and end in nature.
A couple months later, Soojin conducted a Temple Korean Fusion Multi-Sensory Experience, for anybody interested in Bra. We gathered around in her home, she had set the mood, the lights were dimmed, the table was filled with small plates, and each one had their own chops sticks. She peacefully explained the inspiration for each plate, making us realize the hard work and dedication it took for her to ferment all the things she was going to make us try.
We got to try the iconic Ssam, once again. This time with tender and flavorful Bulgogi meat cooked with mushrooms and onions. The sticky rice with red bean, making it slightly sweet. The magical Gochujang sauce, making every bite spicy and filled with umami. And kimchi or pickled daikon to get that punchy crunch.
For dessert, she made ismisu-garu, a mixed grain powder drink with cherries, strawberries, and watermelon, all seasoned with a Korean traditional flavor. The berries are either marinated with doenjang (fermented soybean paste), gochujang (fermented chili paste), or ganjang (fermented soy sauce).
Have you tried Korean or Temple cuisine? Let me know in the comments below!