Korean Temple Food

An Introduction
One of the major figures in Korean temple food is Seonjae Sunim. She’s been researching Korean temple food for many years now, and I had the privilege of attending a series of lectures she gave about the topic.

Modern history
One of the interesting points she made about Korean temple food is that much of the know-how has been lost. She said that before the Japanese occupation (1904 – 1945), there was a lot of accumulated techniques and knowledge about vegetarian cooking in the big temples. But with the Japanese control of Buddhism during the Occupation era, followed by the destruction and poverty of the Korean War and years afterwards (1950-1970 or so), this was lost.

Japanese Era – the loss of the vegetarian tradition
The biggest thing about the Japanese occupation for Buddhists, was the “reforms” forced on Korean Buddhists. Chief among these was the effort to create an acceptance in Buddhism for the monks to marry, drink alcohol, and eat meat. They put this into motion around 1920, when after having centralized all of the temples into one network, they appointed their own people as abbots of the regional head temples. These men drank, ate meat, and tended to be married. The traditional Korean monks were outraged about this, but at first the Japanese government ignored their protests, and then made drinking, marriage, and meat officially accepted.

Through coercion and enticements, by 1945 the vast majority of the men in temples belonged to this system. This was really the biggest blow to the vegetarian tradition in Korea.  For, after 30 or 40 years of this, a lot of the monks and nuns who were masters of the old system of vegetarian cooking had simply died without having passed on their knowledge.

Not helping was the poverty of these years, and the years after the Korean War, when anything at all to eat was gratefully received. So by the 1970’s what you had was temple cooking that was simply ordinary Korean cooking, minus the meat. Which, nutritionally, really isn’t adequate.

The Nature of Plants, and Seasonal Energies
One of the interesting things that Seonjae Sunim discovered as she was re-discovering these old systems of vegetarian cooking, was that just because it was a plant or vegetable, that didn’t mean it was good for you. In the old system, it was very clear that every plant, vegetable, and dish had a season. This didn’t mean merely what was available, but that given the energy of a certain plant, it should only be consumed during the appropriate season. So there are dishes that are spring dishes, and only consumed in the spring. For example, mugwort has certain properties that make it beneficial only during a certain season or two.

Likewise, people’s energies also have seasonal fluctuations, and different seasonal needs. So what’s good for you in the spring, might be harmful in the fall. So traditionally prepared temple vegetarian food is based upon the interaction of the plant, the season, and the person. This is also a very local food, with the cook checking the markets, and hillsides, to see what’s available and appropriate for the season. Thus, if you visit a very traditional temple restaurant, all of the dishes on the menu will be those appropriate to the season.

The Energy of Local Food
This way of looking at traditional food has an interesting parallel with traditional Korean medicine. Rather than following the prescriptions from the great texts of China, Korean doctors realized that the best medicine would also have the energy of the same land as the patient. So instead of focusing on Chinese ingredients, they started researching local plants and their effects on people. That is, they were looking at what was nearby, and seeing what it’s effects were. A lot of traditional temple food is awareness of the energy of local food, and what it’s properties and flavors are, and seeing how this feels. 

Thus, food should ideally be made with local ingredients that are fresh and seasonal. So dishes that require expensive, exotic ingredients aren’t really in keeping with this spirit. Rather than exact copies of Korean dishes with Korean grown ingredients, I look forward to seeing people (in other countries) creating their own “fusion” dishes, taking into account the local produce and the Korean techniques and spirit of preparation.

Now the disclaimer: I know good Korean food when I taste it, but I’m terrible at making it. Somehow it always comes out blah. If you’re really interested in Korean food, there are a lot of Korean cookbooks that look pretty good. Likewise, there are also a lot of websites dedicated to Korean food. And I’m sure there are cooking classes in most big cities.

Here are a few interesting links I found:

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you deserve a treat!
So here’s a recipe for a type of daal that Daehaeng Kun Sunim likes quite a bit. The recipe originally came from Yoga Journal, and is one of the few dishes I make that comes out great every time. The only caveat is that I have to follow the steps in order. Whenever I’ve tried to save time by combining steps, the flavor’s off. (By the way, if anyone knows any good daal recipes, please share them with me. Thanks!)

Kun Sunim’s Porridge

250 ml (1 cup) of glutinous rice, the Korean variety (chap-sal) works better than Indian rice
250 ml (1 cup) of mung beans these are a small, yellow legume

The rice and the mung beans should be rinsed several times and soaked for at least an hour before cooking (2-6 hours is best, but one hour is okay)

1 ml Turmeric powder – (1/4 teaspoon)
1 ml ground Cloves  
1 ml ground black Cardamom
1 ml Salt
1 ml ground Pepper
2 ml ground Cinnamon (1/2 teaspoon)
3 Bay leafs   

Cilantro Puree
Cilantro, about a handful –   clean leaves and stalks
30ml shredded coconut – 2 table spoons 
15ml minced Ginger – 1 tablespoon   
250ml of water – 1 cup

Put the coconut, ginger, cilantro, and water in a blender and pureed.

Sauté all of the 7 spices in 30ml (2 tablespoons)of clarified butter or coconut oil (organic) until brown.
Stir in the drained mung beans, and thoroughly mix with butter and spices.
Next stir in the rice.
Add the cilantro puree and thoroughly mix together.
Add 1.25 liters (6 cups) of water and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.

Once it starts boiling, reduce heat to a simmer, cover and stir occasionally, cooking for 25-30 minutes. Take out the bay leaves before serving.

8 thoughts on “Korean Temple Food”

  1. I’ve eaten so much good food in Korea, but most of it hasn’t come from temple kitchens. Even the temple panchan seems sparse. But, sitting in the dharma hall eating water soup and rice has, for me, an ancient feeling. It’s as if the ancestors are present in every wooden spoonful.

    Thanks for the dal recipe!

    1. Hi Barry,
      Food amoung temples really varies, depending upon the cook. At most temples, they are laywomen who either live at the temple, or come there in shifts, with different laygroups responsible for different days or weeks. Sometimes you’ll find someplace where the food is always spicey, because the cook doesn’t know how to deal with flavors. And sometimes you’ll find someplace like my Dharma Uncle’s, where you don’t care what’s being served, because no matter what, it’ll be great.

      One of the things I forgot to mention was the energy that fills food when the preparer is mindful and/or caring. If it was prepared by someone who’s really practicing, you can feel the difference. It’s not as much flavor as what in Korean is called the energy of (fundamental) mind. This is also why Mom’s food is usually considered the best. I can be eating in our temple, and there’s one particular nun who, from the intense feeling from the food, I can usually tell that she prepared the dish.

  2. Good to read this blog and the comment too – so interesting and thoughtful as always! I’ve been sharing the link to this and others on my CoolstuffKorea page on Twitter and Facebook to get the word out. LondonKoreanLinks loves it. Off to a Korean food festival in London tomorrow but I bet there won’t be any food as good as temple food!

  3. I have a question: Is Korean Temple Food totally vegan? Is it free of any kind of animal products, dairy or honey include?

    1. Hi!

      Yes, in a way…

      But, “Temple Food” have restrictions. Although the only products they use are vegetables. They have this Five vegetables that are forbidden in their cooking. They don’t use the following: Garlic, Korean Chives, Korean Wild Herb, Leeks, and Korean Onions (Similar).

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