About Korean Buddhist Cooking
By Susan Park
Please note that veganism or vegetarianism are not synonymous with Buddhism in general. There are different schools or sects of Buddhism; each with their own guidelines. Being a vegan or vegetarian doesn’t make you good. Eating meat doesn’t make you bad. Please refrain from imposing Judeo-Christian morality onto Buddhism.
Korean Buddhist Temple cuisine has a 1600 year history in Korea. Buddhist Temple foods and Buddhist foods are mostly vegan, however dairy is used in some recipes where noted.
Korean Buddhist cooking, whether it’s in a Temple or by everyday Korean Buddhists, are part of larger Korean cuisine and culture. Historically, there was also a connection to Korean Royal Court cuisine. Female cooks from royal houses sometimes joined monasteries after retirement.
The art of Korean Buddhist food is a decidedly feminine one. Male monks tend to focus on simple, sustenance dishes.
Today, the champions of Temple food for the general public tend to be nuns or women such as the chefs at Balwoo Gyongyang, a Michelin starred restaurant in Seoul. Nun Seon Jae has been writing books on Buddhist Temple food since 1994. Her latest book is a cookbook published in 2017. Nun Dae Ahn published “Twelve Months of Temple Meals” in 2014. Jingwansa Temple, located west of Seoul, is run entirely by women who focus on preserving and disseminating information about the art of temple cusine. Nun Jeong Kwan is the most famous nun chef outside of Korea.
There are spokespeople and advocates for Korean Buddhist Temple cuisine. However, the food, the cooking techniques and the presentation belong to no one person. Thousands of years of Korean traditions inform every dish.
Buddhist recipes do not have any vegetables in the allium family such as garlic, onions, chives, scallions, or ramps. Their strong flavors are believed to be distracting.
The three mother sauces of Korean cuisine soy sauce, fermented chili paste, and fermented bean paste are used in small amounts. While dishes are generally mild compared to larger Korean cooking, fermented chili paste and chilis are used in judicious amounts. Other seasonings include seaweed, kelp, herbs, flowers, fruits, wild greens, nuts or seeds, roots, and vinegar. Flavor enhancers such as mushroom powder and bean powders are also used.
There is a strong focus on seasonality and local produce. Gentle cooking techniques such as blanching, simmering, and steaming are used to enhance flavor and texture with minimal disturbance to the natural state of an ingredient. Added fat is minimal.
Pickling and preserving are of paramount importance. Almost any vegetable can be pickled or preserved. Thinly sliced or finely chopped pickles are sometimes used as garnishes on dishes for color, flavor, and texture.
Seasonality does not mean choosing produce only at the height of season. It is understanding how to cook or preserve an ingredient throughout the life of an entire season. For example, young perilla leaves might be used as an herb or in a salad. Older, tougher perilla leaves can be pickled.
When harvesting crops from a plot of land or plants from a garden, there is consideration for what is left behind for regrowth and what is taken. Taking only what you need is an often repeated reminder. Greens in particular must not be stressed for they bruise easily. The stems must be gently broken. Root vegetables are plucked with minimal trauma to the soil.
When choosing vegetables, the entire condition of it is carefully studied. Is the mu (daikon) small and the skin smooth? Does it smell more sweet than bitter? Then it’s good for eating raw, quickly sautéed, or lightly pickled. Is the mu large with mottled and tough looking skin? Then it’s good for long slow cooking to remove the bitter juices and enhance the sweetness and refreshing taste of mu.
A typical meal consists of rice, soup, and a side dish served in bowls (baru). The Korean table (bapsang) is colorful. Orange carrots and pumpkins, crimson chilis, burnt red jujubes, evergreen to pine green leafy vegetables, moss green and black from kelp and seaweed. Earth tones are abundant root vegetables, dried vegetables, and pickles. Fresh turmeric is used to tint frying batter yellow. Beet juice is used to paint beets brilliant shades of pink. Each dish is typically served in a separate bowl or dish and is sometimes highly composed with multiple garnishes.
Food is medicine. It is cleansing and curative. The act of cooking frees your mind and is mindful. Sharing food is about compassion and gratitude.