Korean Temple Food: Understanding The Buddhist Culinary Practice
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If you’ve watched the entire Chef’s Table series on Netflix, you were likely amazed by Episode 3 of Season 3. The documentary traces the journey of Korean nun Jeong Kwan, who cooks for fellow nuns and monks and occasional visitors at the Baekyangsa Temple in South Korea. Kwan believes that she is more a nun than a chef, and has been responsible for making the world aware of the Buddhist culinary practice that is Korean temple food. 

Korean nuns and monks have practised zero waste principles and veganism for over 1600 years. Since then, Buddhist culinary traditions have shaped much of modern Korean cuisine. Korean temple food focuses on the use of locally sourced, sustainable ingredients. It is about eco-friendly, vegan recipes that use minimal ingredients. 

Barbecue and fried chicken have no place within the realm of Korean temple food. Instead, it includes kimchi, stews made with tofu, lotus-leaf wrapped steamed rice and rice soups—healthy, aromatic combinations. 

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The slow food movement may be a recent trend, but it has been around in Korea for centuries.  The principles of Korean temple cuisine are influenced by Buddhist philosophy, which emphasises the importance of health, minimalism and being environmentally conscious. It states that you must eat only as much as the body needs, and not one grain of rice must be wasted. 

Buddhist nuns and monks have made use of herbs and plants that grow on the mountainsides near their temples for their medicinal properties. Some of these plants and herbs are plentiful at certain times of the year. Shepherd’s purse or naengi is one such plant that grows from the frozen ground when winter is about to end. The plant and its roots are usually sautéed with flour and water. The resulting dish is a savoury pancake.

Korean Buddhists avoid consuming plants that belong to the allium family, like onions, garlic and chives. The pungent nature of these foods is considered a hindrance to meditation, and nuns and monks like to maintain harmony and balance both in their food and lifestyle. In that sense, temple food is artistic. 

The prohibition on garlic and animal products led to the creation of dishes like bibimbap, even if modern versions may include meat and garlic. Chillies being used to make kimchi also came later, after the Portuguese brought chillies with them.

Besides traditional Korean temples, temple cuisine can also be sampled at specialist temple food restaurants in Seoul. Two such restaurants are Sanchon and Balwoo Gongyang (which has categories like “Zen food” and “mind food” on its menu). Seoul;s Korean Temple Food Center conducts regular cooking classes, too. 

With the food being restrictive, it’s necessary for those who follow a temple food diet to have a disciplined mind, and this is in line with Buddhist spiritual practices like meditation.