In one of the most memorable lines uttered by Korean monk Jeongkwan Sunim in Netflix series Chef’s Table, she says: “Soya sauce is eternal”. In that episode, Jeongkwan Sunim, neither a restaurant owner or a Michelin starred chef, pulled back the curtains on the transcendental, ravishing cuisine found in temples. The response from foodies around the globe was explosive. Temple cuisine quickly became a hot trend in the world of gastronomy, with many making pilgrimages to Jeongkwan’s temple and others around Korea to learn more about the food there. While most people associate Buddhism with what you can’t eat—meat and animal byproducts—temple cuisine is much more dynamic than what first meets the eye. At the heart of temple cuisine, according to Jeongkwan Sunim, is the idea that understanding the essence of vegetables also means knowing oneself. “I think Korea’s temple cuisine takes individual food as one space,” she says. “We try to look into ourselves through looking at the core of each and every food. That process is an act of practicing asceticism. How can one take in food without [care] when cabbages and radishes are a reflection of yourself? The food itself is you.”
This idea is perhaps what separates Buddhist monks in Korea from the rest of us. Food is more than an object of gastronomic desire—it is an extension of life. Monks advocate minimal interference in Mother Nature, the source that provides life to plants and animals. To adhere to this tenet, Korean monks like Jeongkwan Sunim have been developing methods to make the most of the minimal ingredients they have at hand. “The food is a tool for us to cultivate ourselves, and the methods can be different from one monk to another,” shares Jeongkwan Sunim, “so there is a lot of room for creativity within temple cuisine.”
In general, temple food prohibits meat and some animal by-products like eggs, though cheese and milk are allowed. It also shuns using herbs and vegetables with strong, pungent flavours like green onions, garlic, onions, wild leeks and asafoetida. In Korea, these herbs are known as osinchae and are considered great sources of nutrition, but for monks who spend most of their days meditating, consuming too much energy can be a distraction.
Since many temples are located in mountains and lacked convenient access to the outside world until a few decades ago, temple cuisine was developed with local ingredients that monks could easily gather from their environs or grow on their own farms. Their circumstances naturally lend themselves to a macrobiotic diet, which emphasises seasonal, locally-grown food and fewer animal products.
Deep diving into temple cuisine
While Buddhism originated in India, temple cuisine has developed in different ways depending on the country and culture. In Southeast Asia, monks act as mendicants and can eat meat if it is offered by local villagers. But in Northeast Asia, since monks cook food on their own, they strictly refrain from eating meat and certain animal by-products. What makes temple cuisine distinct in Korea compared to Japan and China is the monks’ communal living, explains Eugene Kim, Buddhist Monastic Cuisine Senior Researcher for Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism, as well as Chief Manager at restaurant Balwoo Gongyang.
Chinese temples lost many of their past traditions after the Cultural Revolution, and in Japan, monks commute to temples from their homes so food culture did not develop in temples, save for a few big ones across the country. Kaiseki, Japanese fine dining, is said to have originated from Buddhism, as the religion ingrained itself in the upper class.
Just as every burger joint uses different ingredients and cooking styles to make their own interpretations of a burger, each temple and each monk has developed their own culinary style over time. Yeongpyeong Temple in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province, is known for its fermented sauces like gochujang (red pepper paste) and ganjang (soy sauce), while Tongdo Temple in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province, is known for its doenjang (soybean paste). Baekyang Temple in Jangseong, South Jeolla Province, has made a name for itself with pine leaf tea. Other temples like Seonun Temple in Gochang, North Jeolla Province, have partnered with local agricultural cooperatives to produce salt and other ingredients. Some of these items are available for purchase at large temples in Seoul, such as Jogye Temple in Jongno District, central Seoul and Bongeun Temple in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, as well as through online shopping sites.
“Producing such items and developing recipes are not for pursuing monetary benefits but a way of practicing asceticism for monks,” Kim shared. “Some monks delve into getting the food cooked just like other monks delve into teachings from books and share those ideas.” Cooking is a form of spiritual practice, and while monks strive to bring out the finest taste of certain ingredients, they don’t overdo it. The idea is moderation over diversity of flavour.
Modernising Monastic Food
“No matter how much others eat and how much culinary information is floating out there, what you need to eat is the food your body needs and the amount of food your body can take,” says Daean Sunim, a head monk at Geumsan Temple in Sancheong, South Gyeongsang Province, who has focused on developing and promoting temple cuisine. “No monk has ever died from malnutrition. What temple cuisine shows is the attitude one should have about eating.”
Still, many monks have taken a cautious approach towards what they can serve to their peers because of religious rules. Green bell pepper was once considered a controversial ingredient because it didn’t exist in Korea until a few decades ago. Adding sugar to food was also a no-no because monks traditionally used jocheong (grain syrup) to sweeten food. After years of debate, temple cuisine has slowly relaxed some of its rules to include dishes like a modern reinterpretation of the pizza that adheres to the tenets of Buddhism. The evolution is similar to the way in which mainstream Korean cuisine has adopted flavours from China, as seen from dishes such as the black bean noodle, also known as jjajangmyeon. Monks like Uncheon Sunim, have been looking for ways to align temple food with typical Korean cuisine. Uncheon Sunim has even earned the nickname “jjajang sunim”, or jjajang monk, for his effort in making everyday Korean food part of temple cuisine.
“Young monks want to eat food that’s widely enjoyed out there, so we make changes to food items to the extent that can be considered as food that monks are allowed to eat,” Daean Sunim explains. “What we make may look like pizza, but the contents on it are different.” Monks make dough by grinding potatoes and use sticky yams as a substitute for cheese, since cheese is only allowed in small amounts. They boil tomatoes to make sauce and add spinach and mushrooms, all staple ingredients in temple food. “Some older monks have a difficult time accepting these kinds of food as temple food because they aren’t dishes they used to eat every day,” notes Daean Sunim, “but this can be seen as one way to use more local ingredients to make [what wasn’t so local before.]”
The monk adds that such efforts to modernise temple food could make it more appealing to foreigners: “The taste of dishes made at temples won’t get on one’s nerves and anybody can find the food familiar. The fact that the food isn’t too oily can also be appealing.”
Today, monastic cuisine is no longer limited to the confines of the hermitage. Many restaurants in Korea (like Gosang, Maji and Sanchon) are now offering food based on temple recipes. Even renowned chefs like Noma’s René Redzepi, have travelled to Korea’s temples seeking culinary inspiration. Closer to home, Kang Min-goo of the Michelin- starred Mingles (also ranked 15th on S. Pellegrino & Acqua Panna Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017) in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, regularly visits Baekyang Temple to observe how Jeongkwan Sunim forages and cooks.
Kang’s restaurant specialises in innovative Korean dishes—not temple food—yet Kang finds the advice on how to cook seasonal vegetables useful. Mingles is also one of few fine-dining restaurants in Korea that can serve a vegan menu upon request. “I don’t learn a particular recipe to cook with,” Kang shares. “I just go down to the temple to see how Jeongkwan Sunim cooks. That, for me, is learning.” “Her style of cooking is very creative,” he continues. “Even when she’s preparing the same dish, it is different every time. Such freestyle cooking reminds me to continue updating the same dish cooked with the same ingredients 10 to 20 times each season.” Kang does this with his Jang Noodles, black pasta seasoned with broth and fermented sauces, tweaking the ratios to achieve different levels of umami.
He believes that getting the basics right, such as the sauces, can significantly improve the quality of any dish. Since monks have been fermenting sauces like doenjang and gochujang for centuries, Kang started making his own sauces at the temple this year and will bring them back to his restaurant after they are fermented further. Inspired by Jeongkwan Sunim, Kang started using more local ingredients like herbs and vegetables sourced from different regions of Korea, such as Ulleungdo island in the East Sea. “What chefs learn there isn’t a technique that can be showcased in [a short period of time],” Kang notes, “and what chefs can do there while working with the monks is organise the recipes that have been handed down by word of mouth into videos and documents so that ideas coming from temple cuisine can contribute to setting up the basis of [what makes quality food].”
While Mingles is mostly inspired by temple cuisine, Balwoo Gongyang serves food that monks actually eat. Operated by the Jogye Order, the largest Buddhist order in Korea, since 2009, the restaurant in the heart of Seoul in Jongno District, employs chefs who have learned to cook from monks, including temple food expert Seonjae Sunim. The restaurant was crowned with one Michelin star in 2016 and designated as a Muslim- friendly restaurant by the Korea Tourism Organisation.
Balwoo Gongyang sources its vegetables and sauces from temples across the country. Its goal is to showcase seasonal dishes from Korean temple cuisine’s nearly 1,700-year history. The food here is served in a Western-style course meal and includes not only everyday dishes like rice and kimchi but also food monks eat when they’re sick, such as juk (porridge) made with millet, to give visitors a larger picture of temple cuisine. On special holidays like Buddha’s birthday, the restaurant also offers stir-fried beans.
Led by students of Jeongkwan Sunim, monastic food and its influences have also been making its way to restaurants overseas. Chef Kwang Uh of Baroo in Los Angeles uses a variety of fermented vegetables and sauces inspired by temple cuisine. Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York, who’s a friend of Jeongkwan Sunim, gets gochujang from the nun to make his staple dishes at home. Chef Shinobu Namae of L’Effervescence in Tokyo visited Seoul to learn about Korean temple cuisine after experiencing the food in Japanese temples. Kim puts it succinctly: “The whole point of bringing Korean-style temple cuisine to other countries goes beyond any religious differences out there, I personally think we should try to promote temple cuisine in hopes of making the global community healthier.”
Baekyang Temple offers a two-day weekend stay (150,000 won) including temple meals for dinner and breakfast plus a cooking class with Jeongkwan Sunim (usually on Sundays). Tel: +82 61 392 0434. Website here
Korean Temple Food Center offers cooking classes with English translation service on Saturdays for 10,000 won. 03061 Jungro-gu, Yulgok-ro 39 An-ku Building, central Seoul. Tel: +82 2 733 4650. Website here
Seolleung-ro 757 Gangnam District. Tel: +82 2 515 7306. Website here
Ujeongguk-ro 56, Jongno District. Tel +82 2 733 2081. Website here
Photos: Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism, Balwoo Gongyang, Mingles.