The Korean Table

  • onAugust 2, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byKBS Korean Cuisine and Dining Production Team
The Korean Table


Buddhist Temple Cuisine:


A table set with nature and eaten with the soul

We have changed many things in keeping with the times. As we aspire to an increasingly fast-paced and convenient way of life, including one-minute rice and three-minute soups, it is probably no wonder that our diet and recipes should change as well. But there is a place where we can fully appreciate the flavor and allure of the traditional Korean table and its respect for the natural rhythm of time. It is the Buddhist temple.

In Buddhist cuisine, every step entails patience and tolerance for painstaking work, with no shortcuts. A diet based solely on local, seasonal vegetables is sure to be healthy. Below we immerse ourselves in the beautiful flavors and charm of Buddhist temple cuisine.


The roots

At Jogyesa Temple, on the Buddha’s birthday, all gathered pray with earnest fervor when the ceremony begins in a solemn ambience. The temple treats the visitors to a meal as a sign of gratitude, sharing a flavor profile that has long been maintained as a Korean tradition in isolated sanctuaries. The reason for the appeal of Buddhist temple cuisine is its taste, which resembles the original Korean table.

The beginning of temple cuisine dates back to the introduction of Buddhism in the Three Kingdoms era. With the exposure to Buddhist culture, religious precepts that forbade killing of animals and carnivorous diets had an impact on eating habits. In the subsequent eras of Unified Silla and the Goryeo dynasty, Buddhism was designated as the state religion, giving rise to the development of a vegetarian diet in due course. Buddhism spread among the upper class under royal patronage and took on an aristocratic and patriotic bent. The cuisine was also influenced by that trend. According to Buddhist dictates that prohibited killing, animal products were ruled out, and a wide range of dishes using vegetables were created instead. Moreover, the popularity of the Buddhist ritual of oblatory tea prompted a tea-drinking boom, and pan-fried or deep-fried confectionary made from kneaded rice or wheat dough with honey, oil, and wine caught on as an accompaniment to tea.

Buddhism started to decline during the Joseon dynasty. Crackdowns began in earnest when the State Council reported on the corrupt practices of Buddhist clergy and advised that their land and slaves be confiscated; those recommendations were acted upon by King Taejong. In the end, the larger temples moved deeper into the mountains, and as they did, monks ate more and more of the wild greens that they found there. Monks who had been unfamiliar with wild flora garnered valuable knowledge from the diet of animals, and used these plants both as cooking and medicinal ingredients.


Praying for the salvation of hungry ghosts

In the sanctum at three in the morning, when the sound of the officiating monk’s wooden bell awakens all that was asleep, the remote temple begins its day with a solemn predawn service that exudes unwavering piety and faith. After the service, the kitchen prepares breakfast. The crew has to cook a meal for about two hundred people. But the reason they do not look at all frenzied is because each step—steaming the rice, making the soup, and slicing the kimchi—is part of temple discipline. As a result, the preparation of breakfast is impeccably pious. Instead of using the Five Spices—garlic, scallions, Korean wild chives, garlic chives, and Japanese jacinth—the disciples season the dishes with their souls.

In Buddhism, meals are referred to as pujana. Eaters are to realize that they are partaking of food offered respectfully to the Buddha and not to lose sight of that privilege. Monks dressed in robes and long jackets sit up straight behind alms bowls. Pujana begins by laying out the bowls carefully. These bowls are used by Buddhists to portion out food, with each serving to include rice, soup, side dishes, and water for rinsing the bowls at the conclusion of the meal.

The meal does not begin as soon as the bowls have been laid out: when everyone has unstacked their bowls and the presiding monk shakes his bamboo broom once, those gathered put their hands together in unison and recite ten prayers. These invocations praise the immeasurable good deeds of the Triple Gem—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—and are reminders of their grace. Only after practitioners have recited the prayers with a grateful heart do they take into their bowls the exact amount of food that they will consume. With the food in front of them, they chant hymns, thinking of the Five Meditations, which embody the Buddhist attitude toward food. Plainly put, they thank nature and those who have toiled to grow each grain of rice, ponder whether they are virtuous enough for such food, drive away greedy thoughts from their minds, and finally resolve to eat this food with gratitude, like medicine that will enable them to devote themselves to their training. The act of eating is not simply to sate their hunger but rather to feed the pretas, the invisible ghosts or starved masses.

After finishing their meal, practitioners rinse their spoons, chopsticks, and bowls, and pour the remaining water into the wastewater bucket. Any remaining food residue must be swallowed and only clean water poured out. Before carrying the bucket outside, the Buddhist scripture on the ceiling is reflected in the water—this is a gesture expressing a wish for the salvation of hungry ghosts.

After the hour-long pujana, the monks remain sitting with the bowls in front of them as they did at the start of the meal. It is impressive and breathtaking to behold the supplicants cleaning out their bowls reverently and ending the meal by rinsing the bowls and drinking the water in silence. Pujana is the very reason that a definition of temple cuisine as one that excludes meat or the Five Spices seems to fall short.


Unmunsa Temple: “no labor, no food”

Unmunsa is nestled like the heart of a lotus blossom among the petals of Hogeosan, Gajisan, and Biseulsan Mountains. This temple, founded under King Jinheung of Silla  (reigned 540–576), is also a Buddhist college where some two hundred nuns study. It is also famous for its strict adherence to the rule: “No labor, no food.” So the students perform ullyeok on a daily basis during those hours that they do not devote to their studies. Ullyeok refers to collective physical labor performed by all; for example, picking wild vegetables is a form of ullyeok. Its alternative spelling, with the Chinese characters for “cloud” (雲) and “labor” (力), highlights the collective effort of people huddled like clouds. The nuns harvest the many gifts of nature from around the temple through this activity.


Lotus lanterns 


Even wild flowers can become an ingredient in temple cuisine


Harvesting and washing mugwort

Because the community of Unmunsa performs ullyeok so often, three meals a day is not enough. The nuns need snacks. Spring Japanese mugwort, which is rich in minerals, is medicine. The students harvest mugwort when it is in season, boil it, and store it in the freezer. This ensures a year-round supply of fragrant mugwort. The harvested mugwort is washed carefully and rinsed in running water so as not to harm any living thing that might be hiding in it. This is a very different mindset from that of secular folk who wash vegetables in running water out of fear of pesticides. The cauldron where they have blanched the mugwort cannot be lifted up and drained, so cold water is poured in as the hot water is scooped out. Buddhists consider throwing out hot water as an act of killing, since the scalding water may traumatize germs and microbes. They only dispose of hot water after added cold water has cooled it enough that it would not damage anything living.



Temple cuisine and pickling

Temple cuisine is true to the fundamentals of nature. Time changes many things, but it has not altered the basics of temple cuisine, which gathers its ingredients in the garden of nature. There the cooks can find a veritable cornucopia of wild plants, including the young shoots of prickly castor oil trees that alleviate the symptoms of stroke and diabetes, the rootstalks of bonnet bellflowers and balloon flowers, Fischer’s leopard plant, cham-namul, and scented Solomon’s seal.

Most Koreans believe that scented Solomon’s seal is only good for tea, but its leaves can also be pickled. Pickled side dishes are an important fixture on the Korean table, and temple cuisine boasts a particularly vast inventory of them. Vegetarianism developed with the introduction of Buddhism, and fermented foods such as soybean paste, soy sauce, and gochujang were conceived as a way to better enjoy vegetable dishes that are less appealing than meat or seafood dishes. In the same vein, monks also prepare kimchi and other pickled side dishes. Congregants exposed to these creations adopted them for their table, and reinvented side dishes, kimchi, and fermented foods. Pickling, which evolved in step with fermented foods, is just as laborintensive as other preserved preparations. Gochujang-based side dishes must use cultivated vegetables and wild greens that have been drained thoroughly to prevent the juice or the vegetables from spoiling. When making soy sauce pickles, the base is brewed from mushrooms, kelp, chili peppers, and ginger, and then chilled. Traditional Korean soy sauce is added to create a suitably salty, refreshing, and rounded taste.

It is far from easy for monks, who should concentrate on their discipline, to forage ingredients for every meal. So the main reason for the development of pickling in temple cuisine has to do with the fact that wild plants that abound in forests or plains in spring or late spring were pickled using homemade fermented preparations so that the clergy could devote themselves to their training without worrying about provisions all year. Pickled dishes taste better the longer they age, and as the product of a slow, earthy, and challenging process, they flaunt a flavor that calls to mind the poise of an enlightened monk.


Pickling helps monks with their training


A modest portion of food is put into each bowl


Dawn at Seonamsa Temple

The mountain temple begins its day as the sound of the large bell shatters the calm. The ascetics who have embarked on their training to become monks begin their days in the kitchen. Most of their duties involve kitchen work. There is a precise division of labor: some make dainty side dishes, some prepare soup, some cook rice, and so on. These job descriptions are intended to encourage focused training that dedicates all thoughts to one task. Once the meal is ready, trainees carry the food to the main hall in unison. The monks take over from there. The trainees put out the fire in the kitchen and observe the monks with anticipation.

Seonamsa Temple, located at the foot of Jogyesan Mountain, has a thousand-year history. It is famous for its strict disciplining of novices, and this means that it remains true to its roots. Novices are prospective monks, charged with day-to-day housekeeping in the temple. One of their duties is to tend the vegetable garden. Tilling the soil and growing vegetables themselves, thereby learning the value of ingredients, is part of their training. When the plots yield nothing, they cook what they find in the forests and fields. The recipes are passed on from one trainee to the next, who learn the seasonal ingredients and recipes, as well as the properties of each ingredient. For instance, part of the cumulative knowledge is a recipe for coriander salad, which clears the head on a languorous spring day. This process safeguards temple cuisine and provides training for the novices. It is analogous to making kimchi from young summer radish leaves, which release moisture and dispense with the need to add extra water.

If you seek to be free of all torment, learn to be satisfied. Those who know how to be content are always rich, merry, and at peace. Such a person is at ease and joyous in his heart even if he should sleep on bare ground. But those who do not know how to be content are unhappy even if they should find themselves in heaven. Those who do not know contentment may be rich on the outside but are in fact poor, and those who know contentment may appear poor but are in fact rich.

Testament Sutra  


Translated by Ji-yung Kim

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