Transcendental delicacies

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Transcendental delicacies

Temple food is not something a photographer, who used to work on catalogues for New York City department stores, might typically pick for a dietetic change.

But periodically Jung Lee, a Korean-American, chooses to put a new spin on her life. And one of her most recent spins resulted in an impressive production: an English-language book titled "Korean Temples and Food."

The 368-page project, which was published recently in Korea, contains the results of three years spent in more than 120 Korean Buddhist temples scattered across the peninsula. The book shows what she saw. Splendid moments of each season are captured, and Ms. Lee went back again and again to the same temples so that she could see the different atmosphere of each season. She immersed herself in Buddhist teaching, so her description of temples and their history illustrates what it's like to be there and to feel the atmosphere.

Of the 120 temples she went to, Ms. Lee painstakingly selected 77 and their gongyang, or Buddhist meals, for the book. By sharing the meals with the monks, she gained a personal insight and learned to feel at home in the temples. Every time Ms. Lee was offered new dishes, she jot down notes and took pictures. None of the food introduced in the book was prearranged for her photos. "If the food is staged, then it loses its real meaning," she says "I wanted to capture the honest image of a monk's simple daily food."

A monk's diet is only vegetarian dishes devoid of the five stimulants, or osinchae, in Korean: garlic, chive, baby onion, leech and honggo.

Often she had to hide her camera while she took pictures: Monks don't allow photography during their eating ceremonies. In fact, she confessed to taking about 10 percent of her photographs surreptitiously, using a small digital camera because many types of pictures are strictly prohibited.

Once some monks caught her taking pictures of the famous Buddhist statue at the Bulguksa temple in North Gyeongsang province. "I never imagined the monks had been watching people through the security camera at 3:30 in the morning," she says as she pointed to the book's cover photo. "Thank God, they didn't take my film away."

While she was still working on the project, she heard that the Venerable Seonje, a monk famous for temple cooking, was working on a similar book. Having already finished visiting 50 temples, she thought of quitting. But she remembered all the kind monks who had helped her get what she wanted, and resolved to complete the book.

Ms. Lee was most happy with a collection of recipes from all over Korea. "I love temple food," she says. "It's so simple and delicious. See how easy it is to make all these dishes?" As she flips through her book to show off the dishes, she remembers exactly which page everything is on.

She found it unusual but satisfying to eat jujube and figs glazed in soy sauce from Tapsa temple in North Jeolla province. Perhaps Lee's two most memorable dishes were winter solstice red bean porridge, or patjuk, from Hwaeomsa temple in South Jeolla province and deep-fried hosta flowers from the Janggoksa temple in South Chungcheong province. She reminisces about her time with monks: a kind and generous monk who told her, "Take more, take plenty of flowers with you," and brought her a huge bundle of hosta flowers as she was leaving. On a cold December night, she along with a dozen monks made small sticky rice balls to put into the porridge. She regrets that she doesn't have photos of them making the balls, but the image is vivid in her memory.

"What is this?" Lee wonders aloud while looking into a cream-colored porridge in a wooden bowl. To try her favorites, she is visiting Sanchon, a restaurant specializing in temple food in Seoul's Insa-dong. But she has no idea about the food she is about to try. It is a rice porridge with perilla seeds.

Asked whether she considers herself as an expert on food, she says with a laugh, "No, I rarely cook, maybe because I've always lived alone. You know what? I work too hard and too much. Marriage doesn't suit my carefree lifestyle."

The young Lee, just out of college, went to the United States to study fashion in 1972. In Korea, many high school graduates opened fashion boutiques, but she didn't want to do what other people did. An internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art changed her direction to photography. She switched majors to communications and began working on commercial photography.

Ms. Lee opened Jung Lee Studio on 25th Street in Manhattan, and over the years she worked for such clients as Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Toys-R-Us.

After working for 15 years nonstop as commercial photographer based in New York City, she began to think about her life.

"I did basically the same thing over and over again in New York City. I thought, 'Oh My God, one day I might die on a park bench with my cat.' I wanted to leave the city."

Her next destination was Amsterdam. "They speak English, and Amsterdam is a unique place, and the living cost is cheaper."

For three years she thought about moving to Amsterdam, but never did. She took up lithography, thinking she would make a living as a fine artist in Europe, but she only got as far as packing.

In early 1995, her father died in Seoul. She returned to Korea to attend the funeral and found her homeland comforting and curiously interesting. Wanting to do something creative with Korean subject matter, she stayed.

But as a single Korean woman, life was never easy. She created a series of puzzles employing Korean ancient art, the first of their kind in Korea.

"Koreans don't want to pay money for photographic images because they are used to getting them for free," Ms. Lee says. "It's not easy to sell your own creative works. I realized that living as an artist in Korea was tough."

At one point, she wanted to go back to New York City, but she couldn't because her visa had expired. She applied for a new one, but to her surprise she was rejected.

"I was bluntly told by the interviewer at the American embassy, 'You are back, so why do you need to go back? You're single, and we don't know what you'll do once you go to America.'" The incident still enrages her.

Having finished the book she had dreamed of doing, she feels she needs yet another change in her life. "Korean Temple and Food" is, in fact, one of 10 books she has planned on her agenda.

When Ms. Lee is not lecturing on photography at Kaywon School of Art and Design or Kookmin University, she visits Buddhist temples to seek peace. In six month time or so, she will work on another project. "I have to work. I don't know exactly what it is, but it has to do with creative images," she said beaming.

"Korean Temples and Food" (Junglee Publication) is available for in major bookstores and temples in Korea. The cost is 45,000 won ($38).

Tracking down the best of the best Korean food

When the chefs at Sorabol, the Korean restaurant inside the Shilla hotel, decided to put together their recipes, fans of refined Korean cuisine couldn't wait to find out the chefs' secrets of success.

"The Food of Korea" (Periplus Editions, 2002) contains more than 70 recipes so people at home can create what's considered the best Korean cuisine.

Korean restaurants are everywhere, but why are the best so hard to find? To the pickiest epicures, the best means the whole top-quality experience -- both cultural and culinary. The majority of restaurants specializing in Korean food are perhaps a little too casual.

Popular dishes, such as grilled meat or fish stew served with kimchi, have given Korean food a notorious reputation for being very hot and spicy, laden with tons of garlic and red chili peppers. And the crude manners of Korean waitresses, never looking at their customers or snipping meat with scissors at the table, only made the dining experience more adventurous.

But sometimes elites at international culinary schools wonder whether refined, noble cooking is available in Korea.

Refined Korean cuisine is not all about strong spices. The food incorporates a truly wide range of ingredients and cooking methods, and is both delicate to taste and visually tempting.

Unlike the Western-style of serving food in courses, a set of rice, soup, banchan (side dishes) and dipping sauces is usually served simultaneously on the table. Dishes include seasonal specialities and daily staples, not to mention preserved items from previous years.

No wonder a sophisticated Korean dining experience is a challenge to most local restaurateurs and chefs. Frustrated diners can head out to Sorabol, one of the most respected on the peninsula.

At Sorabol, simple, fresh bomnamul (spring vegetables) is served in time for Korean spring. Tasty seasonal fish is grilled to match with rice and soup. The seasoning on the rib meat never overpowers, yet the pungent taste of fermented bean paste soup lasts a long time in your mouth.

The book is a collaboration of a whole world of talent: a Japanese photographer, Korean chefs, a Singaporean art director, an American publisher. But most importantly the detailed recipes, along with hints and other information, can help lovers of Korean food to better understand Korean cuisine.

"The Food of Korea" is available in the Shilla hotel for 25,000 won ($20). To celebrate the publication of the book, the hotel is organizing free cooking classes for foreigners in late July. For inquires, contact the public relations department by e-mailing

Temple food benefits greatly from the original flavor of the ingredients and sauces. When cooking temple food at home, choose extra fresh ingredients, preferably organically grown produce in season.

Restaurants specializing in temple-style cooking are Sanchon in Insa-dong (02-735-0312) and Pulhyanggi (02-545-0415,6) in Apgujeong-dong. At these restaurants, you can request, in advance, that your meals be prepared with or without the five stimulants.

by Inēs Cho

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