Karmic cooking, from the temple to the classroom
Not any more. Buddhist cooking is coming down from the mountain and into the classroom. Cooking classes and restaurants specializing in the cuisine are permeating Korea’s urban areas.
In one class, held in a large kitchen in an office building, a dozen housewives hustle to prepare food while standing between rows of stainless steel sinks and gas stoves. Following the instructions of a Buddhist nun, they slice vegetables and chop wild greens, fry dry seaweed and boil beans. Finally tossing it all into their pots, they throw in a dash of natural seasonings.
The nun is the Venerable Hongseong; the class is a three-month course of 12 sessions; the place is Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul. Ven. Hongseung starts by teaching her pupils the basics ― making seasonings ― and moves on to more sophisticated stuff by the end of the course.
“Most people are used to food with artificial flavoring, and so see temple food as something lighter and leaner,” Ven. Hongseung said. “Once they get used to it, they can’t eat at restaurants that use artificial seasoning for vegetable dishes. The taste of the seasoning is overpowering.”
According to Ven. Jeongmun, at Sudosa temple in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi province, growing concerns about health and well-being in the early 2000s prompted widespread public interest in temple cooking.
“These days people are surrounded by an overflow of information and they feel that their soul is confined,” he said. “Temple food cleans one’s mind and body.”
Sudosa’s temple stay programs and cooking classes provide an opportunity to try temple food, practice meditation and above all to experience the life of a Buddhist monk. Ven. Jeongmun now teaches three classes a week with 30 persons in each class, and though it’s hardly a convenient location for most visitors, his class enrollment has been growing. The class consists of a diverse range of participants, including students, medical doctors, restaurant owners and the requisite number of housewives.
Temples in Korea have been pursuing their own culinary arts since the Three Kingdoms Period (4th to 7th century). Under the Unified Silla Dynasty (7th to 10th century) and during the Goryeo Dynasty (10th to 14th century), the cuisine experienced its heyday, even displacing court food in the mouth of the king. The Goryeo period was the most religiously Buddhist of any period in Korean history, and the vegetarian temple foods served in the court filtered down into the mainstream.
It’s been a long time since the Goryeo Dynasty met its end and Buddhism was pushed up into the mountains, but the current health craze has allowed the cuisine to stage its comeback. Ven. Jeongmun said there are dozens of temple food restaurants in Seoul and its surrounding areas including Gamnodang in Samcheong-dong, Seoul, and Sigolbapsang in Goyang city.
Ven. Hongseung recommends temple food to prevent the kind of medical conditions that frequently hit adults, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Being vegetarian, temple dishes are more easily digested and contain a lot of fiber. “There is more food available than ever before, but bad lifestyle and eating habits lead to more diseases,” she said.
Some potential students ask her if they have to be Buddhist to take the class. She says she welcomes students of all religions.
The religious background to the course may not exclude non-believers, but it definitely influences students. Ven. Hongseung said that she once found that a former cooking student of hers had converted to Buddhism and was playing an important leadership role at a temple in Daegu.
“Most monks begin their religious training by preparing food,” she said. “My training was strict, beginning with washing dishes, arranging tables and making side dishes. When I reached a certain point, I was allowed to cook rice.” Cooking rice is considered the most difficult part of cooking to master and the most sacred.
“No matter how it’s prepared, rice tastes different every time. In temples, if the rice is overcooked or undercooked, it’s seen as a sign that the chef’s mind has not been sufficiently cultivated.
Ven. Hongseung had to wait six months before she was allowed to cook rice. She said this was faster than most monks, who normally wait eight months to a year.
Her cooking skills, she said, emerged quickly.One time, 40 monks were asked to slice potatoes into long, thin pieces ― her ability to slice spuds into thin sticks earned her a place in the temple’s kitchen.
“I think I inherited cooking skills from my mother,” she said, adding that her great-grandmother worked in the kitchen of the Joseon Dynasty court.
Korean food tends to be spicy, but temple food tends to rely on more natural and subtle flavors, which makes the preparation time longer than for regular dishes.
Green onion, garlic, onion, wild rocambole and scallion are off the menu, because of their reputation for boosting “male stamina,” which monks fear might distract them from their meditations. Less potent substances are substituted, such as tangle weed and shiitake mushrooms.
“Because those five ingredients aren’t used in the foods, the taste is plainer and light, with a clean aftertaste,” said Kim Young-mi, a housewife from the Bundang district in Seongnam who is taking Ven. Hongseung’s class.
“It’s wonderful to watch Buddhist monks only use natural ingredients to make dishes,” said Lee Shin-young, also from Seongnam. “Temple foods certainly have a long lasting aftertaste.”
“It is amazing that by not using the five ingredients, the foods taste more natural,” said Kim Hye-gyeong, another student. “The more I eat, the more I taste the original ingredients.”
Once the day’s lesson is over, the women sit around the sink and chow down on fried seaweed, roasted sweet groundnuts, boiled vegetables and wild greens. After an early lunch, they drank tea in a room with a little shrine at one end.
What’s Ven. Hongseung planning next? “I hope to pass on my skills to aspiring young students,” she said.
Temple food classes
offered in Seoul (3 months)
Yangjae-dong, Seocho district
Suseo-dong, Gangnam district
by Limb Jae-un