Nutritious temple food for body and soulWith skin as white as snow and dimples that show when she smiles, it’s hard to believe she’s already 50 years old. When asked if she gets her good looks from eating only temple food, the monk smiles and waves her hand modestly, saying no.
The Buddhist monk Daean is the head of Baru, a restaurant opened by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism last June to popularize temple food. Public interest in temple food has increased in recent years, as knowledge of its benefits as a healthy, vegetarian diet has become more widespread.
As a result, Venerable Daean has a busy schedule that keeps her going nonstop. During the week she gives lectures about temple food at Dongguk University in central Seoul and many other places around the country.
“Temple food is slow food, and at the same time soul food,” she said. “It is made with ingredients that are grown in the right kind of earth and with the right kind of weather. Because the plants are well taken care of, the person consuming it will also feel good in both body and soul.”
The menu at Baru is similar to a traditional temple menu, but it also takes some unconventional twists of its own, featuring dishes that are more colorful and creative than traditional temple fare. It’s enough to make one wonder if it’s alright for temple food to be so flamboyant, and so tasty. After all, the Buddha taught his disciples to rid themselves of the desire for food.
“It’s just stubborn to think that temple food can’t be delicious,” Venerable Daean said. “In Buddha’s days, people had no choice about what to eat. But now, things are different. There’s no reason for monks to try to lose our sense of taste, especially when we only consume limited [or certain] ingredients. We can teach ourselves self-discipline through food.”
She has a reason for being so confident. She herself had been suffering from hyperthyroidism but was cured after she began following a diet that included wild vegetables gathered from mountains and fields.
What worries her now are the businesspeople who grab packages of triangle gimbap (rice wrapped in seaweed) on their way to work, so she is planning to sell gukbap (rice boiled in soup) for 1,000 won (85 cents).
“If Baru makes a profit from serving temple food to the public, then it’s only right to give it back to the people,” said Daean. “Giving back is the spirit of Buddhism,” she explained.
Temple food is always served on baru, which are “dishes that hold the right amount.” In the past baru were ceramic or made of metal, but these days, dishes made of wood are popular. Baru usually come in sets of four or 15. The most widely used baru set consists of four pieces for water, a side dish, rice and soup, and most monks usually have their own set. The dishes are made through a long process that takes well over a year. Most baru are made of a sturdy but light wood such as gingko, ash or alder. The dishes are first carved and then left to dry for a year. Then the dish is reshaped and sanded and finally the lacquer is applied. High-quality baru are varnished nine to 12 times. Kim Eul-seng, a government-registered intangible asset in North Jeolla, and Kim In-gyu, an artisan who makes traditional wooden tableware, are particularly famous for their dishes.
Meanwhile, the largest baru manufacturing facility is in Namwon, North Jeolla, but the dishes are also sold at Nonghyup Hanaro Mart in Yangjae-dong in southern Seoul, which has shops for traditional arts and crafts. A 15-piece set is priced at up to 500,000 won ($433).
By Lee Ka-young [email@example.com]
Left: Temple food expert Seonjae ladles soy sauce from a jar at Bongnyeong Temple in Suwon, Gyeonggi. Soybean products are essential to temple cuisine.By Kwon Hyuk-jae