Centuries before farm-to-table dining became a thing or before anyone started calling themselves a vegan or a locavore, there was sachal eumsik, Korean temple cuisine. At its simplest, temple cuisine refers to the food that generations of Buddhist monks and nuns have prepared over the centuries: As such, it is completely vegan, devoid of any meat, seafood, dairy and even spices like garlic and onions.
But temple cuisine asks for more than just a plant-based diet. It’s an entire philosophy that is in harmony with Buddhist traditions — calling for simplicity, oneness with nature, serenity. It’s about taking care of the body as a way for taking care of the mind and spirit.
And yet, while temple food has been known to improve well-being, it slipped into obscurity — for a while, at least. Over the past few years, temple cuisine has become the underlying food philosophy behind some of South Korea’s hottest restaurants, including the two-Michelin starred Mingles.
Its influence hasn’t ended there. World-renown chefs have submitted themselves to the tutelage of Buddhist nuns and monks to learn about sachal eumsik, and the tenets of temple cuisine have undoubtedly, if silently, shaped the rarefied strata of fine dining.
Venerable Wookwan, a Buddhist monk and temple cuisine expert, tells us a little bit more about cooking and eating practices in the jogye order of Korean Buddhism.
Q: Tell us more about Korean temple cuisine.
It’s a cuisine that reflects the tenets of Buddhist monastic practices. The food is prepared without the five pungent spices and vegetables — onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leek — which are said to hinder spiritual practices. Based on the belief that no life should be sacrificed for one’s own survival, no meat, fish or shellfish is used either. The cuisine harmonizes the changing of the seasons with traditions of the various local regions. Some dishes include bibim-guksu (spicy noodles with assorted vegetables) and bugak (Korean temple vegetable chips).
Q: And how does mindfulness tie into everything?
Mindful eating refers to appreciating food as per the Buddhist practices, rather than consuming out of temptation. You’re being thankful for the providers and the people preparing the food, who are also enabling you to commune with others.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Smile magazine.