It’s hard to deny that religion and food go hand-in-hand – how many religious observances do not include talk of food, whether consuming it or abstaining from it? Yet, we tend not to think of those devoted to religious life as particularly gourmet. The gastronomic monk is not one most people have met, but in fact strong culinary traditions can be found in monastic pockets around the globe. Attractions unto themselves, some of these monasteries open their doors and dinner tables to travelers, so you too can eat like a monk.
In Korea they call the process of communal monastery dining ‘Balwoo Gongyang,’ which sounds more like a rare and terrifying diagnosis than something you’d actually want to do, but don’t let the name discourage you. Of course, many temples forbid outsiders, but one place offering the monastic experience to tourists is the Buddhist Magoksa Temple in Gongju. The meal itself? Soup, rice, and local, seasonal vegetables served in four woodenbowls, meant to signify the four classic values of Balwoo: equality, cleanliness, thrift, and togetherness.
Leave it to the Japanese to bring monastic dining to its most exquisite expression. At the seventeenth century Zen Buddhist Kanga-an Temple in Kyoto, the 13-course local, seasonal vegetarian meal is served on flatware made by local potters, a different set used for each season. Seasonality is very important in the creation of the meal, and also Zen cookery emphasizes a balanced use of yellow, red, white, blue, and black represents a harmonic universe. Think trays of colorful squares intricately put together using plant materials like lotus and bean paste that look more like dessert than a first course.
A monastic meal can also be a great way to sample simple, local ingredients and dishes, and at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the food is also free. Meal-minded visitors to this 16th century shrine are expected to remove their shoes and cover their heads. Plates and spoons are handed out as guests wait for the next vacant spot amidst seemingly endless rows of diners enjoying freshly made flat, whole wheat, chapati bread, and dal made of local onions, peas, garlic, red chilies and lentils served from enormous buckets.
You’re really more of a beer drinker? Head over to Brussels then, where the monks at six Trappist monasteries lead a modest life in search of the divine, and brew a wide variety of craft beer which rank among the world’s best. At the abbey of St. Sixtus in Westvleteren, cases of their blond and dark batches are so internationally sought after, and made in such limited numbers they must first be reserved by phone.
While all of these culinary options would be a treat for an adventurous traveler, usually the making and serving of the food and drink is an expression of spirituality for the monks. Of the heavenly bourbon fudge that comes from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Brother Albert Kane says, “We pray and we work. And in the midst of a day of fudge, it feels like prayer.” Amen.