Meals in a Korean temple are as simple and unassuming as the serene alcoves in Korea where they take place. The food itself is unlike anything experienced in the Western world. Eaten by Korean Buddhist monks, the dishes are vegan and do not use impure root vegetables like garlic, onions, or shallots, while the recipes themselves are passed down for generations, or even thousands of years.
The Korean Cultural Society recently introduced New Yorkers to traditional temple food during its annual event at Lincoln Center, where a 14-course simple vegan meal was prepared by chef Venerable Jeok Mun, The current president of The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism Temple Food Research Group.
“Buddhism forbids obsession over anything, no matter how good it is,” explained Mun. “Once you become obsessed with something, suffering begins. Food is a source of sustenance and energy for our daily lives. Food therefore has an incredibly high possibility of becoming an obsession.”
Even with these limitations, the results of the careful, laborious food preparation in Korean temples are well-crafted and satisfying, if unassuming, soups and small plates like the lotus seed rice used to cleanse the palate between courses. A meal, Korean Buddhist monks believe, is meant to sustain the eater’s body and spirit, and not saturate the palate with complex flavors and spices. Therefore, each of the 14 dishes prepared had a purpose, whether to clear the mind like the creamy wisdom soup made with rice, red beans, sesame and peanuts, or the cleansing shiitake and tofu in green tea sauce.
“People lose their health as they eat more and look to eat delicious things,” said Mun. “We must strive to consume as little as possible because the more we consume, the less there is out there in the world. Practicing this self-control will eventually lead to self-control in other aspects of life.”
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Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi