"I focus my mind by making noodles"
November 26, 2015 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Korean Buddhist temple cooking has been preserved by Buddhist nuns for over 1,600 years. One of its practitioners, Jeong Kwan, has been celebrated by chefs such as Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin in New York City. Korean temple cuisine is vegan, made without meat, fish, dairy, garlic, or onions. Layers of flavor are achieved through use of fermented, pickled, and dried ingredients. The preparation and consumption of the food are seen as part of Buddhist practice.

Not all meals at Buddhist temples involve over 25 different dishes. Balu-gongyang is a communal meal practice unique to Korean Buddhist temples:
Balu-gongyang begins with the three clapping-sound of jukbi (a bamboo instrument), and the diners first offer a pre-meal half-bow and a sacred chant. Participants sit in the lotus position on the floor and do not speak or make noise during the ceremony. The participants then neatly unfold the wrapping cloth and arrange the four bowls on the place-mat, removing the spoon and chopsticks to place them on the smallest bowl. With another jukbi clap, the servers pour water in the bowls, and the participants rinse each bowl in sequence, leaving it in the smallest bowl at the end. The rice, soup and side dishes are then served, and each takes as much food as one can eat. When everyone has been served, a silent prayer is offered, and one begins the meal in full concentration of the present task. A piece of kimchi is rinsed in the soup to be used for cleaning the bowls at the end. As the end of the ceremony nears, a jukbi clap announces the serving of tea, poured into the empty rice bowl. The remaining piece of kimchi is used to clean the rice bowls, and the liquid is poured into the soup bowl and the side dish bowl for cleaning. Leaving the bowls spotless, participants then drink tea and eat the last piece of kimchi.

The water poured in the beginning is used for the final rinse of the bowls, using the fingers if necessary. The final rinse is poured into a bucket for inspection, and if the head monk finds a speck of food, the diners are expected to drink the left-over cleaning water. If the final rinse is clean, the water is poured out in front of the dining hall in a symbolic offering to the Hungry Ghosts.
posted by needled (12 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
I learned to cook at a Korean Buddhist temple. This food is central to my life.

I don't have anything else to add, but I'm really glad you posted this.
posted by 256 at 5:06 PM on November 26, 2015 [14 favorites]

Easily the best Korean food I've had in the 20 years since I first came here is at a little restaurant along the Sumjingang river about a 20 minute drive from my place. It's a beautiful little wood-beam place that serves almost-but-not-quite temple food (one of the three dishes they make is a broth that includes the miniscule shellfish that are a regional specialty), run by a quartet of elderly women. It is simple and sensational. My wife and I go about twice a month.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:45 PM on November 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

We had a glorious meal at a Buddhist temple in Mendocino county, CA. 256, I only wish I knew some of the recipes the nuns cooked, they were wonderful. I'm envious of you!
posted by LN at 6:01 PM on November 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oryoki is the Japanese Zen form of this communal meal practice.
posted by kokaku at 6:23 PM on November 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm a 22 year vegetarian, a 10 or so year Buddhish gent, and some of the best food I've ever had was as Buddhist temples. Thanks for this!
posted by nevercalm at 6:45 PM on November 26, 2015

Anybody who visits Korea should try a temple stay at some point. And yeah, good food.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:58 PM on November 26, 2015

Neat, I didn't know Korea had a significant vegetarian tradition; I love the flavors of Korean food but haven't ever gotten to be too adventurous because so much of what's available in restaurants isn't very veg-friendly.

It interested me that they don't cook with onions/garlic. I always thought of this as something specific to various South Asian traditions-- did it get passed down from there through Buddhism?
posted by threeants at 7:33 PM on November 26, 2015

Neat, I didn't know Korea had a significant vegetarian tradition;

I used to visit Hangawi in NYC quite regularly. It's a Korean vegetarian restaurant, and judging from my Korean and Korean-American friends' reaction, they didn't know either.

The onions and garlic thing is an East Asian Buddhist tradition. Consumption of the "Five Pungent Vegetables," which includes onions and garlic, is discouraged because they're believed to cause excitement.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:30 PM on November 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I believe avoiding onion and garlic is also a Jain and Hindu practice, among people who meditate seriously, and for the same reason (they excite the mind).
posted by Aravis76 at 3:40 AM on November 27, 2015

> judging from my Korean and Korean-American friends' reaction, they didn't know either.

That your Korean friends did not know about the vegetarian tradition of Korean Buddhist temple food was surprising to me - I thought it was one of those things you learn by osmosis growing up Korean in Korea, like knowing about jesa. Given the deep impact of Buddhism on Korean history since its introduction in the 4th Century, not being aware of Korean Buddhist traditions feels almost like deliberately cutting oneself off from a large chunk of Korean history.

Personally I have childhood memories of Buddhist nuns with their shaved heads and gray robes coming to our door with their begging bowls. And my aunts taking me along to Buddhist temples, bowing and kneeling repeatedly as part of their Buddhist prayers. I recall far humbler meals than the ones described in the linked articles, though. Over 25 different side dishes sounds rather extravagant. My mother used to order doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste) from a Buddhist temple when she wasn't watching her salt intake and doenjang was a larger part of her diet than it is now.
posted by needled at 10:48 AM on November 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not that it matters, I guess, but I forgot to mention that there are monks eating at that restaurant I talked about each and every time we visit, which kind of confirms my conviction that it is especially good and temple-practice compliant food.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:55 PM on November 27, 2015

Traveling in China (not Korea, but relevant), we found it extremely difficult to communicate the fact that we didn't eat meat. It seemed that we had to explicitly list all the types of meat we didn't eat, rather than just saying we didn't eat it. Once we learned how to say "we eat like monks," this all changed. The lack of aromatic vegetables was a bit of a bummer, eating was much simpler!

In cities, all the temples (Buddhist and Taoist) had vegetarian restaurants which were great.
posted by deadbilly at 5:39 PM on November 29, 2015

« Older In a beautiful pea-green boat   |   false testimony occurred in hundreds of trials... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments