Two weeks ago, I was involved in producing an event to showcase Korean Temple Cuisine, a specialized cuisine originating from the culinary practices of Buddhist monks in Korea. There were no barbecued meats to be found. Instead, the tables were lined with plates of steamed lotus roots stuffed with multicolored rice, sprouts wrapped with paper thin sheets of pickled white radish and tied together with strands of chives, and rosy pink pickled vegetables sliced into precise uniform squares, just to name a few of the items in the spread of over 40 dishes.
Temple Cuisine is characterized by its refined presentations, innovative uses of natural ingredients (such as mushrooms, roots and vegetables), and profound respect for food. In accordance with the Buddhist spiritual philosophy, no animal products are to be used or consumed, and waste is discouraged.
The evening began with a reception in the foyer. An exhibition of photographs depicting daily life at the Korean Temples in Seoul lined the walls. Beneath the photos were displays of utensils and other objects used in the daily eating practices of Korean Buddhist monks.
Eating meals in the Korean Buddhist tradition is called Baru Gongyang, which literally translates to “bowl offering”. The action of eating meals is seen as an offering to Buddha, and the food is to be eaten in a set of wooden bowls and carried out in a orderly ritualistic procedure.
Baru Gongyang is a reflection of virtue and respect, and regardless of social or monastic stature, all participants sit and share food together as peers. Each person takes only as much as he or she can eat, and no food is to be left over or wasted. Even the water used to rinse the bowls should be consumed. The dinner did not require diners to engage in the full Temple experience, but these procedures and rituals were highlighted not only in the display but explained during the dinner, and guests were encouraged not to take more food than they could eat.
After months of planning and preparation, a culinary team comprised of five monks and two assisting chefs flew in from Seoul to cook this special dinner with the assistance of students from the Culinary Institute of America, French Culinary Insitute and Institute of Culinary Education, ladies from the local Korean temples in Long Island, and chef Youngsun Lee. Thanks to the collaborative effort of many nimble fingers and quick knives, the night was a success.
The comprehensive dinner program began with a dramatic dharma drum performance followed by speeches from the Most Venerable Jaseung President of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, Ambassador Young-mok Kim Consul General of the Republic of Korea in New York, Venerable Hyo-tan, Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi Food Journal and Venerable Myong Haeng. After the series speeches ended and the performances finished, came the part everyone was anticipating for. The food.
Here’s a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes and in the kitchen. Prep began the night before at a kitchen in New Jersey, and commenced again the morning of the event up until the start of the tasting. Here we go..
Tri-color Lotus Root Rice: lotus root, sticky rice, carrot, shiitake mushroom, sweet pumpkin, vinegar, radish juice, soy sauce and ginger. The rice is colored with gardenia seed juice, cactus powder and rock tripe powder.
Five Elements Gim-bap: Rice, fried tofu, burdock, carrot, pickled raidsh, spinach, dried shiitake, sesame oil, soy sauce, roasted sesame seeds, black bean sauce, black bean, and kelp rolled up in seaweed.
The theme for the night was “The Night of a Thousand Lotus Lanterns”. Lotus lanterns are prevalent throughout Korean Temples, since the lotus flower is symbolic of Buddha and the progress of the soul. The circular light fixtures were studded with lanterns to create the ambiance and long tables were set up, encouraging a communal dining experience.
While everyone was sampling the Temple Cuisine, the walls lit up with a preview of Charles Pinsky’s latest series, The Kimchi Chronicles with Jean-Georges and Marja Vongerichten, following Jean-Georges and Marja (who is half Korean) as they explore the culinary history of South Korea through food. The series is currently still being filmed in Korea, so keep an eye for it sometime next year.
That night, the guests saw a new side of Korean food and culture, and they left with tickled taste buds, full bellies and clean plates.
If anyone wants to attempt the Korean Temple Experience at home, I’d be happy to share recipes for any of the dishes, just leave a comment.