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Temple food without the hassle

Sept 25,2019
Monks gather at the Korean Temple Food Center in Jongno District, central Seoul, to learn about different temple food recipes. A regular class is available to the public every Saturday for 10,000 won ($8.37). [CULTURAL CORPS OF KOREAN BUDDHISM]
Ever since a 2017 episode of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” featured Jeongkwan Sunim, or monk Jeongkwan, and her style of Korean temple cuisine, trying temple food has become a must-do for many travelers when visiting Korea.

As Korean monks abstain from eating meat, temple food is vegetarian friendly, but it generally excludes onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leeks, which are known as energy bolsters and could possibly give monks more energy than what they need during their daily meditation.

The cuisine eaten at temples uses all kinds of wild vegetables based on the season, given that traditionally, monks went out to the mountains to gather things to eat around their temple, instead of buying ingredients at a market or getting food from civilians in a local village.

Although the temple where Jeongkwan Sunim lives and works is hours away from Seoul, there are some temples and experience centers within the capital for travelers with limited time to visit so that they can get the full experience without the hassle.

The Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism has opened a program where locals and international visitors can try balwoo gongyang, an eating practice for Korean monks at the Korean Temple Food Center in Jongno District, central Seoul. The new program offers Buddhist style lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for 10,000 won ($8.37). It houses up to 15 people at a time, and a prior reservation is required. If the class is full, you can add yourself to a wait-list by calling.

Balwoo gongyang requires that monks get their food in a wooden bowl. They eat everything they get in their bowl and even drink the water that is used to rinse the bowl in order to not waste any food. Although participants are not necessarily required to follow the exact practice that monks do, one can learn about the ideas behind the practice.

For those who want to try temple-style food in a more familiar format, the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism also runs a Michelin-starred restaurant - Balwoo Gongyang in Jongno District, central Seoul - where diners can enjoy temple food dishes in a restaurant. Dishes are made with seasonal ingredients, but visitors don’t need to strictly follow the monks’ traditional eating practice.

If you want to learn more about how certain vegetables are seasoned and paired, you can also participate in a cooking class offered in English every Saturday at the Korean Temple Food Center.

The class starts at 10:30 a.m. and ends at 12 p.m. It costs 10,000 won to participate. An upcoming class on Sept. 28 will cover how to make sujebi, which is a type of soup with hand-torn noodles with lotus root and fermented bean paste.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

For more information about experiencing the traditional style of Buddhist eating culture developed in Korea, go to edu.koeatemplefood.com or call (02) 733-4650. Visit www.templestay.com to explore options to stay at a temple overnight in Korea.