Korean Temple Food

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Seasonal and slow cooked. There’s no denying the magic that South Korean monks bring to their food. A cuisine made from more than just culinary skills, but from the heart and soul. Traditionally, food offered to religious entities before being offered to humans was considered ‘temple food’. In the Western world it is typically associated with the food of Buddhist monks. As Buddhism spread, the monks gradually made the switch from begging for alms to preparing their own meals, and thus was born the temple cuisine, ‘sachal eumsik’.

Korean Temple Food

What Is Temple Food? 

Holistically, temple food is vegetarian fare (excluding the onion family) consisting of fresh, natural, and seasonal ingredients. Minimal spices are used, and zero-waste cooking principles are adhered to. Not just the physical aspect, temple food calls for active involvement of the emotional facet too. It is believed that the energy a cook brings to the kitchen is elemental to the food being prepared.

Virtues & Tastes

Monks acknowledge the significance of both the flavour and quantity of food as nourishment for the body and mind. This attitude is reflected in the concepts of the “three virtues in foodstuffs” and the “six tastes of food.”

The concept of the “three virtues” maintains that foodstuffs should be: salutary, promoting sound bodily functions; clean in terms of both hygiene and edibility; and in accordance with the Buddhist law, which prohibits the consumption of meat and the five pungent vegetables (garlic, spring onions, leeks, chives & asafoetida). This concept, which manifests a positive view of cooking and realistic approach to cuisine, serves as a practical reference for Korean temple food.

The concept of the “six tastes” supposes that all food falls in one of six taste categories: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and insipid. While these classifications assume that each taste has equal status, Korean Buddhism lays more weight on insipidity, a fundamental taste embracing the individual qualities of all the different tastes of ingredients to produce a well-balanced flavour. 

Rituals

The mealtime ritual begins with putting the right amount of food into the bowls of each individual. When the food is served, the monks can either ask for more or take some out of their bowls depending on how much they can eat. It is a rule to consume all the food in the bowl without leaving even a grain of rice or a speck of red pepper powder. By doing so, the monks control their desires in terms of the amount or taste of the food. As a daily routine as well as a religious ritual, this mealtime custom is commonly practiced in East Asian Buddhist communities, but in content and practice the Korean version embodies its own ideas and rules.

The food offered to the monks is not for them alone. Consequently, after reciting the pre-meal chant, they take seven grains of rice out of their bowls for the beasts, birds and insects. It means that taking a meal is not an individual undertaking for the monks, but a communal event with other living beings. 

Furthermore, the food is shared not only with earthly beings like humans and animals, but also with beings in the ‘other world’, including dead parents, grandparents and other relatives. This idea is expressed by reciting three different verses for the dead throughout the meal. At the end of each meal, the bowls are washed with water without a single speck of food left behind, except for some water for the ‘hungry ghosts’ that is gathered in a collective vessel.

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