Since Buddhism was introduced in the South Korean peninsula 1,700 years ago, the Buddhist temple cuisine has been a part of the country, especially in recent years.
Vegetarian food is considered one of the healthier types, not only appearing in temples, but as time goes on, more vegetarian specialty shops are popping up in cities.
Recently, 51-year-old nun Da An, chef of the Korean Buddhist Temple (of the original Buddhist way of wandering and begging for alms) talked with The Epoch Times about unique temple cuisine.
Epoch Times: Would you say the typical person views temple food as healthy?
Nun Da An: Yes. It can be classified under the category of healthy eating. Normally in my cooking class, I say that it’s the most wonderful in the world, as is having good eating habits.
People have different tastes. However, temple food is not about taste, and also meat is not eaten. Therefore having this kind of attitude about food creates fewer problems.
Modern society produces a great quantity of meat; for example, a lot of chickens are killed. So what’s done with the chicken skins and feathers? What can they be used for? Temple cuisine solves such an issue, creates little waste, and avoids using the five spicy vegetables.
ET: I think Buddhist cuisine, like Korean cuisine, has good flavors and colors. I found a lot of color in the ingredients.
DA: Yes, carrots retain their orange color, and each vegetable has something to preserve. Those very things that need preserving are called antioxidants.
For example, spinach should never lose its color when prepared. All vegetables should retain their color. This way of cooking is related to the Buddhist religion with the idea of respecting life, and the five colors and five elements are highlighted—we call this harmony and balance.
ET: Are the five types of nutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins—from modern day science taken into consideration when cooking?
DA: We don’t take that into consideration, we are Easterners. Eastern culture is a culture of qi, basically fermentation—but Westerners don’t explain it the same way. Westerners talk about how many calories are in a dish and what ingredients are added.
In the East, that’s not how it’s viewed. We feel the sensation of qi within the food. It has a more detailed, deeper explanation. We can’t forget that we are Asian; it can’t be denied, because it is a question of genetics.
Since Buddhism was introduced 1,700 years ago, traditional culture cannot be separated from Buddhism. Our ancestors ate mainly vegetables, and we do too. If we ate meat as a staple food, all of a sudden, our bodies would not accept that.
ET: Can illnesses be healed eating temple food?
DA: You can say temple food has a supportive effect. Not because it’s temple food, but because it is vegetarian. Also, temple food does not use the five spicy vegetables; it is significantly less irritating to the human body, which makes it a more natural and pure food.
ET: In recent years, Korean society has opened many restaurants that serve temple food, and menus have many dishes that were developed from Buddhist temple food. To what extent can we consider those dishes authentic?
DA: If it uses the five spicy vegetables, then it’s already been changed.
Fried sea cucumbers and other fried foods are not authentic. Korean gastronomy did not originally deep fry—foods were sautéed. Some traditional sweet dishes when prepared, after frying are mixed with seasonings. Those too can be considered traditional dishes.
Fried shiitake mushrooms smothered in a chili sauce, like how Korean sweet dishes are made, although fried with oil, follow the traditional form. It’s not a simple fry; it’s not like Japanese food or batter-fried foods you dip in sauces.
ET: There is the rule of not using the five spicy ingredients, but there are no parameters for measuring that rule. People like to cook according to their tastes. For example, some people like to cook with a variety of ingredients, or they like very strong flavors. Can you cook what you like?
DA: That is not permitted here.
At the start, some cooks liked to cook that way. For example, some liked to highlight the presentation, to make it nicer looking. When I see that, I tell them that is not the way it’s done. A Buddhist kitchen should bring out the beauty in temple food, use moderation in seasonings and presentation. If not, then it wouldn’t be temple food, it would be Korean people’s food, it would be mixed.
Yet, they do it their way, and after a while, they realize they’ve veered from the standards of temple food. Why? Because supposedly the food they made is temple food, but after processing, it becomes Korean food. They themselves realize and say, “Ah! What you said has deeper meaning. I will now cook as you say.”
ET: Popular culinary temple food is not the same as food that is eaten in temples. Previously, the food eaten in temples were seasoned wild vegetables, there was no concept of the culinary.
DA: Yes, in fact, temple food is also Korean food. Basically, the main staples are rice, vegetables, and vegetable broth. The variety is very similar to Korean cuisine. There are seasoned wild vegetables, some breaded and sautéed in oil, and soup. These are what we refer to as main dishes.
We solely emphasize that if it is a cold dish it is eaten cold, and if it is a hot dish, it should be eaten when it’s hot. Everything is placed on one table, and almost everything is eaten cold. The variety differs by temple.
Continued on next page: Popularizing temple food…