A mouthful of peace

‘Temple cuisine' is the new craze in South Korea, as followers love its healing and calming properties

AFP | FEBRUARY 09, 2013, 01:08 PM IST

A centuries-old tradition of Buddhist cuisine, with strictbars on foods linked to lust or anger, is enjoying a revival in South Korea,one of Asia's most high-stress societies. "Temple food," as it isgenerally known, is moving out of the temples and monasteries and intomainstream restaurant culture, attracting a loyal following for its deceptivesimplicity and health-giving properties. Among its most skillful practitioners-- and ardent promoters -- is a 54-year-old monk, Jeokmun, who has devotedseveral decades to refining what he sees as a meditative diet that feeds bothsoul and body.

At his modest Sudoksa temple in Pyeongtaek City, about 60kilometers south of Seoul, Jeokmun teaches his techniques to an attentive classof a dozen students -- mostly middle-aged housewives. Shaven-headed with a round,tanned face, the monk shows off his knife skills as he dexterously chopscucumbers and bell peppers and cuts delicate slices of soft tofu. His recipesfor the day include tofu sauteed in plum-sauce, mushroom casserole, radishkimchi and noodles mixed in chilli sauce and vegetables.

"Temple cuisine means low-calorie dishes that make yourbody healthy and your spirit clean," Jeokmun said, as he makes finediagonal slashes across the tofu slices to allow the plum-and-soy sauce flavourto penetrate. Apart from a few dairy ingredients, temple food is largely veganin nature and incorporates an impressive variety of wild roots, herbs andvegetables.

Its new-found popularity is partly attributable to thesearch for a healthier diet in a country which, like other Asian nations thatexperienced rapid economic development, has growing levels of obesity anddiabetes. As well as eschewing artificial flavourings and additives, templecuisine also bans such vegetarian staples as chives, leeks, scallions, garlicand onion -- known in the Buddhist traditions the "five pungentvegetables".

"The wisdom is as follows," Jeokmun explained."Eaten cooked, these vegetable may incite the libido, while eaten raw theycan set the mind to anger and greed." South Korea is the world's thirdlargest producer of garlic and a passionate consumer of the same.

For many Koreans, the absence of garlic from"kimchi" -- the iconic national dish most commonly made of fermentedcabbage -- is unthinkable. But Jeokmun sees no room for compromise. Years ago,as a student reporter at a Buddhist college, he had been shocked to seescallion, garlic and even artificial flavour enhancers being widely used in thekitchens of many temples he visited.

Determined to bring the cuisine back to its roots, he setout on a nomadic life, visiting temples with renowned Buddhist chefs andlearning their recipes. In 1992, he launched a Korean temple food institutewith like-minded monks and nuns.

In an effort to spread the message, he has taken part innumerous TV cooking programmes, given lectures and written several books,including one with 227 recipes that was published in 2000 and is now in itssixth re-print. Jeokmun believes his food has wider appeal, including forforeigners who can have difficulties with standard Korean cuisine -- known forits liberal use of salt and spice.

While South Korean TVs, fridges and mobile phones have beenexported with enormous success around the globe, Korea's highly distinctivecuisine remains relatively unknown. In recent years, the government has invitedoverseas chefs to special "gourmet weeks," as it seeks to give Koreanfood the same exposure as Asian cuisines like Chinese, Thai and Japanese.

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