All from a bowl of mushroom soup?

You may be wondering why an unapologetic meat eater would be enthusiastic about vegetarian Buddhist temple cuisine.

Temple cuisine is a topic that the average Korean wouldn’t be able to tell you much about. It’s pretty exotic over here too.

My first experience with temple cuisine came from an article I was researching for a local magazine in 2007. One of the large temples was holding a tasting and meditation seminar, and I thought I’d check it out.

We sat in a large temple, on the floor. We learned some basics of meditation, and then came the food. The monk who was holding the seminar taught us not only about the food but how to eat it. I was facing a bowl of mushroom soup. He told us to close our eyes and smell the soup. Then, with eyes half closed, we slowly ate the soup while learning eating meditation.

I had never tasted mushroom soup like this before. We were in a Korean Buddhist temple, but I was being transported to crisp autumn mornings in my native Alabama. Walks through the woods. Memories I don’t remember having. All this from a bowl of mushroom soup.

From the past, the future of food

Even though this is the most traditional of Korean foods, it’s also ahead of its time. Just name a major food movement, and it applies to temple cuisine. It’s slow food. It’s local. It’s organic. It’s vegan. And it’s stubbornly seasonal. Even if temple cuisine is not your type of food, the messages it conveys are valuable to any meal.

The ideal diet from Buddhist scriptures starts with a breakfast of porridge for the mind, a lunch of solid food for stamina, and a dinner of fruit juice for fiber. You also shouldn’t sleep less than two hours after eating—something our doctors tell us all the time.

Temple cuisine stresses efficiency, something people in the restaurant business would appreciate. Waste is greatly frowned upon. If you cook vegetables in water, reuse that water in a soup or cook rice with it. And when eating there should not be any waste. There’s the rice bowl, some soup, and some vegetables. And when a monk is finished, he takes his water and swirls it around the rice bowl and drinks it. That’s why the best job at a Buddhist temple is the dishwasher.

It’s also very seasonal. But Korean cuisine itself is highly seasonal. I’ve heard that every two weeks there’s a special day to eat a certain dish. For Buddhists The Scripture of Golden Light advises to have spicy and astringent food in spring; slippery, hot, salty and sour food for summer; slippery, cold and sweet food for autumn; and slippery, sour and astringent food for winter. By slippery, I mean vegetables like seaweed, mushrooms and fiddleheads.

More vegan than vegan

Ideally there is no meat. Buddhism is about life, and you should never kill anything. One time I was eating at a temple restaurant during summer, and the happiest housefly was buzzing around. That had to be the luckiest housefly in Korea.

You should not kill your food whenever possible. And if you can help it, try not to kill any plants either. Just take what you can and keep the plant alive to produce more. Monks use the analogy that the bee doesn’t kill the flower to make honey. But this isn’t pure dogma. Sometimes meat is necessary depending on one’s constitution.

At its heart, it is locavore vegan cuisine, but it goes even one step further. Among the vegetables there are five forbidden veggies that incite anger when raw and sexual mischief when cooked. They are garlic, leeks, Chinese chives, and two other wild onions. It’s basically anything from the allium family—garlic and onions.

How can you cook anything without garlic and onions?

What we can learn from temple cuisine

This is where we can learn a lot from temple cuisine. The historical rule of food is when one is given limitations, creativity flourishes. All the world’s great peasant cuisines, including Korean, invented amazing dishes out of necessity. It takes a great cook to make something with limited ingredients. When I watch cooking competition shows, I think it’s cheating whenever a contestant breaks out the foie gras. It’s too easy. It’s not clever to just throw in luxurious ingredients and serve them. But when you get all that taken away, you are forced to look at food differently. And it’s from this that we realize that we neglect a lot of what nature has to offer.

As diners, temple cuisine teaches us to appreciate our food. Eating meditation forces us to slow down and enjoy each bite. When a temple chef cooks, she does it with a happy mind. It’s what we always say about soul food and Sunday dinner at an Italian grandmother’s—what makes the food taste good is the love put into it. That is at the heart of temple cooking. But this continues on to the eating part.

Eating Meditation

When you eat, try this. Close your eyes half-way. Ponder where the food originally came from. Think of its journey from the field, the forest, the sea, the mountain to the kitchen to the table. Think of the sun putting its energy into the food and the rich minerals of the earth absorbed into it. Ancient materials creating new life. Think about the people you love and the people you’re with. Think of the moment. Consider how everything, from a star far away in space to the ancient earth to the people who affect your life are embodied in the meal before you.

In eating meditation you are supposed to chew each bite forty times. Again, I think it’s a guideline. It does help the digestion, but the message is that we need to slow down and take each bite one at a time. We have a habit of thinking about the next bite or even finishing the whole dish without appreciating what’s currently in the mouth. You appreciate being alive and feeling alive through reflection. Eating meditation tells us to stop and savor. It could be temple cuisine. It could be a fancy meal. It could be a hamburger. But don’t try it with a Big Mac unless chemicals sets make you hungry.

Now, I’m still a carnivore, or rather, I’m an omnivore. I don’t think I could ever be a vegetarian, but Korea has taught me to put meat into perspective. I grew up thinking of meat as the big tumor at the center of the plate. But now I consider it a balanced player amongst a bounty of foods. I can eat vegetarian, even vegan, and be satisfied every now and then.

Temple cuisine has taught me to look at food in a different way. To appreciate what I have and to explore new food possibilities.

And that was a damn fine mushroom soup.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Adapted from a speech I gave in New York on behalf of the Jogye Order of Buddhists in September 2010.

We have been testing and are putting together a regular temple cuisine experience at Korea Food Tours soon. Stay tuned.

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