New Yorkers know kimchi, table-side barbecue and other mainstays of Korean cuisine, but few are familiar with the vegan cooking traditions long nurtured in Korean Buddhist temples.
At the Taste of Korean Temple Food on June 12, the healthy vegan fare eaten by Korean Buddhist monks was the focus of a night of food and education hosted by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea and the Korean Cultural Service New York.
Korean monks eat only the minimum amount of food required to keep their bodies functioning, never overeating. Instead, they think of food as medicine for enlightenment.
Because the monks believe that food should be a direct product of the earth, their meals are strictly vegan. The preparation of their food is also governed by strict guidelines that prohibit the use of ingredients such as garlic, leeks and carrots, which are said to promote passion.
With so many restrictions, one may expect Korean temple food to be bland, but each of the dishes prepared by chef Dae An, of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, and her staff was incredibly flavorful.
The meal began with a small dish of potato noodles served in a thick cucumber sauce and a small salad with a mild but distinctly nutty sesame oil–based dressing.
The next course, spicy fried mushrooms and a buckwheat pancake stuffed with green and red peppers and kimchi, blew us away. Both dishes, despite being fried, were light, refreshing and amazingly flavorful. The mushrooms were slightly spicy and still crunchy, while the mild pancake offset the mushrooms’ bold flavor.
Our main course was presented in 10 different bowls. That may sound like a lot of food, but each portion was tiny—just enough for us to take in each dish’s flavor and feel satisfied.
Among my favorites, the spicy sesame-leaf pancake was studded with crunchy bits of carrot and red pepper. It tasted like an Asian-inspired crab cake, though it was completely meatless.
The bamboo shoots, which had the consistency of thick noodles, were also a standout. The shoots, which were lightly coated in a peanut-sesame sauce, were cooked just enough to be soft while still retaining their natural crunch.
I expected the rice in my bowl to go untouched, but this was no ordinary rice. It was mixed with non-glutinous millet and was some of the fluffiest, most flavorful rice I have ever eaten. Not a grain was left in my bowl.
At the end of the meal, I left feeling full but light—even energized—and wishing that the fresh and uniquely delicious cuisine of Korean Buddhist monks was easier to come by in New York City.