“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the fox counsels the little prince in the Saint Exupery classic that’s always been within reach ever since I read it as a schoolboy. This thought was uppermost in my mind last evening as a friend recounted his Zen-in-a-bowl experience of sitting down for a meal prepared by monks in a temple in South Korea.
Korean Temple cuisine evolved in the 4th century when Buddhism spread from neighbouring China to Korea and assumed a distinct expression as Korean monks sought to resolve the perceived inconsistencies of the different traditions of Buddhism they inherited. As the Seon or Zen lineage came to be most prevalent in Korea, the temple food that found its roots in Zen practise assumed an elegant, principled sensibility - vegan, seasonal, local and organic.
Since most monasteries and temples came to be founded in the mountains or the countryside, temple cuisine incorporated Korea’s plentiful wild vegetables, roots and herbs such as wild greens, spinach, beet, leaves, bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms, bean sprouts and lotus roots into its repertoire. Garlic, leeks, chives, onions and scallions, feature on the list of forbidden vegetables, because it is believed that when eaten raw, they incite anger, and when eaten cooked, distract the mind from meditation. In their absence, black sesame, mountain herbs, homemade vinegars and ripened pears come into play, floral fruit extracts replace sugars and natural seasoning with ground mushrooms, ground sesame and ground raw beans take precedence over artificial flavouring.
Korean temple meals are, in essence, a practise to focus us on the invisible essentials. The point of the meal is to think about our food and how it embodies the principle of compassionate interdependence. Nuns and monks cultivate and prepare the food as a form of mindful meditative practice, reflecting on where it comes from, who harvested it, who cooked it, eating for health in proper portions and not wasting even a single grain of rice.
Experience the epiphany as Chef Vikramjit Roy, inspired by Korean Temple Food, renders afresh the subtle vegan palate of Korean temple cuisine and its earthy and crisp flavours in an exclusive experience at Tian - Asian Cuisine Studio, ITC Maurya. Discover modern interpretative creations such as black sesame porridge with Korean wild rice, kochujang mousse with textured vegetables, nimono of vegetables with fresh beans mash, vegetarian ‘lion’s head’ soup with oroshi and mushrooms, steamed lotus stem stuffed with sweet rice and coconut, among other delicacies that aspire to create a transformative experience for the body and soul.