"A top 10 vegetarian/vegan food destination worldwide?"
We were fortunate enough to be able to make a trip to the Chunjinam Hermitage and Baekyangsa Temple, where the much-touted chef/nun Jeong Kwan resides and operates.
We were surprised to find only two nuns reside at the hermitage; Jeong Kwan and another nun, Miojin(spelling may be incorrect).
Alongside for the next year is Anne Lee, a Canadian-educated researcher currently putting together a proposal for Korean Temple Food to get Unesco designation as an intangible cultural heritage (which I would say it definitely deserves).
We were unfortunate in arriving at a particularly bad time; not only was Jeong Kwan away for two of the three days that we were visiting, we also missed the chef Kwang Uh who runs the critically acclaimed Baroo (Bon Appetit #5 New Restaurant in America 2016, Eater's "2016 Food World Obsession" National Award Winner) in Los Angeles, who will be staying there for the next 3 months.
Additionally; Jeong Kwan is teaching a class at the temple being attended by many of the top chefs in Korea on weekends.
The cost of the program is 150,000KRW per person, per day.
We only had one lunch with Jeong Kwan herself.
Compared to the food at Balwoo Golyang (recently awarded 1 Michelin star in the inaugural Michelin Guide for Seoul) the food was a large step above (I felt Balwoo Golyang was still very good, and definitely worth a visit if you're in Seoul).
If you can imagine for a moment putting your heart and soul into every meal you prepare, and doing it for 40 or so years -- cooking with the same basic ingredients and principles -- you will get a sense for the kind of meal you can expect.
The secret to the chefs cuisine, beyond mindfulness and the experience that so many years of mindful cooking has afforded the chef, is time.
The development of flavours, in doenjang (fermented bean paste, called "Korean Miso" at times, but I feel like that's a misnomer), soy sauce (rich with umami and the flavour of the doenjang which it sits with for 3-5 years, or longer), and syrups (berries and plums fermented with sugar, again for 3-5 years), is immediately palpable.
These flavours are combined with the omnipresent gochu garu, sesame seeds, sesame oil, perilla seeds, and perilla oil to form the foundation of a cuisine which is elevated while remaining true to its roots. The purest expression of Korean Temple Food I was able to experience, but when watching the chef cook, you can also see that it's really her expression of Korean Temple Food. There are no scales, no exact recipes, just taste and adjust, cooking on intuition.
Bean sprouts boiled in water and then mixed with sesame oil, soy sauce, Korean hot peppers and cilantro -- a simple combination, but done with a deft touch that made each bite beg for another.
Doenjangguk (soup made from the aforementioned bean paste) was the tastiest I've ever had. It was extremely rich and unforgiving -- some renditions in Western restaurants (and even in Korean restaurants) seem almost apologetic for the fermented flavour, trying to limit its impact, whereas Jeong Kwan's version was extremely forward.
Fried tofu with pickled sansho pepper -- the sansho is grown on the property, and when pickled the flavour was outstanding. Sweet, citrus, pepper, florals, all combined with each bite. I stole a bite at every opportunity, trying to remember all of the tastes. (not pictured!)
Tempura mountain and root vegetables are not served hot and crispy, but with a more rustic approach. They are extremely satisfying -- what you would imagine tempura to be when done in a temple food style (nourishing and wholesome).
A salad of mixed herbs and mountain vegetables is perfect. Dressed with soy, gochu garu, perilla seed oil and perilla seeds (or was it sesame?). As much as I try to recreate the flavours, it's hard to capture exactly what it was about that salad that stood out. It was fantastic.
Fermented plums (maesil), home-dried seaweeds, radish water kimchi, dehydrated and then fried potato slices, and korean peppers covered with doenjang after each bite were phenomenal accompaniments. Each was an exemplary version, and would have stolen the show at any of the other temple food meals we had across Korea.
While there was a large sign outside of our templestay room that suggested we do not discuss the quality or taste of the food while eating, there was no shyness from the chef -- who would take a bite of something and mutter to herself that it was delicious. We couldn't help but agree.
I am tempted to compare the food to some of the foods I have had elsewhere in the world -- Michelin 3 Starred, or World's 50 Best -- and yet I go back to that sign, and all I can say is: at this level, the food is beyond worth comparing.
You can only enjoy the clear dedication to craft that's been exhibited, and that you have the pleasure to experience that dedication, if only for one meal.
Sorry for the poor pictures, we thought we'd have another meal with her, and I was mostly trying to enjoy the experience (but couldn't help myself to take a few).
A visit to Baekyangsa would be phenomenal if you are able to spend time with the chef (and even if you aren't! Our two days without the chef were even better than the day we had with the chef, but not the same culinary experience). It's a little bit hard to coordinate, but if it's possible it's extremely worth the effort, trek, and price tag.
The added opportunity to visit with Miojin, a fantastic Buddhist and extremely warm person, is highly recommended (I'll probably make an extended post elsewhere on the entire templestay program, and I can link to it later if there's interest).
It's an extremely fascinating place, at an extremely fascinating time to visit -- where the turmoil of becoming an international sensation is mixed with Korean Buddhism, and where the struggles of secular realities are mixing fervently with an evolving Buddhist culture that is adjusting to those new realities -- backdropped by a gorgeous landscape and beautiful surroundings.
Another option to look into (though I don't have more information to share at the moment):
There are 4 designated Korean Buddhist temple food masters. We had a brief interaction with Woo Kwan, who made us a delicious pour over coffee (more on that in another post, maybe!), was bright and cheerful, and speaks English fairly well. I would have liked to spend more time with her, and if I can track down her whereabouts I'll share them here (she's at a temple in Gyeonggi/Incheon, I believe, but I don't have more info than that and couldn't find a relevant templestay program).
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