Culinary Journeys – Mihwangsa Temple, South Korea

A multi-part series exploring definitions of culture and cuisine, for inspiration from the new and respect for the old.

If you’re following along on our culinary travels, in part one we visited Jeonju, the birthplace of bibimbap and our jumping off point in South Korea. From there we took a bus to the furthest south Buddhist temple in the country, Mihwangsa. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the lunch in the bus station in Jeonju.

A squid ink sauce on buckwheat noodles with octopus, mushrooms and scallions. Of course there was a side of cabbage kimchi and pickled radish, because this is South Korea. This dish is the single most craveable meal I enjoyed in Korea. The closest I have come in reproducing the depth of flavor involves a heavy does of black garlic, coincidentally the largest processor of black garlic in North America happens to be based in Wisconsin. But this was to be our last taste of any animal product for a few days, as our retreat at Mihwangsa Temple adhered closely to Buddhist teachings. A truly idyllic setting, a Buddhist temple was been on this site since 749, set against granite peaks overlooking ocean views.

All cooking here follows the tenets of “temple food”, which is a vegetarian based menu with intentional avoidance of the five pungent vegetables – onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, and chives. Each meal features rice, the staple of all meals in South Korea, and then a set of sides prepared from fresh ingredients whenever available, many grown on site.

As Korea has four distinct seasons, as we do here in the Great Lakes region, they similarly found ways to preserve their harvest, so dried, pickled, and fermented foods have a prominent place in temple food. If you have an interest in further exploring the concepts of temple food, Wookwan’s Korean Temple Food is an excellent starting point or watch the Chef’s Table episode with Jeong Kwan which both hit the major points.

Fresh vegetables directly from the garden, prepared with salt, vinegar, and fermentation to add depth of flavor. The pot of rice is just off to the right of these three side dishes.

These lightly batter eggplant are shallow fried and then topped with sesame seeds. So simple and delicious. Most meals are not strictly silent, but they are quite subdued, as if each visitor was focused on the flavor of the rice and the texture of the eggplant. When your days are spent hiking on mountain passes and nights are joined in Buddhist prayer, life becomes very simple, and delicious.

Wookwan’s book opens with this quote:

As the many waters of the world

flow into the ocean

to become one taste,

all the flavors embrace

to become the taste of enlightenment

Wookwan

And after a dinner of delicious simplicity, we three are invited to join the abbot for a cup of green tea. The Korean way of tea shares some similarity with the reverence for teas in China and Japan, though perhaps simpler, more directly tied to nature. Here at Mihwangsa Temple, the water come from a stone basin, which collects water from a mountain spring.

As we sit cross legged on the floor, we watch and listen as the abbot explains the process of warming the water, warming the cups, brewing the tea, and then serving. Brother Anthony of Taize explains the sensation this way:

The taste of the first cup of tea, made with water that is far below boiling point, on a palate freshly awakened, is so intense, so unexpectedly rich and varied, so indescribably frangrant, that from that day on the only question can be: “When shall I be able to go back and drink that tea again?”

-from “The Korean Way of Tea”

Just water and tea leaves. So simple, so delicious. I’m reminded of how often we take a perfectly delicious vegetable from the farmers market, and our first thought is how do we cook this, season this, add more to this? When are first question should be – How do we clear away the clutter to allow this vegetable to shine? Since our trip to South Korea, vegetable have found a much more prominent place as center of plate. Two, three, or even four different vegetable preparations may make their way into a meal. The bounty of our harvest in the Great Lakes region makes this approach to cuisine natural.

So our journey has taken us from a flavor explosion of squid ink and octopus to the simple joy of tea leaves. What comes next swings us full-scale into flavor delirium – Seoul.

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