Korean Temple food with Michelin Balwoo Gongyang

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Korean Temple Food is a spiritual practice, mindfulness eating, the age old practice of being in tune with nature and eating seasonally.

Korean Temple Food Balwoo Gongyang
Lotus Flower Tea

Temple Food in Korea is the daily food that is prepared and eaten in Buddhist temples. All the monks and nuns are involved in the planting and preparation of the daily meals. In temple food, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of not being attached to the food itself. Different ingredients are carefylly combined to teach a lesson of peaceful coexistence which reminds us that all humans are born of nature and ultimately returns to it.

They treat food as part of their Buddist practice and in a way, this is mindfulness eating at its purest. Food is a practice to empty one’s mind and to contemplate inward, not to satisfy hunger. Although out of context in a London drawing room, I don’t think we really appreciated this. I guess a temple stay is in order.

The food that is prepared is treated with reverance and everyone just takes what they need in their bowl. When they have finished eating, it is customary to add some water to the bowl, swill it around and drink the water. This is to ensure that not a single grain of rice is wasted.

In other parts East Asia, temple food is served in Buddhist and Taoist temples on feast days and special religious days. Everyone is welcome to join in the vegetarian feast and the food is usually free.

In the recent Chef’s Table programme, it was fascinating to watch the dedication and precision in the method and the preparation of temple food.

Balwoo Gongyang is a temple food restaurant in Korea that just received one Michelin star in 2017. Their team of chefs came over to London to showcase their cooking at the Korean Embassy. They served up 17 dishes of diverse and unusual flavours and textures using ingredients that we don’t see often in the UK.

Chefs for Balwoo gongyang Seoul
Chefs for Balwoo gongyang Seoul
Ambassador Park at the Korean Embassy Residence
Ambassador Park at the Korean Embassy Residence

All the dishes had their own distinctive flavours and textures. You can really appreciate the subtle flavours of each ingredient and they were in no way bland as the use of aged soy, fermented tofu and gochujang gave a lot of depth to many of the dishes.

Unlike regular Korean food, temple food is prepared without garlic or onions. Their version of kimchi is still flavourful without the addition of tons of garlic. They used an aged soy sauce for flavouring which they make themselves.

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These two teas are perfect examples of this unique cuisine. Not only do they have a spiritual function, they are delicious to drink and have medicinal values.

Lotus Flower Tea, in Korean temple cuisine, they use the whole lotus to represent “blossoming” of Buddhist enlightenment and it’s also the symbol of purity and rebirth. Warm water is poured over the whole lotus flower in a large bowl so that the petals spread out beautifully on the water surface.

The steeped blossomed lotus flower imparts a calming herbal aroma. from the root to the flower, the lotus is packed with different medicinal properties. The Lotus flower Tea is used to treat gastritis and insomnia.

Omija Tea uses omija fruit from the Scisandras plant, which is also called the ‘five-flavour’ berry for embodying bitterness, sourness and savouriness. The health benefits are to lower blood pressure, detoxify the liver and treat coughs and asthma.

Here are all the dishes they served.

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  • Acorn jelly with coriander soy dressed in 3-year fermented soy sauce and coriander. Coriander in temple food is as an ingredient to calm the mind purify the blood.
  • Napa cabbage kimchi with ripened persimmons using sea staghorn (or dead man’s fingers is algae gathered from the rocky shorelines of shallow coastal waters, used to help the kimchi retain its firm texture and simultaneously increasing the calcium and phosphorous content), 3 year fermented soy sauce and ripe persimmons resulted in a kimchi that is still hot, spicy and flavourful but without the punchiness that is imparted with garlic and fish sauce in that is used in the regular version.
  • Gingko nut skewer using gingko nuts, Chinese yam, seasonal root vegetables and beetroot, each element has medicinal values and in this case, improves the function of the lungs.
  • Stuffed lotus root kimchi is where they meticulous slice through thin slices of lotus roots and stuff them with seogi mushroom and dressed in a fragrant 10-year-old persimmon vinegar. A delightful mouthful of sweet, savoury, umami and crunchy. (Seogi mushroom is also called stone ear mushroom, a fungus that grows on rocks in East Asia.)

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  • Grilled tofu with burdock, dressed with soy sauce and rice syrup which helps to digest the tofu.Cucumber roll stuffed with Deodeok salad, a dish which includes deodok, pear, cucumber, pine nuts and natural sea salt.
  • Seasonal leaf wraps with rice are the temple version of Korean sushi. These lightly flavoured parcels are filled with rice, gochujang, doejang, soy sauce, gam-tae and vegetables. (Gam-Tae or ecklonia caviar is an edible brown algae species that grow in the ocean between Korea and Japan.) In Korea, they might use the Gomchwi leaf which is foraged from the forests. This highly nutritious leaf is what bears eat when they come out of hibernation. It must be great for humans then.
  • Temple dumplings with Ailanthus shoots filled with dried pyogo/shitake mushrooms, cabbage, carrots and courgette.
  • A variation on the regular Korean pancakes, this mung bean pancake with king oyster mushrooms, napa cabbage temple kimchi with ripened persimmon and bean sprouts was a delight.
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  • This is Balwoo Gongyang’s signature dish, deep fried pyogo (shitake) mushrooms and oyster mushroom puffs coated with sweet and spicy gochujang sauce and rice syrup.
  • Fermented tofu paste on endive, a dish that comes from the Joposa temple. famous for using the ancient techniques to make traditional tofu. Their tofu has been fermented in soy sauce for a year, then mashed to form this paste.
  • Cucumber kimchi with fermented 3 year aged soy sauce made with pears.
  • Grilled potato in perilla oil with jujubes and chestnuts that have been seasoned with 5 year aged soy sauce and rice syrup.
  • Shingled hedgehog or neungyi mushroom soup was an umami-rich clear soup. In this dish, they add radish, dried pepper and mung bean jelly. The monks drink this to ward off flu and is used as a general tonic. The neungyi mushroom is the most important medicinal mushroom in their diet.
Bugak snacks
Bugak snacks

Bugak snacks is what Buddhist monks eat to meet their daily nutrient needs. Seasonal ingredients like perilla leaves are lightly coated in glutinous rice batter, dried, then stored away for 1 year before being deep-fried and eaten.

Korean Temple Food Desserts
Korean Temple Food Desserts
  • Dried Persimmon roll with Boota seeds where the sweet seeds of the biota tree are rolled into the mashed paste of dried persimmons.
  • Pine Pollen Cookie A pine pollen and honey dough is placed into a mould and imprinted with a special pattern to make this traditional cookie.
  • Candied Apple Punch made with apples that are boiled down in honey water to create this punch.
  • Sweet Walnut Puffs, another popular dish at Balwoo Gongyang, with deep-fried walnuts coated with rice syrup.

For dessert, they served this stunning one year aged stuffed yuja (yuzu) dessert cocktail. The flesh of the citrus is mixed with jujubes, acorns and honey and stuffed in the peel.

Korean one year fermented stuffed Yuja cocktail
Korean one year fermented stuffed Yuja cocktail

About Balwoogongyang Restaurant
Balwoogongyang is the only restaurant in Seoul that serves temple-cuisine in Koreogye Order of Korean Buddhism serving traditional recipes handed down through Korean temples.

Balwoogongyang Restaurant
56 Ujeongguk-ro,
Jongno 1(il).2(i).3(sam).4(sa),
South Korea
Tel: + 82 2733 2081


EatCookExplore was a guest of the Korean Embassy

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