The 1,700-year legacy of Korean temple cuisine

“Whenever I go to the mountain, I can see all the edibles out there. They are everywhere.”

WooKwan Sunim wandered across a mat of decaying leaves and browned pine needles, careful to keep her shale-grey robes clean. For those who know what to look for, the tangled forest surrounding Gameun Temple, near the South Korean city of Icheon, is packed with edible treats. Each year, ginseng roots hide in the dark loam beneath vivacious sprigs of emerald leaves and carmine berries; clusters of velvety oyster mushrooms (songi beoseot in Korean) bloom from the decay of fallen trees; and spicebush branches burst like fireworks with the yellow blossoms known as ginger flowers.

A nun of almost 40 years, WooKwan is a master of Korean temple cuisine and often returns to Gameun from her foraging forays laden with sprigs of fresh pine needles, wild artichoke hearts, feather-light cherry blossom, fat ginkgo seeds and perky lotus leaves, to pickle, ferment, dry or salt for use at a later date. No matter the season, the land dictates the menu at Buddhist temples across Korea, where an organic, vegetarian, zero-waste approach to sustenance is older than the temples themselves.

“When you join the nun or monk life, you start to learn temple food, because we eat it every day,” said WooKwan, who was born into a Christian family and followed that religion before discovering Buddhism almost 40 years ago. She learned the ways of the faith and of temple cuisine from lamas in New Delhi and Seoul, before settling into a peaceful life at Gameun to perfect her craft.

“In the world, the best food is, in my opinion, Korean temple food,” said WooKwan. Coming from anybody else, this would sound like bragging. However, she mentions this merely to balance the caveat that “Korean temple food is not a perfect cuisine”, more a work in progress. “In Korea, there is an image that temple food is not tasty, but good for health.”

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