It’s a cuisine revered around the globe, but few outside of Korea have gotten the chance to taste Korean Temple Food.
That is until the most famous monk Chef in the world, the Venerable Jeok Mun, flew from South Korea to New York City to cook this “enlightening” food for a select group of journalists, celebrity Chefs and culinary school students. The Chef also did cooking demos at the Fancy Food Show.
Chef Mun grew to love Temple Food as a child. He later spent three years visiting the temples across Korea to collect data on the 1700 year-old history of Temple Food. Mun then opened the “Korea Institute of traditional temple food culture’ in Seoul (in 1992). From 1993 until the present, over 10,000 students graduated from this institute.
Chef Mun has also starred in a number of cooking shows on TV and became the first monk to become an author of a traditional Temple Food cookbook. We wanted to hear more from this fascinating food personality.
Tell us a little about your culinary background and how you were first introduced to Korean Temple cuisine. What initially led you to promote Korean Temple Food?
I became a Buddhist monk during my teens; it has been over 40 years but I still live a devout life. Shortly after, I met an older monk at the Shin-Heung-Sa on the southern island of Wan-Do. Though we were strangers with an incredible age gap, he always had meals with me. Whenever we ate, he taught me about the meaning of food, dining etiquette, and the spirit of Korean Temple Food. These lessons had a profound impact on me and set a firm foundation for the rest of my life.
My interest in Korean Temple Food grew after meeting this older monk. In my early adulthood, I attended Jungang Sangha University in Seoul and created a group dedicated to learning about Korean Temple Food: its tradition, cooking techniques, and culture. My research has continued even after my graduation from Jungang Sangha University.
I first came to New York to teach about Korean Temple Food in 2010. I was accompanied by three experts from The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The Order believes that there is a contradictory disconnect between material wealth and people’s humility and happiness. As one consumes more and richer foods, one’s health steadily deteriorates. Therefore, obesity and other illnesses are common side effects. The Order thus determined that the best way to address these health concerns was to teach people about Korean Temple Food with the hopes that many more people would eventually find happiness.
The first principle of Korean Temple Food is to reflect on the meal and be thankful for the hard work, from both the cook who prepared it and nature that provided the ingredients, that went into it. The second is to consume the bare minimum amount in order to maintain one’s health because the more one consumes, the less there is out there in the world.
Furthermore, one must try not to be obsessed with taste and instead learn to be content. Third, consumption of meat is not suggested.
The goal of Korean Temple Food is to make up for the adverse effects of modern civilization. Thus New York was chosen as the location to teach people about it because New York represents a diverse area with multiple cultures, including cuisine, interacting with one another.
How did the idea come about to open the “Korea Institute of Traditional Temple Food Culture” and what are the core values that is taught?
The culture of Korean Temple Food is disappearing as modernization continues. It is therefore extremely important to preserve the culture and tradition of Korean Temple Food in order to pass it onto future generations. In order to do this systematically, we established the Korean Institute of Traditional Temple Food.
The Institute does two things. First, it researches Korean Temple Food. Second, it teaches people about Korean Temple Food through a series of classes open to monks and the general public alike.
You’re the only monk who studies and preserves the traditions of Temple Food. Why do you feel more monks do not practice this culinary tradition?
When you first become a monk at a Korean Buddhist temple, you learn to cook for those who come to the temple to meditate. Whether you are male or female, upon entering the temple you undergo the same process. Thus every monk in Korea can prepare Temple Food. Yet there are very few monks who have a deep interest in Korean Temple Food like me. Male monks are especially less interested. This is not to say that no one is able to prepare this food.
Simply put, there are not many monks who are interested as much as I am. Like I said before, the culture of Korean Temple Food is slowly disappearing. This is why I hope that everyone, monk or not, male or female, will take an interest in Korean Temple Food.
You prepare your meals as a form of practice and nothing is ever wasted. How would these techniques and practices translate into a restaurant looking to add Korean Temple Food to their menu?
Korean Temple Food is not wasteful. When preparing meals, leftover shells and roots are somehow incorporated into future dishes. Unusable parts are used as compost and recycled into the ecosystem.
The same principle applies when eating Korean Temple Food. First, you take small amounts of food that you can finish without having leftovers. Then, you pour water into your bowl and drink what remains. Thus if a Korean Temple Food restaurant was to open, then it must keep in mind these two principles. The kitchen must strive to limit waste and whatever waste does accumulate must be disposed of in an eco-friendly manner.
The restaurant must also create a program to educate their servers on the meaning of food and proper dining etiquette. It must also strive to teach its customers how to be thankful when consuming food as well as exercise self-control. They must also learn the meaning of sharing.
The restaurant should have a system of ordering according to one’s portion size. There would be benefits for those who do not leave any leftovers while penalties would be exacted on those who are wasteful. A food bank system would help to create a common attitude of working for the good of the public.