Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Temple Food

Every time when I visited my friend Mina's kitchen studio Sook in Chaiwan, I couldn't help but exclaiming how much I love this space inside an industrial building, so spacious, tastefully decorated and practical - exactly how I wanted my own kitchen to be. Of course, adding to that Mina was an excellent cook and always enthusiastic to share the skills or inspirations by hosting pop-up dinners with specific themes or kitchen workshops with friends over.

One I went to recently was of the theme of Korean temple cuisine. Earlier this year Mina travelled to South Korea's Baekyangsa Temple and spent a week with Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun who cooks at the temple (and gained worldwide fame after being featured in one of the episodes in Netflix's "Chef's Table" series). Coming back from that journey she hosted one dinner with dishes inspired by her visit in March, followed by another one a few weeks ago in mid-July. I missed the first one because of a schedule conflict but I was glad I could make it the second time around.

We huddled up around the open kitchen counter where some of the cooking actions were already taking place just as all of us began to arrive. I was amazed at the variety of ingredients and components that went into each dish, with the mis-en-place properly set up at the kitchen counter. And the dinner soon began as we slowly settled at the table next to the kitchen counter.

Dishes were presented one by one in sharing portion. There's nothing over fancy about the ingredients - Korean temple cuisine followed the doctrine of traditional Buddhist diet, which means meat, dairy products or even strong spices were forbidden. Vegetables and herbs were based on what's available in the mountain and in the wild, and various fermentation methods are widely adopted, just like conventional Korean cooking does, both for preservation and flavor. The first course of the evening was a simple bowl of black sesame tofu with pickled lotus roots. I loved the well-balanced acidity of the thin slice of lotus root served on top of the soft tofu with mild flavor.

The frugal cooking style also meant the ingredients were fully utilized without much leftovers - like the dumplings were wrapped with the skin of cucumber and shiitake mushrooms marinated with mulberry vinegar. At first we wondered where the dipping sauce for the dumplings were, but after a bite we realized we got all the flavor needed inside.

Most of the dishes were prepared without much extra seasoning, but that doesn’t mean the dishes must be bland. The Korean-fried shiitake was absolutely outstanding - done just like the famous fried chicken with a crispy (and sweet) batter and the rich umami taste coming from the shiitake mushroom itself. I could have munched on that all night long and call it a satisfying meal. The Jjangduk pancakes were the one we saw cooking on a frying pan earlier as we walked in. The greyish batter was mixed with taro, courgette, gojujang, bean paste and several types of flour with the slightly chewy texture very similar to pajeon except it's thinner and without filling. It looked plain but it's spicier than I thought and very delicious.

I saw the pudding-like dark-color strips sitting on the kitchen counter earlier and wondered what that was. Mina came to explain those were the traditional Korean acorn jelly, a delicacy often served cold as side dishes. But this time it became part of our salad towards the end of the meal with scores of other colorful vegetables including bell peppers, coriander and peppers that looked and tasted like Japanese shishito (except it’s narrower and longer), plus some roasted pine nuts on top which made all the difference in giving the dish a hint of smokiness.

The last course before dessert was a huge bowl of bibimbap served lukewarm with rice and more than half a dozen of vegetables. Some were more familiar like carrots or sweet potato shoots (my guess); while some were more exotic (that I didn’t even catch the names). Went well with a spoonful of gochujang on top and everything mixed together. Two flavor of mochi and sliced chamoe (the Korean melon) wrapped up our meal along with cups of hot Korean tea.

Overall that was an interesting experience. I didn't turn into an expert in Korean temple cuisine overnight, but at least I think I got a good glimpse of it to know more what it's about. It's natural to compare this with Shojin-ryori in Japan - they shared some similarities in terms of the cultural background and ingredients used, but turned out to be very different in style. In that context, looking at how religion played a part in the development of food culture would be a cool topic to explore further on.

When? July 13 2017
Where? Sook, somewhere in Chaiwan. =)
Menu Highlights? Korean-fried Shiitake

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Thank you for this wonderful write-up! I was so happy to have you and glad you enjoyed it! I know you're a tough critic! :)