What is Korean Temple Food? Learning about Vegan Korean Food from Chef Ji Young Kim

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet and talk to Chef Ji Young Kim, a Korean chef who has made a name for herself by elevating the simple vegan food of the Buddhist temple to a Michelin-starred level. During an evening at the Korean embassy in London, I tasted a range of beautifully prepared Korean temple food dishes, and learned more about the tenets of this cuisine.

Balwoo Gongyang in Seoul

Chef Ji Young Kim is the head chef at Balwoo Gongyang, a Seoul restaurant operated by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Driven by the Buddhist rules of temple food, balwoo gongyang refers to the act of eating as part of practicing discipline and self-control. The restaurant refers to itself as a ‘Buddhist cuisine experience center‘ with an aim of promoting Buddhist culture and the practice of balwoo gongyang. It serves healthy vegetarian dishes, and provides visitors with lessons on mindful eating, how to appreciate food using all five of the senses, and urges them not to waste any food.

Korean Temple Food

Before the launch of  Balwoo Gongyang restaurant, the public perception of Korean temple food was of a bland and boring cuisine, especially given the lack of pungent aromatics such as garlic, onions, and chives that are common to non-temple Korean cooking.

But Chef Ji Young Kim has found ways of introducing a real depth of flavour to traditional temple foods by way of temple-made and aged chilli pastes, soy bean pastes and other condiments.

Ingredients are used seasonally, but often preserved for use at other times of year, using techniques such as infusing, pickling, fermenting and dehydrating. There is a strong focus on natural herbs, greens, fruits, vegetables and flowers found around or nearby to the temple.

Talking To Chef Ji Young Kim

With the help of a translator, I had a wonderful one-to-one interview with Chef Ji Young Kim to find out more.

Chef Ji Young Kim of Balwoo Gongyang Buddhist temple restaurnt in Seoul, and Kavita Favelle from Kavey Eats The World

Please can Chef Ji-Young Kim describe the key differences in Korean temple food compared to the rest of Korean cuisine?

The biggest differences between Korean temple food and ordinary Korean food is that we don’t use any animal products, seafood or shellfish and we don’t use the five pungent ingredients, the onions, green onion, garlic, leek and chives.

Kimchi is a food that Koreans eat every day. It is typically made with pickled fish, garlic and onions which are ingredients that Korean temple food doesn’t use so in the kimchi that we make, instead of the pickled fish we use jang (sauce) after a fermentation process, and no garlic or green onion.

How did Chef Ji-Young Kim come to learn about and specialise in Korean temple food and how did she elevate this to a Michelin-level experience?

Because I’m a Buddhist, when I was younger I would visit the temples and have grown up eating Korean temple food since I was a young girl.

When I first began to learn to make temple food it was fifteen years ago. Back then it was more just a rational learning, and although I understood this food was very good for you, I always thought it was a bit bland. After that I spent ten years learning very different, spectacular, royal court cuisine and western foods and after those ten years when I came back to Korean temple food again, it really satisfied the different dilemmas and thirst I had for food that is not just pretty or tasty but could really fulfill people’s hearts and souls.

I decided that this is the food I’m going to make my life and became really immersed in it.

I think in a way that when I making food for other people there’s a confidence I have that this will provide something for them whether it’s health benefits or something else.

And I think the reason why we got to a place where the restaurant received a Michelin star is not because I’m any good but because I think there was a lot of focus on Korean temple food at the time and the restaurant Balwoo Gongyang just happened to be able to get it back then.

I have read that Balwoo Gongyang refers to the act of eating as part of practicing discipline and self-control, by taking time to eat, to appreciate the food using five senses. Can Chef Ji-Young Kim give some ideas on how one can use all five senses during a meal?

As you explained, Balwoo Gongyang refers to how Buddhist monks and nuns eat food, a way of eating as part of their practice, regardless of your age, how old or young you are, your status high or low, everybody eats in a very equal way. You take as much food as you are going to eat without wasting any at all, and adopt a mindset of being economical, and of approaching eating food with cleanliness and equality.

You also think about where the food comes from. For example when you have rice, think about how a farmer uses his hands; they touch the rice eighty-eight times before it can even be harvested, and then of course there are many other stages before that rice comes to us. It’s about understanding and approaching food with gratitude, and bearing in mind the hard work and generosity of many others who have come before you in order to get the food there. This is what is meant by using all of your five senses when you are eating.

Looking at the ingredients that you use, it’s obviously a very seasonal cuisine. Is there a particular time of year that’s harder than other times of year…? And is the preservation of ingredients (such as the preserving by pickling and dehydrating) a response to the need to extend seasonal ingredients?

I think you know Korean temple food very well! In Korea we have four seasons, spring summer autumn and winter, and of course Korean temple food varies depending on the season because you have different ingredients.

But also depending on the season the same food will have very different nature to it, for example radish that you get in the summer is much firmer, more bland and less refreshing, whereas the radish that you harvest in the winter is softer and more tasty. So the way you cook even the same ingredients is different depending on the season. In the summer you need to boil the radish for a long time whereas in the winter you need to cook it for less time to make it soft and tasty. If the radish outside is frozen during the winter, you can dry it and try to use it in a different way in order to make food.

As you mentioned, because there are less ingredients available in the winter time, all the different methods of preserving and drying and storing food for a long time have really developed a lot. This is also consistent with the Buddhist teachings not to waste any food at all. In the past, when you had temples in the mountainside, ingredients were also hard to obtain, which is why even more so, these preservation methods were developed.

The Menu

Korean Temple Food - Omija Tea

Omija Tea

Omija Tea – a honey-sweetened infusion of omija berry, also known as the ‘five flavour berry’ for it’s sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and savouriness.

Korean Temple Food - Acorn Jelly with Coriander Soy Sauce

Acorn Jelly with Coriander Soy Sauce

Acorn Jelly With Coriander Soy Sauce – handmade acorn jelly is dressed in soy sauce and coriander that has been fermented for three years.

Korean Temple Food - Cucumber Kimchi

Cucumber Kimchi

Cucumber Kimchi – this non-spicy kimchi has been fermented in a 3 year-old soy sauce made with pears.

Korean Temple Food - Deep Fried Mushroom Puffs coated wtih Sweet and Spicy Gochujang Sauce

Deep Fried Mushroom Puffs coated wtih Sweet and Spicy Gochujang Sauce

Deep-fried Mushroom Puffs Coated With Sweet And Spicy Gochujang Sauce – shiitake and king oyster mushrooms flavoured with paprika and bell peppers, vinegar, rice syrup and gochujang.

Korean Temple Food - Fermented Tofu Paste on Endive

Fermented Tofu Paste on Endive

Fermented Tofu Paste On Endive – the tofu used in this dish is from Joposa Temple, famous for using ancient techniques to make traditional tofu. The tofu is fermented in soy sauce for a year before being mashed to make an intense paste, served a fresh leaf.

Korean Temple Food - Gingko Nut Skewer

Gingko Nut Skewer

Ginkgo Nut Skewer – ginkgo nuts are skewered with seasonal root vegetables Chinese yam and beetroot.

Korean Temple Food - Grilled Potato with Jujubes and Chestnuts

Grilled Potato with Jujubes and Chestnuts

Grilled Potato With Jujubes & Chestnuts – potato and jujube fruit are seasoned with 5 year aged soy sauce, rice syrup. The potatoes are cooked in perilla oil.

Korean Temple Food - Grilled Tofu with Burdock

Grilled Tofu with Burdock

Grilled Tofu With Burdock – soy sauce and handmade rice syrup are used to help the body digest the burdock and tofu.

Korean Temple Food - Mung Bean Pancake

Mung Bean Pancake

Mung Bean Pancake – these crisp fried pancakes are made from ground mung beans, king oyster mushrooms, bean sproutes, and napa cabbage kimchi made with ripened persimmons.

Korean Temple Food - Napa Cabbage Kimchi

Napa Cabbage Kimchi

Napa Cabbage Kimchi  With Ripened Persimmons – Instead of the usual kimchi ingredients of garlic and fish sauce, sea staghorn, 3 year-fermented soy sauce and soft, ripe persimmon fruit are used to give flavour to the kimchi of napa cabbage, radish, and mustard leaf. Sea staghorn is an alga gathered from rocky shorelines along the coast, and help to make the kimchi firmer, as well as increasing the calcium and phosphorous content.

Korean Temple Food - Neungyi Mushroom Soup

Neungyi Mushroom Soup

Neungyi Mushroom Soup – This soup is eaten by Buddhist monks to ward off seasonal flu. 3 year-fermented soy sauce, radish, dried pepper and mung bean jelly give additional flavour and fragrance to the mushroom soup.

Korean Temple Food - Seasonal Leaf Wraps and Rice

Seasonal Leaf Wraps and Rice

Seasonal Leaf Wraps And Rice – this trio of leaf wraps with rice and seasonal vegetables are flavoured with soy sauce, doenjang, and gochujang. There is also a garnish of gam-tae (ecklonia cava), an edible brown alga species from the ocean between Korea and Japan.

Korean Temple Food - Stuffed Lotus Root Kimchi

Stuffed Lotus Root Kimchi

Stuffed Lotus Root Kimchi – the lotus root is pickled in 10 year-aged persimmon vinegar. It has been stuffed with seogi (stone ear) mushrooms, pine nuts and soy sauce.

Korean Temple Food - Temple Dumplings with Ailanthus Shoots

Temple Dumplings with Ailanthus Shoots

Temple Dumplings With Ailanthus Shoots – the filling of these dumplings is made from  aulanthus shoots, rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, cabbage, carrots, and courgette flour.

Korean Temple Food - Bugak (Ginseng-Korean Mint-Purple Perilla Chips)

Bugak (Ginseng-Korean Mint-Purple Perilla Chips)

Bugak (Ginseng-Korean Mint-Purple Perilla Chips) – served as dessert, these crackers are made from glutinous rice flour, ginseng salt, gochujang andsoy sauce. Once made, they can be stored for several months before being deep fried to be eaten.

Korean Temple Food - Dried Persimmon Roll with Biota Seeds, Pine Pollen Cookie, Candied Apple Punch, Sweet Walnut Puffs

Dried Persimmon Roll with Biota Seeds, Pine Pollen Cookie, Candied Apple Punch, Sweet Walnut Puffs

Sweet Walnut Puffs – deep fried walnuts coated with rice syrup, and rice.

Pine Pollen Cookie – a pine pollen and honey dough is pushed into a mold to imprint the traditional pattern for the cookie.

Candied Apple Punch – apples are boiled in honey to create the punch.

Dried Persimmon Roll with Biota Seeds – seeds from the biota are rolled into a paste of dried persimmons.

Korean Temple Food - Preserved Stuffed Yuja Citrus

Preserved Stuffed Yuja Citrus

Preserved Stuffed Yuja Citrus – the flesh of yuja citrus frut is removed, mixed with minced jujubes, acorns and honey, and then restuffed inside the peel. The whole yuja is then preserved for a year.

Korean Temple Food - Lotus Flower Tea

Lotus Flower Tea

Lotus Flower Tea – the lotus flower is a Buddhist symbol of purity, enlightenment and rebirth. It creates a very subtle infusion.

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Learning about Korean Temple Food with Chef Ji Young Kim of Balwoo Gongyang Buddhist temple restaurant in Seoul

With gratitude to Chef Ji Young Kim, the Residence of the Korean Embassy, the translator, and Emma at William Murray.

Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!
37 Comments to "What is Korean Temple Food? Learning about Vegan Korean Food from Chef Ji Young Kim"

  1. michele h peterson

    The cuisine by Chef Ji Young Kim is not only fascinating in its innovation but each dish is a work of art. That lotus flower tea is beautiful as well. It’s all quite different than the Korean food we see here in Canada!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, very different from the Korean food here too. It was beautiful and delicious.

    Reply
  2. Priya Iyer

    I have often wondered about the vegetarian/vegan food that Buddhists must eat. This is a topic that has always fascinated me. It’s great to see this chef elevating Buddhist temple food to a Michelin-star level! 🙂

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I’ve tried Buddhist monk food in a temple in Japan, which was very simple and delicious, but very different from these dishes. It was fascinating to see the way Chef brought flavours into the food by way of fermenting and aging sauces and condiments.

    Reply
  3. Danielle Wolter

    I knew nothing about korean temple food before I read this. How interesting. The dishes all look so wonderful, I am a big fan of all things fermented, especially with fish.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    It was really initiating to learn about the concept of mindful eating and seeing how she achieved such flavour with vegan ingredients, any no pungent aliums. No fish in this case though I agree with you, I love it as an ingredient usually.

    Reply
  4. Rachelle

    I love the concept of temple food. So pure and clean. There’s a show on Netflix called “Chef’s Table,” and in season 3 they did an episode about Jeong Kwan, who is also a Buddhist nun. Her cooking has captured the attention of a lot of world-renowned chefs, including Eric Ripert. Reading through your interview with Chef Kim reminded me of that. I’ve seen the Lotus Flower tea preparation and it is simply beautiful. Simple. Amazing. I’d love to try the Stuffed Lotus Root Kimchi!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I need to watch this, I missed it! You’re the third person that’s recommended it in response to reading this! Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Jane Dempster-Smith

    I am yet to travel to Korea and to enjoy their cuisine. Temple food excites me and I would love to enjoy the delights from Chef Ji Young Kim. Your photos were amazing. The food presented artistically and beautifully.

    Reply
  6. Sarah Puckett

    Sounds like a really special experience getting to sit one on one with the chef! The food also looks delicious. Normally when I think of Korean food I think of meat so it’s fun to learn about the veg food!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, I was very fortunate to be able to do that! It was delicious, and very unlike the everyday Korean food I’m familiar with.

    Reply
  7. Jori

    What an amazing experience! How lucky you are to have spent time with her and learn so much. The food looks fantastic!

    Reply
  8. kaveyeats

    Yes, none of my grandparents ate onions, garlic as these are considered tamasic from an Ayurvedic perspective.

    Reply
  9. Blair villanueva

    I love Korean foods especially the Kimchi it’s a good antioxidant as well. You are so lucky to be trained by her. Would you make an Indian-Korean food combo?

    Reply
  10. Martina

    What an awesome and healthy cuisine! All the food looks really really delicious and it seemed to be very healthy too. Hopefully I can try some one day.

    Reply
  11. Camilla Hawkins

    What a wonderful selection of dishes, I have never had any Korean food let alone Temple food sadly but can imagine what a wonderful experience this must have been!

    Reply
  12. Sierra

    Her food is beautiful and so intentionally made! I love the Lotus tea- how so very gorgeous! I especially love how she encourages eating with all five senses and focusing on the process that our food takes to get to us. This mental process definitely encourages gratitude.

    Reply
  13. Daniel

    I knew very little about Korean temple food before reading this, so I really appreciated this post. The Lotus tea looks so pretty and Instagrammable too! All the food looks really really delicious and from what I heard, very healthy too.

    Reply
  14. Clarice

    This is good to know. I have no idea what it means when they say its Korean temple food. The sweet walnut puff and the candied apple punch looks really delicious.

    Would make sure to try them when I have a chance.

    Reply
  15. Mei

    Before reading your post, I imagined Korean Temple food to be something between “traditional” Korean food and Chinese Buddhist food. But it’s actually quite different! To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the “traditional” Korean food… two days ago I just tried a bibimbap for the first time. It looked so good in the pictures, but when served and mixed, it was for me just a plain rice sauté with chili sauce! haha… However, Chef Ji Young Kim’s dishes here look way more interesting. So I’d definitely like to try Korean Temple food someday! Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  16. Helen

    Wow – everything looks and sounds completely delicious! Navigating Asian food as a vegetarian can be a challenge so having a completely vegan menu would be perfect – I shall have to look out for Korean temple food in future.

    Reply
  17. Medha

    I love the idea of a Buddhist Cuisine Experience Centre and I think its not only a creative way for a restaurant to market themselves but its also something that I can relate to – food doesn’t have to just be about food, to know the history, the relation to the culture, etc can be helpful too. I am very impressed by the chef who managed to raise the level of simple Buddhist temple food to that of a Michelin-star restaurant!

    Reply
  18. Darah

    I definitely don’t have any discipline and self-control when it comes to food. I also love garlic and onions to an extreme but I think eating at this restaurant would be eye-opening and (honestly) a good experience for me. It’s great that Chef Ji-Young Kim elevated Korean Temple food from being bland to an experience everyone can take part of and enjoy.

    Reply
  19. Candy

    So interesting that temple food does not use the five pungent ingredients, which by the way, are my favorite. Those are key ingredients in Kimchi (which I eat weekly), so it’s interesting how they still eat it but use different ingredients. I would love to try their version of kimchi.

    Reply
  20. The.Holidaymaker

    I would love to be able to experience that. Being a vegetarian, not vegan, I do appreciate the mindfulness of cuisine. Interesting post. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  21. Heather

    I have never heard of Korean temple food and did not know it was a separate thing. I do like Korean food. Good for her for developing it into a Michelin star. That isn’t easy! I would most like to have the Lotus flower tea, the dumplings (YUM!) and the Omija tea!!

    Reply
  22. Emmalene

    Wow, that is some selection! I think I’d definitely struggle cooking without onion or garlic! Yet she has clearly developed the most incredible dishes – and that lotus tea looks so beautiful!

    Reply
  23. Amber

    Korean temple food looks amazing. I am such a foodie so this would be a dream to try all of these dishes. I think my favourite would be the Candied Apple Punch!

    Reply
  24. Lara Dunning

    Really interesting post and I like how in-depth Chef Ji-Young Kim goes to explain the types of food and even how vegetables (like the radish) are cooked differently based on their season. She is very humble, as I’m sure one of the reasons the restaurant got a Michelin star is because of her understanding of the ingredients and her skill.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I agree, she was so humble, and yet such an engaged and warm person to interview! I loved her outlook!

    Reply

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