Temple Food and Taboo Food 사찰음식 및 오신채

Happy birthday to you ~
happy birthday to you ~
happy birthday, dear B…Buddha!
happy birthday to you~

In case you didn’t know it, yet:

April is THE birthday month. 🥳🎂🎉

For reasons unknown to me, a majority of people is born in this month. Even Buddha’s birthday (with reference to the historic figure Siddhartha Gautama) is celebrated in spring:

This year, 30 April 2020 is a public holiday commemorating Buddha’s Birth or the Arrival of Buddha (seokka tansin il 석가탄신일 釋迦誕辰日 / bucheonim osin nal 부처님 오신 날) in Korea.* [🆕Update: Due to Covid-19, most corresponding events have been postponed to 30 May 2020.]

To prepare for the upcoming birthday ceremony, Buddhist temples have been putting up lanterns and other special decorations for weeks in advance! Now is the time of the year that temples in Korea are extraordinary colorful and magnificent. There are normally [= pre-Covid period] grand festivities at individual temples as well as public processions through the city! Some people travel to (distant mountain) monasteries, whereas others watch the parade of the Lotus Lantern Festival (yeondeung-hoe 연등회 燃燈會) from inside the buzzing crowds of the capital Seoul.

Wherever you spend the celebrations, whether Buddhist devotee or not, it is a feast for all senses: You can perceive a diversity of colors, beautiful flowers and strange creatures, exotic sounds, the scent of incense, lively cultural treasure and… food.

Of course, food! [This website is a food blog, after all!] Consequently, this article focuses on Korean temple cuisine.

Vegan? 🌱 Culture enthusiast? 🇰🇷 Interested in Buddhism? ☸️
👉 Then you have to know about temple food! ✅✅✅

Here is a general introduction to Korea’s temple food along with some insight into its eating customs in a Buddhist context.** After all, there are many aspects about it, for example the prohibition of certain ingredients! It’s a question of “what” or rather of “what not” to eat!

So first things first…

What is Korean temple food?

Simply put,*** temple cuisine in Korea is characterized as follows:

  • no animal-based ingredients
    [Honey may be an exception.]
  • no “pungent vegetables” (mu-osinchae 무오신채 無五辛菜) [Detailed information below!]

In general, foods that are either served at a Buddhist temple or which is prepared without the banned ingredients mentioned above, are labeled as “temple food”. In Korean language, this category of food is frequently called sachal eumsik (사찰음식 寺刹飮食) or sachal yori (사찰요리). In a religious setting, on the other hand, a Buddhist meal is referred to as gongyang (공양 供養), which is a word that simultaneously denotes food offerings to Buddha or Buddhist deities.

So what does temple food look like? Basically, it’s traditional Korean food that does not contain certain components. A wide range of foods is still available: Rice🍚, noodles🍜, dumplings🥟, jellies🍮, nuts🌰, beans🥜, mushrooms🍄, seaweed🌿, fruits🍇 and vegetables🌽 etc…. All kinds of plant-based foods!

In accordance with the concept of nonviolence (Sanskrit: ahiṃsā), food prepared in a Buddhist context is largely*** produced from plant-based ingredients. Honey (perhaps because of health benefits attributed to it) may be an exception in Korea, which is why labeling it as 100% vegan would be imprecise.

Besides the consumption of animal flesh, there are several activities and other types of food which are also avoided in Korean Buddhism. Regarding eating, Buddhist, Daoist as well as Sattvic teachings claim that certain ingredients exert a negative influence on the body.

Modest meal featuring spicy kimchi, beans and perilla leaves at a Buddhist hermitage on Jirisan (지리산) in 2017.

The critical ingredients are referred to as the “Five Pungent Vegetables” or osinchae (오신채 五辛菜) in Korean. Although the exact composition of this group varies by location and culture, plants from the botanic family Allium, whose most prominent representatives are garlic and onion, are always included. Additional members of the group may be asafetida (heung-geo 흥거 興渠; Ferula assa-foetida), as well as hot chili peppers.

Regarding Korea, however, mu-osinchae (무오신채 無五辛菜; literally “without osinchae“) means most of the time that the food does not contain garlic as well as any type of onions and chives.

What happens, when you eat those forbidden foods? One theory is that they inhibit your ability to concentrate. Another ascribed side effect is that they make you aggressive and lose your temper more easily. If you compare this to ancient Western medicine, which designated garlic as a natural aphrodisiac, there seems to be a correlation with previous statements. [Arousing certain desires… distraction… 🤔] If you connect the dots, you can understand why especially Buddhist monks and nuns are advised to refrain from consuming these foods. [Focus on studying to attain enlightenment! 💡]

What is osinchae 오신채? Which vegetables belong to the Five Pungent Vegetables in Korea?

Despite the religious belief that their consumption “clouds the mind”, Allium plants are widely propagated in secular spheres of Korea’s eating culture. [Ironically, studying is valued highly as well as pursued intensely in Korea!] In fact, with the exception of temple cuisine, Alliums seem to be ever-present in Korean food: From the most basic seasoning, to the main component of a certain dish and the final garnish, ingredients such as garlic, onion and scallions contribute largely to the characteristic flavor of contemporary Korean food!

These are the Five Pungent Vegetables which are frequently listed in Korea:

  • 🧄 garlic – maneul 마늘
  • 🧅 onions – yangpa 양파
  • 🌱 scallions – (dae)pa (대)파
  • 🌱 garlic chives – buchu 부추
  • 🌱 Korean wild chives – dallae 달래

In fact, there are many more edible plants belonging to the Allium family, and Korean cuisine features more than those five! Species of Allium are easily confused, so let me briefly introduce you to the most typical ones in Korea. Some of these vegetables may seem very familiar to you already, but let’s try to clarify their characteristics!

🧄 Garlic 마늘 – Allium sativum

It is toxic. 💀 At least for vampires, certain animals and germs… 🧛‍♂️🧛‍♀️🐕🐈🦠 Besides its renowned smell, garlic is also known to possess anti-septic properties and is attributed various health benefits. Everyone seems to know garlic, right? Some people love it, others hate it.

Do you know to WHAT EXTENT many Koreans love garlic?

Anyone who has ever been to an authentic Korean barbecue knows how some Koreans consume entire cloves of garlic. Raw. Pickled. Roasted. Any way you can imagine!

Anyone who has ever done grocery shopping in Korea, knows that garlic is sold in bags of peeled cloves or big bushels of garlic. Only available in large quantities.

Did you know that Koreans even consume the flower stalks? These so-called maneul-jjong (마늘쫑) bear the same distinct, garlicky taste and smell, but bring a different texture and color into the dish!

🧅 Bulb onion 양파 – Allium cepa

Think you know onions? Think again.

First off, onions are not simply onions! What you may consider as a “common onion” is actually the “Western onion” (yangpa 양파 洋) in Korea! Scientifically referred to as Allium cepa, this plant develops bulbs, which are round or spherical and grow underneath the soil. Their shape, size, flavor, level of pungency and color differ by cultivar. You may have seen bulb onions in various colors, with yellowish brown, light pink, purple or silvery white skin. Accordingly, there exist so-called yellow onions, red onions, white onions etc.

🌱 Green onion / scallion 파 – several species of Allium

If you hear “green onion”, the topic switches to those parts of the plant that grow above the ground. Other words like “scallion” or “spring onion” are also used when talking about the leaves of onion plants in English language. However, these names are used interchangeably for plants that are different species of Allium, e.g. Welsh onion (Allium fistulosum) or simply sprouted bulb onions (Allium cepa). Confusing? Botanically imprecise. 🧐

This is what Koreans do: The greens of onions are referred to as pa (파). And then the names change according to the size of leaves or of the entire plant. The big variants are called daepa (대파) with reference to the Sino-Korean character 大 (dae) for “large”. Smaller and younger scallions which have thin leaves are called silpa (실파), because 실 can be translated to “thread”. But then there is also jjokpa (쪽파), which is distinctly smaller than daepa yet different from silpa. And now it seems to get complicated again…

According to Wikipedia, jjokpa is a hybrid, which was cultivated from the bulb onion (Allium cepa) and the Welsh onion (Allium fistulosum). Their botanical baby is scientifically named Allium × proliferum, other names are tree onion or Egyptian onion.

Anyways, all kinds of pa (including the “Western pa“, aka bulb onion) are widespread and very prominent in regular Korean cuisine, ranging from seasoning sauces, green-colored toppings, kimchi to savory pancakes.

By the way, try not to confuse these various types of scallions or onion leaves with leek (Allium ampeloprasum). Again, this is a different specie of Allium and at present, leek is not common in Korean cuisine.

🌱 Garlic chives 부추 韭菜 – Allium tuberosum

If you live in a Western country, you are familiar with chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

If you live in (East) Asia, however, you are more familiar with what’s called garlic chives, oriental garlic, Asian chives, Chinese chives or Chinese leek. [Many names have been given to it!]

But the Western names for this plant, which is common in several Asian cuisines, may be misleading… The taste of this plant is very different from regular chives! Its smell is described to be reminiscent of garlic, yet these are not the leaves of garlic plants. This is a plant on its own, whose scientific name is Allium tuberosum.

In China, it’s called jiǔcài (韭菜), and in Korea the standard name is buchu (부추).**** Buchu is a very affordable vegetable and it is used generously in Korean cooking. Most prominent is its use as the main ingredient in savory pancakes called Buchu-jeon (부추전), a classic and veggie-friendly Korean dish! There is a variety called “yeongyang buchu” (영양부추) which is smaller and, judging by its name, is supposed to contain more nutrients than the regular buchu.

Different to chives, which have round leaves that are hollow, the leaves of buchu are flat. Those Western chives are called golpa (골파) in Korean, but they are currently still somewhat rare in Korea.

🌱 Dallae 달래 – Allium monanthum

Occasionally referred to as “Korean wild chives”, this plant is less established in English-speaking spheres, yet. It is a species of Allium that is native to the Korean peninsula, where it is called dallae (달래).

It is one of Korea’s spring greens, which are available only during this time of the year. You can identify dallae due to its size, the long narrow leaves and pearl-like bulbs, which are actually tiny onions.

Dallae can be eaten in its entirety – that means leaves plus bulb – either chopped up or simply left whole! Some Koreans eat the hair-like roots growing from the bulb as well.

Where can you find temple food? How do you eat it?

After learning the basics of temple cuisine and understanding its prohibited components, do you want to know how to find Korean temple food?

Many large Buddhist temples in Korea possess an area called Gongyang-gan (공양간), which combines kitchen and dining hall. It may be restricted for the general public and be limited to monks and people working on the facilities. But some temples grant access for meals at certain times of the day. Places which allow outsiders tend to offer food in a self-service manner: Each visitor can fill a plate or bowl with rice and vegetable side dishes at a buffet. At other places, you receive a bowl filled with pre-made vegan Bibimbap (비빔밥).

Although you are not required to have Buddhist faith, there are some guidelines with regards to eating at a temple. Please be respectful and note the following guidelines:

  • Check the temple’s schedule for eating times
  • Be quiet and enjoy the meal in silence.
  • Eat everything, leave no food waste.
  • Wash your own dishes after eating.
  • Leaving a donation is common courtesy.

In addition to that, you may observe people putting their hands together before and after the meal, which is a gesture displaying gratitude.

After all, a more convenient or accessible place to get a taste of Korean temple food may be a restaurant. If you are in Seoul, you can visit restaurants specializing in temple cuisine – some of those are listed here. There are also veggie-friendly restaurants which offer a temple food option: Ordering “mu-osinchae” (무오신채) will get you food that is cooked without the Five Pungent Vegetables.

Depending on where you go, your experience will be quite different: You could be eating in silence inside an open dining hall, next to Buddhist devotees, possibly monks and nuns. Or you dine with your self-selected company at an exclusive location, which serves you with food and entertainment (e.g. background music, dances).

To conclude, if you like plant-based AND traditional Korean food, then maybe temple cuisine appeals to you! (Note that kimchi served at a temple is usually vegan!) The taste is different from regular Korean dishes, because the most common seasonings (garlic, onions etc.) are not present. But that doesn’t mean that temple food is bland! On the contrary, other seasonings are used instead and you can experience new and unconventional flavors!

The exact components of a temple food meal change with time and also vary by region – ideally, seasonal and local ingredients are used in cooking. In general, some describe it as “healthy tasting” (건강한 맛), others enjoy the “clear / pure / refreshing taste” (갈끔한 맛) which is free from the usual aftertaste caused by meat, garlic and onions. 🚫🥩🧄🧅

With the current occasion of celebrating Buddha’s Birthday, there are additional chances to get a taste of Korean temple food: Among the temples and Buddhist organisations, which participate in the festivities, there will be food stalls offering [free] food [in exchange for donations]. [🆕Update: Following government guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19, there are restrictions and cancellations of events.]

Again, happy birthday to everyone who is born this month! 🥳🎉
And happy Unbirthday to everyone else! 💕🎊

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Additional notes by the author

*) The exact day changes every year, because it follows the moon phases. In Korea, the date is the 8th day of the 4th month according to the lunar calendar. Note that the date varies also by country.

**) The schools of Buddhism that are distributed most widely in contemporary Korea are those based on the Mahayana tradition – the majority belongs to the Korean Seon school (선 禪).

***) In Korea, strict Buddhist practitioners (mainly monks and nuns) are theoretically expected to refrain from consuming animals as well as alcohol, tobacco and other stimulating substances, while also living in celibacy. In reality, however, there are various Buddhist schools in the country, different interpretations of texts as well as individual exceptions due to e.g. health or hierarchy. Discussing such deviations or corresponding controversies is not the object of this article.

A famous exemption from [art] history is the Tang-Chinese monk Xianzi (蜆子) who is depicted catching or eating shrimps for personal consumption.

****) Additionally, there are many regional names for buchu in Korea, e.g. jeongguji 정구지 (경상도, 충청북도), jol 졸 (충청남도), sobul 소불 (여수, 순천, 광양), sol 솔 (전라도), sae-uri 새우리 / sae-ori 새오리 (제주도).

6 thoughts on “Temple Food and Taboo Food 사찰음식 및 오신채

Add yours

  1. Wow, learned a lot about garlics and many similar produce related to garlicky vegetables. I’d love to visit Buddhist temples in Korea and try authentic temple food. When will that be is my question with Covid 19 still actively attacking people regardless of their age, color, status, religion or wealth.

    Liked by 1 person

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