Detox diets come and go, like any other fad. In South Korea, one popular diet has staying power. It has been around for at least 1,600 years, ever since the founding of the Jingkwansa temple in the mountains outside of Seoul.
This Buddhist monastery sits at the convergence of two streams, amid twisting leafy trees and soaring peaks. It’s one of many temples in the countryside outside of South Korea’s capital. Each temple has its own specialty. Jingkwansa is famous for two reasons.
First, it’s run entirely by women. The day before our visit, Jill Biden, the wife of the U.S. vice president, was at the temple learning about Korean women’s education.
But we came here to learn about Jingkwansa’s second claim to fame. The place is renowned for preserving the ancient art of Korean temple cuisine.
“You can’t understand monastic culture without understanding monastic food,” says Gye Ho, the Overt Nun who runs this temple. She has been a practicing nun for more than 50 years. Like all of the nuns here, Gye Ho has a shaved head and wears traditional gray robes. “The food creates the entire human being,” she says. “It shapes our mind and body.”
My interpreter and I are escorted to a small room with sliding doors. Inside, at least 25 different dishes are arrayed on the table. That variety is typical of a Korean lunch. Sun Woo, who directs the temple visit program, explains what makes monastic food different.
“There is no meat and no fish and no MSG,” she says. “And no garlic, no onion, no green onion, no spring onion, or leek.”
That may sound remarkably bland. But the dishes are pungent, fiery, funky, or puckeringly tart. There are fermented radishes, mushroom fritters, marinated tofu, and crispy greens. Thinly sliced eggplant and fried potato slices sit next to clear soup and a bowl of rice.
Once we can’t eat any more, Sun Woo escorts us to a roped off corner of the temple grounds to divulge one secret of this monastic cuisine.
On top of a gravel-covered platform are dozens of ceramic urns of different sizes. Inside these jars, the nun explains, “we ferment many different soybean sauces, or soybean paste.”
The monastery makes up to 30 different kinds of sauce from fermented soybeans. The jars sit in a spot that gets full sun all day long — that’s important for the fermentation process. In these urns, some soybeans have been fermenting for 20 years, others for as long as 50 years. The smell is as layered and complex as any aged whiskey or ripe cheese.
Through pickling, fermenting, dehydrating and other traditional practices, the nuns infuse their simple cuisine with dizzying layers of flavor.
People from all over the world come to the monastery to experience this lifestyle. During our visit, 240 visitors were participating in the temple stay program, waking up at 3:30 each morning to meditate and detox.
As we speak with head nun Gye Ho about the philosophy of the temple, we sit on mats, drinking iced tea made from local berries. The drink is served with melon and squares of sweet, sticky rice topped with fruits and nuts. The nuns eat these sweets on head-shaving day, to replenish their energy.
Gye Ho explains that for the nuns, cooking and eating are spiritual as well as physical practices. “We prepare our food with a clear mind,” she says. “We recognize that the best sauce in the world is the heart that we put into our cooking.”
She says everything here is natural; while the rest of South Korea uses metal chopsticks, those at the monastery are made of wood.
At the risk of sounding impolite, I finally ask this aged nun, “Do you ever just crave french fries or chocolate?”
“Everyone has cravings,” she replies. “When I have them, I focus my mind by making noodles.”
Here’s the temple’s recipe for making Kongguksu, or soybean noodles.
Two cups of dried soy beans
Half a cup of crushed sesame seeds
Two cups of flour
For garnish: Thin cucumber strips, black sesame seeds, red chili pepper
1) Soak soybeans in water for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
2) Boil the beans until tender, an hour or so.
3) Grind the cooked beans with sesame seeds.
4) Squeeze the mixture in a cotton cloth. Discard the pulp, and chill the juice.
4) Mix the flour and a pinch of salt with enough water to make a sticky dough. Store the dough in the refrigerator for 4-5 hours.
5) Roll out the dough and slice into thin noodle strips.
6) Boil the noodles for 3-5 minutes, then rinse under cold water.
6) Serve the noodles with cold soybean juice, cucumber strips, black sesame seeds, and sliced red chili pepper