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(Yonhap Feature) Korean temple cuisine reaches New York as a new kind of vegetarian fare

All Headlines 09:00 June 27, 2012

By Shin Kim
Contributing writer

NEW YORK, June 26 (Yonhap) -- With one in every three people considered obese, a growing sense of urgency is driving Americans to rethink their eating habits and incorporating a vegetarian diet. According to a national telephone poll conducted in the spring of 2011 commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, vegetarians total close to 5 percent, or 16 million, of all U.S. citizens. About half of the vegetarians, 7.5 million, follow a vegan diet, which means no consumption of animal products, including eggs and dairy.

Despite being a relatively small group, the number of people who follow a vegan diet has nearly doubled in just two years since 2009, when the poll was last conducted. Of those who are not vegetarian, about a third of Americans eat vegetarian food for at least half of their meals.

Just this month, Subway, the largest restaurant chain in the world, rolled out three new vegan options in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia after introducing vegan options in select locations in Canada last year.

"Meatless Mondays," first introduced to encourage rationing of the major staple food during the World Wars, was restarted in 2003 as a public health awareness program sponsored by Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. Many celebrities and chefs, including Mario Batali and his restaurant group, joined in as a way to promote healthy, plant-based eating habits. Hundreds of schools, from kindergarten to colleges nationwide, have also adopted Meatless Mondays in conjunction with healthy eating education.

"What's interesting to me is that I see more people now asking where their food comes from and making a conscious decision to go vegetarian, vegan, or just eat less meat," said Erika Brenner, a farm-to-table educator in Brooklyn, New York. "I took a closer look at how the majority of the animals were raised before they got on the dinner tables in America. But I'm not against eating meat if the animal was raised in humane conditions," she said in explaining her reason for becoming vegetarian 14 years ago.

In the midst of such growing interest in the U.S., Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism, an affiliate of the Jogye Order, came to New York during the week of June 11th to introduce Korean Buddhism through a tasting of its celebrated temple cuisine.

After the first visit in 2010, when over 40 kinds of temple dishes were offered to 300 people in attendance, the setting at Astor Center in Manhattan was more intimate and serene this time, focusing on individual guests as well as each food offered for tasting.

Small groups of 20 to 50, spanning from chefs, food specialists, and media to travel industry consultants, were invited to taste various dishes of Korean temple food for luncheon and dinner events over three days. While the core menu and program remained similar throughout the week, each event was geared toward guests' interests. Travel consultants received a detailed introduction of the temple stay program at over 100 temples in bustling Seoul as well as deep in the mountains in Korea. Food specialists had a rare chance to taste soy sauce and fermented soy bean paste from Korea, made using traditional methods in the temples.

Brian Schoenfeld, an entrepreneur from New Jersey, was ecstatic. "I've never tasted such a deep, earthy flavor from soy bean paste or soy sauce. I am thoroughly impressed," he said after the tasting. "I thought I've eaten a lot of Korean food, but clearly I haven't."

Melissa Young, who studied natural resources at Cornell University, also enjoyed the dinner consisted of "flavorful vegetables." Although Young is not vegetarian, she makes an effort that her diet consists largely of vegetables for environmental reasons. "Everything was delicious. I would have never known that this kimchi was made without onion or garlic. I also really liked the fried mushrooms in gochujang sauce," said Young.

Temple food refers to the food monks eat at Buddhist temples. However, in recent years, it has become widely popular in Korea even among non-Buddhists, as the general public's growing interest in natural ingredients and cooking without artificial flavor enhancers has coincided with temple food practices, where everything is part of meditative discipline, including farming of vegetables, foraging in the mountains, cooking with dried and powdered vegetables and herbs for seasoning, and eating only the amount necessary for sustenance.

Although Korean temple cuisine is vegetarian, in which meat, poultry and fish are forbidden, its practice is closer to vegan, as eggs are forbidden but dairy is used sparingly. In addition, five pungent vegetables -- chive, leek, garlic, onion and scallion -- are prohibited for the reasons of causing hindrance in spiritual practice and attachment to strongly flavored spices.

The temple cuisine practice has evolved throughout the turbulent history of Buddhism in Korea. First adopted as the national religion during the Three Kingdom Period (57 B.C. - 668 A.D.), Buddhism flourished to its peak during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). But the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) adopted Neo-Confucianism as the national religion and actively repressed Buddhism by shutting down temples in major cities, forfeiting the temple sites, and consolidating Buddhist sects. Dedicated monks fled to temples deep in the mountains.

Over 1,000 years of prosperity followed by 500 years of repression is also reflected in the temple food. Changes from ornate dishes made for offerings to countless herbs, vegetables and fruits foraged, then preserved and fermented by the monks for survival became the foundation of the current temple cuisine.

As the week-long event came to a close with handing out vegetable chips at the popular food truck Kimchi Taco Truck on Friday in an effort to reach more New Yorkers, the question of what is next for Korean temple cuisine in New York was raised. There is nothing set in stone for the future, but murmurs of a restaurant plan in the city were in the air at Astor Center. Earlier this year, Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism announced its plan to open a Korean temple cuisine restaurant on the rooftop of Galerie Lafayette in Paris next year.

From falafel (chickpea fritter originated in Middle East) to Korean barbecue wheat gluten, New Yorkers line up for vegan dishes served by food trucks such as Cinnamon Snail and Crisp during their lunchtime. On the other end of the spectrum, Kajitsu, Japanese temple cuisine restaurant, has been welcomed by New Yorkers since its opening in 2009 and received 2 Michelin stars.

With no immediate destination in the city to taste Korean temple cuisine, New Yorkers can perhaps take away the main principle behind this meditative eating practice as summarized in the pre-meal chant for now.

"Where does this food come from? My virtues are so few that I am hardly worthy to receive it. I will take it as medicine to rid of greed in my mind and to maintain my physical being in order to achieve enlightenment."

shinshineny@gmail.com
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