Hungry For Hansik: Why Korean Temple Cuisine and Fermentation Are Gaining Popularity

Hansik, or Korean food, is becoming more popular worldwide due to the proliferation of Korean pop culture. We explore two of the cuisine’s stalwart elements.
by Kenneth SZ Goh

Photo: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Korea

Hallyu, or the Korean wave — from the likes of BTS, Blackpink, and Squid Game — has taken the world by storm. Its meteoric rise in the pop culture arena has paved the way for Hansik, or Korean food, through K-pop celebrities chowing down bulgogi and tteokbokki on television shows or the tantalising appearance of ram-don (beef instant noodles) on the 2019 Oscar-winning film, Parasite.

According to a 2023 survey by the Korean Food Promotion Institute, 60 per cent of overseas Korean food consumers in 18 major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto, said that they were aware of Korean food. Of these, 92.5 per cent of them were satisfied with their experiences with the cuisine.

Ram-don, which was popularised in the Parasite film. (Photo: Kenneth SZ Goh)

The same survey also stated that the most popular Korean food overseas is Korean-style fried chicken, followed by ramyeon (Korean instant noodles), kimchi, which was anointed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013, and bibimbap.

In recent years, a wave of Korean chefs has reinvented local ingredients and culture in contemporary Korean fine-dining restaurants. They include Sung Anh of modern Korean restaurant Mosu, who received the peer-voted Chef’s Choice Award at this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony, which was held in Seoul in March.

Mosu’s chef-owner Sung Anh, at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony in Seoul. (Photo: Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants)

While four restaurants from South Korea made the list, none cracked into the top 10. Anh says: “We don’t see that as a problem. We see that as a chance to improve this dining scene so that more people from foreign countries can come to Korea and discover our cuisine.”

From royal cuisine to a plethora of banchan (side dishes), the diversity of Korean cuisine is underscored by a savoury tang from K-fermentation and a yin-yang balance of flavours. We look at two aspects of hansik, temple cuisine and fermented food, which are gaining traction among gourmands.

Cooking with introspection

Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan is known for putting Korean temple cuisine on the world map. (Photo: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Korea)

Korean nun Jeong Kwan lights up with a broad grin as she inhales a pungent dollop of doenjang (fermented soybean paste) before stirring it into a batter for doenjang mujeon, or golden brown slabs of fried radish that boast a savoury crunch.

It is evident that cooking brings joy to the head nun of Cheonjinam Hermitage at Baekyangsa Temple. At a cooking workshop in Seoul, she says in Korean through a translator: “Cooking is a gift that comes to me naturally — it feels like a role that I was meant to take up.” Kwan is best known for putting Korean temple food on the world map with her appearance on Chef’s Table, a Netflix food documentary, in 2017.

Korean temple cuisine. (Photo: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Korea)

Temple cuisine is a set of foods Buddhist monks are permitted to eat. It centres around seasonal vegetables, herbs, and fruit and employs simple cooking techniques that do not harm any life form. The vegan cuisine, which uses jang (sauces), medicinal herbs, and organic seasoning, is gaining popularity with the rise of plant-based food and sustainability. In South Korea, around 150 temples offer stays serving temple food.

Cooking is a way of building a connection with my ingredients, Kwan says sagely. “Knowing about my ingredients is a practice of discovering who I am. Whatever we eat becomes a part of us, and our personalities take after the characteristics of the food we eat.”

Sharing a candid example, she says: “Blanching vegetables changes the ‘energy level’ of the plant and helps to calm it down — just like how humans simmer down.”

She also believes that a dish should comprise ingredients that boast a “good balance of energy” and selects them based on their energy levels in various growth stages.

Temple cuisine presented by Jeong Kwan. (Photo: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Korea)

On finding inspiration for her cooking, Kwan, who has not attended culinary school, lets in: “Everything is in the moment — I don’t have set recipes or measuring cups. It depends on the ‘energy levels’ of the ingredients in season.”

She only uses plants and vegetables as she believes that plants can reproduce energy through the seeds that they sow. Kwan presented dishes in the workshop, including steamed lotus leaf rice, shiitake mushrooms glazed in soy sauce, and grain syrup and bugak (fried vegetable chips).

The Peak’s Kenneth Goh attended a cooking workshop by Jeong Kwan. (Photo: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Korea)

Kwan, who left home at 17 to live at the temple and learned from watching over the shoulders of temple cooks, has been hailed as a food icon for her work in slow food, locavorism, and fermentation long before they became fashionable.

I have yet to discover another cuisine that has such a detailed balance as Korean cuisine. This is why people enjoy our food, and I enjoy telling them about it. – JEONG KWAN, HEAD NUN OF CHEONJINAM HERMITAGE AT BAEKYANGSA TEMPLE

She observes that the awareness of temple cuisine boomed after her Netflix appearance. “Before Covid-19, there were about 20 to 30 guests that booked temple stays weekly. There are many more now. I have also been invited by many organisations to share about temple cuisine these days,” she shares.

Kwan opines: “Hansik is closely associated with balance. After travelling around the world, I have yet to discover another cuisine that has such a detailed balance as Korean cuisine. This is why people enjoy our food, and I enjoy telling them about it.”

Jang: the essence of Korean cuisine

Bowls of doenjang (soybean paste), ganjang (soy sauce), and gochujang (red chilli paste). (Photo: Kenneth SZ Goh)

Like butter’s fundamental role in French cuisine, Jang, or Korean sauces made from fermented soybeans, is the bedrock of Korean cuisine. They include doenjang (soybean paste), ganjang (soy sauce), and gochujang (red chilli paste).

The literal building blocks of jang are meju, which are made from steamed and soaked soybeans that are pounded and shaped into rectangular blocks. These blocks are then hung up in straw ropes for eight to 10 weeks, where they ferment gradually.

Meju blocks made of fermented soybean. (Photo: Kenneth SZ Goh)

These dried fermented blocks are later placed in earthenware jars and covered in salt, water and hot coals before being left to ferment for another 40 to 60 days. The liquid that remains in the jar after removing the meju and coals is boiled down to produce ganjang, while doenjang is made from the crushed meju that has to go through another round of fermentation in soy sauce and water.

Gochujang is made with glutinous rice paste, meju powder, red pepper powder, and sea salt before being fermented in sunlight for two to three months.

Jang is so pivotal to the cuisine at modern Korean restaurant Mingles that it prompted chef-owner Kang Mingoo to co-author a cookbook, Jang: The Soul of Korean Cooking, launched in March. The cookbook contains more than 60 traditional Korean and innovative Western recipes that feature gochujang, doenjang, and ganjang.

(From left) Onjium’s chefs Cho Eun-hee and Park Sung-bae. (Photo: Onjium)

Also carrying on Korean food traditions is Onjium, which doubles up as a restaurant and research institute that aims to better understand the root of Korean cultural identity. The menu is based on the royal court and time-honoured family recipes from banga (noble household) cuisine.

Having reached its 10th year milestone this year, chefs Cho Eun-hee and Park Sung-bae say: “We hope to nurture and mentor young chefs to become the next-generation artisans of traditional cuisine.

Sinseonro with rice. (Photo: Onjium)

At Onjium, young chefs start out by doing food research. Chefs Cho and Park say: “We don’t teach people to become chefs, but we want them to know Korean culture, so we educate them on arts and science, philosophy, and history. Learning recipes is not as important as discovering subtle flavour differences and developing their taste buds.” Next, Onjium hopes to develop a fermentation centre focusing on kimchi, jang, and liquor.

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.


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