On December 13, 2009 my husband Dick and I started on our trip to North Asia. We were in Seoul, South Korea for 10 days then onto China – Beijing for 6, Shanghai for 6 and now we are in Tokyo until January 29th. Both of us have been working along the way and here in Tokyo I will be doing research for my new cookbook with the tentative title of: My Japanese Kitchen- Favorite Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking with Friends. Although Korea and China were fascinating, we found out what it’s like not to be able to communicate! At least Dick could read in China. Now, we are in our second home in Japan and it is a relief to know what is going on! I was so busy in Seoul there was not time to blog and there is NO blogging from China (or Facebook or Twitter) so this post will give you some highlights from Korea and China.
On our first day in Seoul we wandered around surprised at how cold it was. There were lots of street vendors and stalls selling snacks. Hot, glazed sweet potatoes was our first treat and of course the universal roasted chestnuts.
That night we had dinner with my internet friend WooKyung (Woogie) Park. We connected over a blog on Korean food and have written to each other for almost a year. What fun to finally meet in person! Woogie took us for a delicious tofu and mushroom hot pot and then on for a dessert of warm bean paste pudding a hot cinnamon tea with jujubes (Korean dates) and pine nuts.
During our 10 day stay in Korea I was hosted for 2 days by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. A lovely young woman, Simi Kim was my interpreter. On the first day I was taken to Bongnyeongsa Temple (English available) in Suwon City about 1 ½ hours outside of Seoul for a Vegetarian lunch and cooking demonstration. I baked several fruitcakes in Boston to take with me to Korea as gifts and brought one with me here, of course made with eggs and alcohol — lots of alcohol! At the time I didn’t realize it was vegan cuisine. So I slipped that back in my bag and gave them special honey from Vermont. I think that was OK but not sure! The temple is run by women and is a seminary for women studying to take their vows as Buddhist monks and is well-known for its simple and elegant food. Sun Jae, one of the monks, a famous vegan cook and cookbook author, oversaw the preparation of the elaborate array of flavorful dishes. There was a meal also being served to those who had come to the temple for prayers that day.
We were greeted by a friendly nun who hooked my arm and toured us around the newly renovated premises. Their quilted outfits of smoky gray were as elegant as anything in a designer showroom. Knitted caps in hues from creamy white to gray kept their bald pates warm. And let me tell you it was freezing.
The grounds are hundreds of years old but a brand new temple has just been erected.The scale is monumental and the paintings on the wooden posts, walls and ceiling exploded with color. I asked if they poles were painted and then lifted to form the roof. The answer was no, Artisans painted the poles in place – move over Michelangelo.
Temple cuisine eschews the use of strong aromatics, like onion, scallion and garlic and red pepper is used sparingly. Although mild, all the tastes were present: sweet, salty, bitter, spicy and sour. Each dish was memorable and there were all the elements of a Korean meal including banchan and kimchi.
The lunch was an array home grown vegetables ( fresh and dried), mushrooms, squares of fried tofu, small mung bean pancakes laced with sweet bell peppers, doenjang soup with homemade soy bean paste, namul made with bean sprouts and tea leaves. Jap chae, the classic glass noodle dish was made with the earthy and smoky flavored burdock root, stir fried in sesame oil. What a flavor boost. The elegant presentation was worthy of any starred restaurant.
In the courtyard beyond the dining hall stood large pottery urns with home made soy sauce, soy bean paste, red pepper paste (gochujang), vinegars and preserved vegetables.
These urns are sold in markets all over Seoul and are made from a special porous clay that allows the contents to “breathe.” These urns can be seen on apartment terraces, and outside of restaurants.
Sun Jae conducted a cooking demonstration for myself and the students at the seminary. A gentleman who was been working with her for years assisted. She made a Napa cabbage pancake using whole leaves and that delicious jap chae with burdock root.
I met another American that day who had started out as an English teacher in Korea 8 years ago.I was told she heard Sun Jae speak and the rest is history. She has been studying for 4 years at the temple and will be taking her vows shortly.
It was a most memorable afternoon.