Eating Your Way to Nirvana

Words by Joyce Huang

As the world struggles with deforestation and over-farming, temple cuisine proves that it is possible to care for the environment while enjoying the food you eat.

*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Food & Wellness’ issue

When the third season of Chef’s Table hit Netflix in 2017, among the roster of top international chefs featured on the documentary series were names like Virgilio Martinez of Central in Lima, Peru, and Tim Raue of his eponymous restaurant in Berlin, Germany. But it was the introduction of Jeong Kwan, a Seon Buddhist monk who lives and cooks at Baegyangsa temple in South Korea, and the food she creates at the temple that captivated audiences.

Using produce that are grown and made within the temple grounds and eschewing ingredients such as meat, garlic, and onions, Jeong Kwan’s creative, refined, and nourishing culinary repertoire holds its own against those from celebrated chefs around the world. Guided by the principles of Buddhism, her philosophy on cooking have not only won fans the likes of Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin in New York City, Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, and Mingoo Kang of Mingles in Seoul, but also turned the world of gastronomy onto temple cuisine.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tamil Nadu, India (Image courtesy of iStock)

Temples as the birthplace of culture

While generally seen as places of worship today, temples were once the epicentres of socio-economic-culture development. Whole civilisations were built around them and the prosperity of both was tied to each other’s fate. A generous part of ancient India’s history speaks of the rise and fall of empires and dynasties alongside the Hindu, Islam, Jain and Sikh places of worship that were built.

Complete with farmed land, pen, school, gardens and even rivers, ancient temples were built as self-sustaining palaces. Inscriptions at the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tamil Nadu, the third largest Hindu temple in the world, give evidence that the space held a school, hospital, a free kitchen, granaries and even financed infrastructure in the region. This self-contained compound informed the tradition of using only locally produced ingredients in temple cuisine. Furthermore, the focus on locavorism feeds into Hinduism’s “spiritual ecology”, where the belief in the sacredness of life, reincarnation, and the law of karma are all interconnected.

Preparing the animal sacrifice at Eid al-Adha (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, ©Jonás Amadeo Lucas)

The practice of locavorism promulgated by temple cuisine over the centuries, also led to a richer biodiversity. As nature and wildlife are seen as having equal value as human life, they’re nurtured and treated with respect. In India, sacred groves ranging from a patch of green to hectares of land are pockets of nature where human intervention is forbidden (not even removing leaf litter is allowed) due to their association with deities.

Food has always played a crucial role in the creation and maintenance of religious institutions: from food offerings at Hindu mandirs to animal sacrifices during Eid al-Adha at a Muslim mosque; from beer brewing and wine making in Christian monasteries to crop growing in temples across Asia. Put simply, temple cuisine refers to the food monks and nuns cook and consume at these religious institutions. On a broader level, temple cuisine encompasses an extension of their teachings that are imbued into the rituals of growing, preparing, and partaking.

Nowhere else is that more evident than in the temple cuisine of religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. In accordance to the Dharmic concept of ahimsa (nonviolence), Buddhists and Hindus hold reverence for all living lives and embrace a harmony with nature. As such, vegetarianism and veganism has become a common thread between these major religions. The vegetarian or vegan diet is adopted by monks and believers from areas historically influenced by Mahayana Buddhism—namely Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese Buddhism, and from the various Hindu sects in India. They eschew from using meat, fish and any artificial flavour enhancer, as well as pungent herbs from the allium genus such as onions, shallots, garlics, leeks, and chives.

*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Food & Wellness’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter

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