Seoul's hidden food temple for kids

Matt Encarnacion
Seoul's hidden food temple for kids

Twice a month, the venerable Seonjae makes the six-hour round trip from her rural village on the outskirts of Korea to the Temple Food Center in Seoul.

"Every month since 2001," the Buddhist monk says through a translator with a smile.

And why wouldn't she, given the culinary resources at her disposal on the first floor of the 20-storey high-rise in the Korean capital's north.

You see, as a tourist in a city of over 10 million people, you don't have to travel far to immerse yourself in the rich, colourful culture of this east Asian state.

It seems almost every second block you find yourself at the footsteps of a deeply historic, towering palace where you can trace the footsteps of kings past from the Joseon dynasty.

But it's here in an unassuming modern building where Seonjae introduces her background, and a deep desire to educate food traditions she fears will be lost in the next generation.

A short walk through the mini-museum in the main hall gives you a quick rundown of their traditional cuisine. It's a set-up of plastic dishes lined with inspiring quotes to still your soul.

"Where has this food come from? My virtue are so few that I am hardly worthy to receive it," one prayer on the wall begins to read alongside its Korean translation.

"I will take it as medicine to get rid of greed in my mind and to maintain my physical being in order to achieve enlightenment."

There isn't any wool being pulled over your eyes in Seonjae's kitchen, where the first thing you notice are the 40-inch flatscreens in every corner and the array of downlights.

You take your place behind one of the six benches lined-up in front of Seonjae's own marble-top, put on a silk apron, and suddenly you're on a set of Iron Chef.

On this spring day, Seonjae teaches us a handful of traditional dishes, including vegetable dumplings, "patjuk" (red bean porridge) and "yaksik" (sweet rice with nuts).

She says the dumplings are for special occasions, the kind where hundreds of monks from various monasteries come together and celebrate certain festivals.

As someone with very little experience in the kitchen, she graciously smiles at my nervous attempt to wrap the dumplings and be creative with my indentations.

I take the opportunity to pivot her education process and ask her more about her determination to lead most of the kids' classes at the temple.

"The children now eat more sweet, pastries, pizza. When they learn and taste it, their habit maybe change," the tourist guide continues to translate.

""The small children, they suffer from eczema, they suffer from obesity, the suffer from cancer. Temple food could help prevent all of these kinds of diseases.

"All these ingredients are natural, no chemical. It's a good thing for these kids, a good effect."


GETTING THERE: Asiana Airlines runs daily flights from Sydney to Seoul.

The Korean Temple Food Center is a one-minute walk from Exit 1 of Anguk Station on subway line No. 3. It is also a 15-minute walk from Exit 4 of Jongono 3-ga Station on subway line No.5.

STAYING THERE: Ibis Styles Ambassador doesn't quite hit the mark for a supposed 4-star hotel but it is fantastically located near shopping area Myeong-dong, rated the number one tourist destination in Korea every year.

PLAYING THERE: The Baek In-Je house museum is a pleasant fusion of Japanese and Korean houses sitting on top of a hill, while walking through the vast array of architecture that is Changdeokgung palace is also a treat.


* The writer travelled as a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation.