Friday, September 2, 2016

Lunch at Sanchon.


Before saying goodbye to Jogyesa Temple, I made a quick stop at the Information Center,  located nearby, to confirm directions to my next destination - a restaurant called Sanchon which specializes in Buddhist temple cuisine.

I got curious about Korean Buddhist temple cuisine a few months ago when I saw an episode of Eric Ripert's cooking series called Avec Eric. In this particular episode, Ripert who is a practicing Buddhist, was visiting a Korean temple and learning about the cuisines from the nun who cooks there. He fell so in love with her cooking that he invited her to come over to NYC and cook up a tasting dinner for a select group of people in the food industry. The meal was such a success that the nun has now gained international acclaim.  If you're planning a trip to South Korea and want to eat like a world class chef, I suggest you read about Ripert's culinary adventures.

When George and I decided to come to South Korea, I looked up the name of the nun and thought, wouldn't it be cool to eat a meal cooked by her. Easier wished than to make happen. So instead I looked for a place in Seoul that serves Buddhist cuisine. Sanchon topped the list. They offer a set, seasonal menu of 16 courses costing 33,000 won for lunch and 45,000 won for dinner. I decided to go for the lunch option.

It was a bit of a challenge finding the place - it's situated at the end of a very narrow alley in the Insadong neighborhood. Not a long walk from Jogyesa Temple.

I entered the restaurant.  It was a very warm and inviting space.


A woman greeted me at the reception desk and confirmed I was there for the set lunch.  From her manner, I think people walk in with no idea of how the meal is offered.

I then had to take off my shoes and leave them in the small locker by the front door. Then I had a choice of either sitting at a table or sitting on the floor. I chose the floor. Somehow, it seemed like a more authentic option.


The woman led me to the back room where there were a few other diners seated on the floor, in front of low wooden tables.  I chose a table in the back so I would have a better view of all the action in front of me.


This was so cool. As I read the menu, I sipped on green tea.  Everything was very slow paced so you naturally relaxed. I was ready to begin my 16 course meal!





Even though the menu had English words on it, much was lost in translation.  In some cases, Latin names were used to describe ingredients....not helpful.

My napkin.

As she explained the menu to me, the waitress reiterated that the meal would be an entirely vegan meal. The only deviation from being a true Buddhist temple cuisine meal is the inclusion of the "five pungent spices" - onions, garlic, scallions, chives and leeks which monks and nuns are forbidden to each because it's believed that they lead to anger (raw) and passion (cooked) as well as the belief that the odor of the five pungent spices also repel gods and attract hungry ghosts and demons.


Dishes were soon brought to my table - several courses being presented at once.  The first dish was a selection of one bite items - a slice of lotus root flavored with yuzu which was delicious and I could have had more of that; some acorn jelly topped with nori, a bite of fried nori, and sliver of a rice cake sandwiched between two lacy pieces of seafood. I had never had seawood served up like that before and even though the slivers of seaweed were as think as hair, they were super flavorful.  The dish also came with what the waitress said was porridge but it tasted like a squash puree of some sort.  I really had no idea what I was eating but it was all very interesting.  Most certainly, it was beautifully plated and presented.


Next, a pretty looking, small carafe of house brewed rice wine was delivered to my table. I had no idea which course that was suppose to be drunk with.  When the waitress noticed that I hadn't poured any into the cup, she did so for me.  It as a bit harsh on the palate and to be honest, not to my liking.  I stuck with the green tea.


The next course, I enjoyed.  The main item was a cold salad that was served with fresh enoki mushrooms and slivers of partially dehydrated mushrooms.  I have to admit, I was intrigued by the idea of adding partially dehydrated elements to a salad.  I'm going to try this out at home.  On the plate there was also a bit of mochi, more nori and a sliver of grilled King Trumpet mushroom that is so meaty tasting, it does a fine job of substituting for the real meat.  There was also a really odd fried thing.  It was a cluster of small yellow flowers.  I bit into the whole thing and it didn't taste of much though the stalks were definitely crunchy, almost like biting down on toothpicks.  I think it was an herb.



A veggie pancake was also served.  I enjoyed the salad so much that the pancake was just okay.


By the time the bowl of rice and soup and lot of small bowls of veggies appeared, I was already starting to get full.  It took two waitresses to drop off all the food and as one of them left, she said this was courses 7 to 14.  Wow!  This was a LOT of food.  Had I known it was going to be this much, I would have skipped breakfast this morning!

I knew I couldn't eat it all so I decided to focus having the bits of things that I had never seen and therefore, was pretty certain I had never eaten before. Don't ask me what I ate. I really don't know.   Although the star of the courses was suppose to be the seven herbs and vegetables, each seasoned differently, that was presented in the rattan basket placed in the center of the table.



I enjoyed all the crunchy fried things and the rice which was cooked with a variety of beans as well as fresh gingko nuts.  Sadly, the veggies were a blur for me - green things and they all sort of tasted the same. Nonetheless, it was a very satisfying set of courses. It had a bit of everything to satisfy the taste buds - salty, sweet, sour, spicy, soft, crunchy, chewy.....In the end I was stuffed to the max even though I barely made a dent in the course.

Between courses, I just leaned against the floor and looked around the room.  By now, a few more diners had arrived but it was still a very quiet place.   The room was warm and dim and I had a full belly.  I wanted so badly just to lay down and take a nap.  It was just about the time that jet lag would be setting in for the day.



Thankfully, dessert was very light - a shot of cold cinnamon tea and a rice puff and some veggie chips. Unfortunately, I had planned for dessert place, in Insadong, that is well known for its bingsu but I knew that was not to be today. No room in the stomach....not even for a flake of ice :-(


Overall, lunch was okay.  Perhaps my palate is not refined enough to appreciate some of the subtle nuances in taste as I really didn't feel this was a world class meal or else I need someone like Eric Ripert to explain to me what I'm tasting.  I did enjoy the experience though!  If I do this sort of meal again, I'd want to do it at a temple.

After lunch, I decided to walk around Insadong for a bit - maybe I would burn off enough to indulge in the bingsu. After Namdaemun and Myeongong yesterday, I did not have high expectations for Insadong. Surprisingly, I really like the place. It's got a really nice mix of stores, boutiques, art galleries, cafes and restaurants. Based on the number of shops selling souvenirs, it's obvious that Insadong is also popular with tourists. No shame in that!



On the way back to the apartment, I was drawn to make a pit stop at a small eatery called Wood and Brick.  It was hot and humid and I was beginning to build up a good sweat. The picture of an ice cold slushie looking drink made with yuzu and mint was too tempting to turn down. I ordered one and sipped on it while sitting at a small table outside the place. Once I cooled off enough to continue one, I resumed walking.


I could've easily downed a second one of these!

It was just around 3:30 when I made it back to the apartment. The plan was to cool off a bit, rest a bit and then head back out around 6ish just to walk and see more of the hood but jet lag once again set in and I ended up taking a hour long nap. If I remember correctly, George's flight lands sometime around 8:30p. By the time he does his needful things and gets to the apartment, I figure it'll be 10p at the earliest. It's been nice having sometime to enjoy Seoul on my own but I'm ready to have him here so we can explore more of this city together. So far, I think the only things that I've done that I don't think he would enjoy are what I did with Laura yesterday. So pretty much we have a lot of sightseeing to cover together. As much as I was not looking forward to coming to Korea, I have to admit, Seoul is quickly growing on me.

Goodnight from Seoul!