Temple food in Korea is traditionally vegan and free of preservatives and MSG. The meals are slow, plant-based, and packed with fiber and nutrients. Digestion is optimized through eating techniques and proper preparation of food. Get ready to feel amazing after a temple-style meal in Korea. Not going to Korea anytime soon? Just incorporate these practices into your every day life.
1. Eat a large variety of mostly vegetables
The temple food in South Korea is vegetable based with a huge variety of cooked and raw vegetables prepared in many different ways. You are bound to get all amino acids between the colorful veggies coming your way here and loads of fiber. The veggies are lightly seasoned and prepared differently so you don't get sick of them either. Yum! Even better, there are tons of sea vegetables in every meal from nori to dulse to wakame. These are packed with nutrients and iodine (essential to thyroid health).
2. Eat plenty of fermented foods
Cultured, or fermented, foods are rich with good bacteria that aid in digestion. These beneficial gut flora fight bad bacteria and keep your body balanced. If you have any digestive issues this should be one of the first things to incorporate in your diet. Korean food has so much kimchi and other fermented vegetables it is impossible to miss. It is a staple in their diet.
3. Avoid drinking water during your meal
When you sit for Korean temple food you are served warm herbal tea. The warm tea before your meal aids in digestion by firing up your digestive system. Avoid drinking too much so you don't dilute your stomach acid. During the meal a fermented fruit wine is served (like a saki) which is said to improve digestion and keep bloating at ease. No water is ever served - you should only drink water about 20 minutes to an hour after food, depending on how much you ate, to avoid flooding your stomach acids that break down the food.
4. Eat a good mix between raw and cooked vegetables
Raw greens are served in the form of a salad and wrap with a miso paste along with many many cooked vegetables. This is great in keeping the body's temperature balanced. In Chinese medicine, the body is cooled and warmed by different foods and how they are prepared. All raw diets can be over cooling for the body and damaging to the digestive system. Raw foods are still great because their enzymes have not been killed through a cooking process and all the vitamins are in tact!
5. Eat slowly
This 4 course meal was brought out very slowly. The overall experience was nearly two hours! Granted most people don't casually eat 4 course meals so you can still eat slowly without taking this much time. When we eat slowly w can recognize when we are full sooner which keeps us from over eating. It also does not bombard our stomach with mass amounts of food that just get backed up with no time to get broken down.
6. Chew fully
In Korea, the silent temple style room was loud with the sounds of intense chewing and slurping. In many Asian cultures it is customary to be as loud as possible when eating and drinking as a sign that one likes the food. While we don't need to go this far we can learn from the emphasis on chewing as a means of proper digestion. We have enzymes in our mouths that actually break down food far beyond the mechanical process of chewing (although this is important too!). It is best to predigest food as much as possible before sending it down to our stomachs. Fully chewing also means eating slower and ultimately eating less.
7. Appreciate your food
The silence and slowness of eating instils a sense of gratitude for your food. Even the banchan vegetables (a trio of kimchi, cooked greens, and pickled radish) are eaten with gratitude even though traditionally they are "peasant" food. Even though this is the healthiest thing you can eat! I stand by the idea that gratitude is the single most important thing you can have in life and especially with food. No one can be truly happy or satisfied without it.
8. Incorporate some grains or legumes
The Korean dishes had rice, tofu, adzuki or red bean, and sometimes even tempeh. Soy I avoid avoid avoid in the US but eat a bit in Asia because it is not as processed and genetically modified like in the States. If I do eat soy, very rarely will it be in the form of tofu because this is not only NOT a whole food but it is unfermented. Soy beans are the richest in protein of all beans and are very hard to digest on their own. Fermented soy, in the form of tempeh, is sort of predigested and ultimately quite easy to pass through. The beans and rice (and soy) with Korean food is a small portion of the meal. About 1/4 - 1/2 cup is all you need of these to get a strong source of fiber, protein, and minerals in your diet without OD-ing on starch. The legumes are also a great source of iron.
9. Avoid overly sweet desserts
The desserts served with temple food have little to no sugar. Usually in the form of sticky rice or potato crackers, these palate cleansers are not overly sweet. The cinnamon tea was the sweetest part of the dessert plate and only measured to about 1 oz. This is a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth without kick starting a craving that will leave you begging for more even when you're full. Temple food is incredibly balanced and satisfying. Eating overly sweet food will throw your system off like a pendulum swinging far to one side. If you through off the pendulum one way it will swing back the other. Keep it still by eating moderately.
10. Sit up straight
Floor seating is tradition for Korean temple-style eating. With no backrest, you are forced to use your core muscles to keep your body upright. Unfortunately, most westerners have lost all core muscles sitting in office chairs all day long. Posture actually has a profound impact on digestion and long term effects on the body if not properly maintained. Sitting up straight while eating rather than slouching over optimizes digestion by allowing our internal organs to assume their natural position.
11. Keep it simple
Korean food is flavorful and delicious with great spices and miso pastes that make it interesting. The food is also simple and humble. Everything is prepared in a simple way whether is was fermented, stir fried, steamed, or boiled. No MSG or crazy spices exist in temple food. The idea is to keep the body balanced and to avoid over indulging. We all know how salty and sweet food affect us - they are like drugs! The beauty in simple food is there is no come down or craving from it.