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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Larry Litt | Korean Vegetarian Food

(Introducing Korean Vegetarian Food)
by Larry Litt

It’s 4:30 a.m. on a hot, misty, overcast August morning. We’re in Kyongju, the ancient capital of the Shilla dynasty in southern South Korea. Six of us are climbing Nam San (South Mountain), the most sacred mountain of Korean Buddhism. We’ve come early enough to see the sun rise over the craggy 3000 foot peaks to the east. Although the sky is a thick, dark, threatening grey, occasional streaks of white clouds offer hope of a glimpse of the summer sunrise.

At the base of this 2000 year old trail is a traditional farm. The paddies are thick and green with waving shoots of ‘pab’ or rice. My favorite Korean dish, ‘bee bim pab’ or mixed rice with hot pepper sauce and vegetables, flashes in front of my eyes. None of us have had our breakfast yet. I’m convinced my vision is a sign of wonderful things to come, if I have patience.

“This mountain has always been a sacred place,” Yun Dong-koo, our guide says, “anything growing on it is believed to be the very best and healthiest you can find. A gift from the mountain gods.”


The almost spotless trail, bordered by lush flora on both sides, is a testament to an age-old succession of dedicated Buddhist monks who still maintain Nam San. Ancient trees and flowers still grow in wild abundance, in spite of the thousands of pilgrims who come here every year seeking inspiration and a sacred plant relic from the mountain.

“A plant from here is a prize in any garden,” remarks Yoon Dong-koo. “There’s a special style of Buddhist temple cooking called `San Che’ which incorporates some wild and cultivated plants that Korean people believe can cure diseases by stabilizing the body’s natural balances. It’s the Um/Yang diet. When ingredients come from this mountain they’re especially good for you, perhaps even inspired.”

As we climb higher into the steamy, mysterious clouds we come upon ancient Buddhist rock carvings, statues, burial mounds, and the foundations of a fortress. For three millennia shamans and monks have prepared meals and herbal formulas using Nam San’s indigenous plants with rice from farms in the valley below.

Yoon Dong-koo points into the mountains. “There are dozens of mountain foods all around us,” he states, “but the ones we are looking for are wild ginseng, called `in sam’ in Korean, `taroji’ the root of the bellflower plant, and `manul,’ wild garlic. These three herbs are available in most food shops. But when they are picked wild here, they should be peeled and eaten raw within a few minutes of their discovery for the maximum results.”

I imagine myself walking with a group of monks, searching the sides of this very beautiful, tranquil path looking for sacred foods. I begin to hum in anticipation.

Suddenly, Yun Dong-koo calls to us, “See that purple flower? It’s `taroji.’ We have to dig it out of the mountain.”

Each of us takes a turn digging with his sharp pocket knife. The ‘taroji’ fights back with its own internal strength. We get the stalk, flower and three inches or so of the usually foot long root. Immediately, the root is peeled and divided. It tastes like musty, mild garlic, with a scent of the fresh earth that garlic doesn’t have. It’s gone in a minute.

We continue to climb to the top of the mountain. The sun rises. The heavy clouds break up just enough to let the sun’s rays shine through, in golden streaks, on the terraced farms in the valley below. It’s an incredibly glorious sight.

I fight the feeling I have to tell someone I’ve never felt better in my life. Instead, I hum. Six happy voices join in for a few minutes of spontaneous mantric humming concert.

The mountains darkens as the sky becomes a thick black cloud. Suddenly the rain comes down hard. We walk quickly, almost running in the slippery mud trail. It was the best way to work up an appetite for a kimchi tofu scrmble and rice with ginseng tea Korean breakfast.

Today, Korean vegetarian cooking is based on many of those same ancient recipes that combine spirit, health and beauty in hot, cool, spicy, bitter, and sweet foods. Korean food is an ecstasy of herbs and spices that open and stimulate the palate and awaken the spirit. It is not food for the picky or delicate eater.

Time and care are needed to prepare dishes that warm the heart in deepest winter, as well as cool the body during the intense heat of summer. It’s a diet developed specifically for living in harmony with nature’s available bounties and expected extremes.

Paradoxically, Koreans living in Seoul, the nation’s capital, are surrounded by a highly industrialized, polluted environment. They live at a frantic pace in every way: long work hours, intense traffic jams, and high pressure competition from the rest of industrial Asia. In addition most Korean men drink lots of alcohol and chain smoke cigarettes. We would think they must have extraordinarily serious health problems.

I’ve asked Koreans both in Seoul and New York how Seoulites’ health is effected in this atmosphere. The consensus answer is: “Industrialization and Western ways are so new to us, no one thinks about the long term health hazards. We like prosperity. Until it becomes a problem, people in Seoul will go on just the way they’ve been living for the last thirty years, since the economic boom started. Everyone knows it’s a complete reversal of the traditional ways, but how can you stop it?”

When Koreans finally discover the physical damage their environment and “Western” behavior causes, I think many city dwellers will go back to the healthy ways of “San Che” vegetarianism. Here are six traditional vegan recipes I tried in Buddhist temples and vegan restaurants called Min Suk Jip (Folk Food Restaurants). The recipes have been adjusted for availability of American ingredients.

1. Fresh Instant Cabbage Kimchi (Pickled Vegetables)
Medium head of fresh Chinese cabbage (bok choy or napa)
2 green onions or scallions
1 red chili pepper, sliced into very thin rounds
1 tsp red chili pepper powder
5 peeled fresh garlic cloves
1 Tblspn fresh ginger
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 Tblspns Asian style sesame oil
Quarter the cabbage head the long way. Soak the sections in warm salted
water until soft. Rinse, drain and set aside. Cut off the base. Cut the
scallions into 1 1/2" lengths. Mix together and finely chop the garlic,
ginger, and green onions. Mix the cut-up vegetables with the red pepper
powder or red pepper threads, the sliced pepper, and sugar. Tear the drained
salted cabbage leaves lengthwise into narrow strips. Mix with the red pepper
mixture. Garnish with sesame oil. This easy to make instant “kimchi” is
served in small bowls with any meal. You can adjust the spices to your taste
by adding more or less pepper and sugar.

2. Mu Saeng Chae (Hot shredded radish)
1 large white daikon radish
1 Tblspn salt
3 Tblspns red pepper powder
10 thin scallions or chives, cut into 1" lengths
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 Tblspn white vinegar
1 Tblspn soy sauce
1 Tblspn sesame seeds
Cut the radish into 1/4" thick slivers, like a thick toothpick. Place radish
slivers in a bowl. Then sprinkle 1 Tblspn of salt over them. Allow to stand
for five minutes. Rinse salt off, drain well, then squeeze slivers dry in
the colander. Mix and coat the slivers well with the red pepper powder. Then
add the rest of the ingredients and mix. Taste the mixture and add salt or
soy sauce to taste. If it’s too spicy or salty add a 1/2 tsp of sugar to
balance it.

3. Koch Ujang Tchigae (Red pepper paste tubu (tofu) stew)
4 cups vegetarian broth
4 tspns Korean red pepper paste
1 tofu cake cut into 1/2" cubes
bunch of scallions
3 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 cup of bean sprouts
1/2 cup bellflower root (toraji, available at Korean food markets)
Mix all the ingredients into the boiling vegetarian broth. Cover and bring
back to a boil for 5 minutes. Turn down flame and let the stew simmer for
another ten minutes. This stew is usually served with a side dish of plain
boiled rice, which is often added to the stew in small amounts.

4. Kaji-tchim (Eggplants in Soy Sauce)
2 thin medium eggplants or Asian eggplants if available
3 Tblspns soy sauce
1 green onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp sesame salt
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp cider vinegar
1 Tblspn sugar
2 scallions, cut in 1" lengths
1 Tblspn water
2 oz of Textured Vegetable Protein granules
Cut each eggplant into three pieces; slit each piece twice through the center
without cutting through the ends. Drop the cut up eggplants in a bowl of
salted water for 15 minutes. Saute the Textured Vegetable Protein with soy sauce, onion, garlic,
sesame salt (white sesame seeds and sea salt roasted together in proportions
of 1 cup seeds to 1 tspn sea salt until brown and mixed well), and sesame oil
until the Textured Vegetable Protein is soft and the flavorings absorbed. Stuff the eggplant pieces
with the Textured Vegetable Protein mixture, put them in a frying pan and drizzle in the vinegar,
sugar, green onions, water, and remaining soy sauce. Bring the mixture to a
boil and simmer gently until all the liquid evaporates and the eggplant is
soft. Serve hot with plain rice. Kajitchim is also great cold the next day.

5. Tubu Puch’im (Fried Bean Curd)
1 cake of firm or extra firm tofu
3 Tblspns sesame oil
3 Tblspns soy sauce
5 scallions cut in 1" lengths
1 tsp red pepper thread or red pepper powder
1/8 tsp black pepper
2 Tblspns sesame salt
Cut the tofu into 1/3" thick slices. Broil them in the oil for five minutes
of each side, or until both sides are lightly browned. Open the broiler and
take out the tofu. Center the scallions on the tofu, sprinkle the pepper
powder or place the threads, return to the broiler. Let the topping and tofu
broil for one or two more minutes until the slices are hot. This is a hot
appetizer served with many types of cold kimchi and teas.

6. Bee Bim Pab (Steamed rice and assorted stir-fried vegetables)
2 cups steamed white rice
1 cup mixture thinly sliced and/or chopped mushrooms, zucchini,
spinach, mustard greens, cucumbers, carrots, sliced garlic, taroji
(bellflower root), etc. for each portion. Just about any fresh
vegetable will do if cut thin and stir-fried until soft.
Oriental sesame oil
Sesame seeds
Go Chu Jang (red pepper sauce)
Stir fry sliced and chopped vegetables in sesame oil. Place hot steamed rice
into the bottom of a large soup bowl. Spread fried vegetables over the rice.
Sprinkle sesame seeds over the top. Drop a tspn of red pepper sauce onto
the vegetables and rice, then mix everything together very well. Usually
served with hot tea made from water boiled in the empty rice pot.


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