Detox diets come and go, like any other fad. In South Korea, one popular diet has staying power. It has been around for at least 1,600 years, ever since the founding of the Jinkwansa temple in the mountains outside of Seoul.
This Buddhist monastery sits at the convergence of two streams, amid twisting leafy trees and soaring peaks. It's one of many temples in the countryside outside of South Korea's capital. Each temple has its own specialty. Jinkwansa is famous for two reasons.
First, it's run entirely by women. The day before our visit, Jill Biden, the wife of the U.S. vice president, was at the temple learning about Korean women's education.
But we came here to learn about Jinkwansa's second claim to fame. The place is renowned for preserving the ancient art of Korean temple cuisine.
"You can't understand monastic culture without understanding monastic food," says Gye Ho, the Overt Nun who runs this temple. She has been a practicing nun for more than 50 years. Like all of the nuns here, Gye Ho has a shaved head and wears traditional gray robes. "The food creates the entire human being," she says. "It shapes our mind and body."
My interpreter and I are escorted to a small room with sliding doors. Inside, at least 25 different dishes are arrayed on the table. That variety is typical of a Korean lunch. Sun Woo, who directs the temple visit program, explains what makes monastic food different.
"There is no meat and no fish and no MSG," she says. "And no garlic, no onion, no green onion, no spring onion, or leek."
That may sound remarkably bland. But the dishes are pungent, fiery, funky or puckeringly tart. There are fermented radishes, mushroom fritters, marinated tofu and crispy greens. Thinly sliced eggplant and fried potato slices sit next to clear soup and a bowl of rice.
Once we can't eat any more, Sun Woo escorts us to a roped off corner of the temple grounds to divulge one secret of this monastic cuisine.
On top of a gravel-covered platform are dozens of ceramic urns of different sizes. Inside these jars, the nun explains, "we ferment many different soybean sauces, or soybean paste."
The monastery makes up to 30 different kinds of sauce from fermented soybeans. The jars sit in a spot that gets full sun all day long — that's important for the fermentation process. In these urns, some soybeans have been fermenting for 20 years, others for as long as 50 years. The smell is as layered and complex as any aged whiskey or ripe cheese.
Through pickling, fermenting, dehydrating and other traditional practices, the nuns infuse their simple cuisine with dizzying layers of flavor.
People from all over the world come to the monastery to experience this lifestyle. During our visit, 240 visitors were participating in the temple stay program, waking up at 3:30 each morning to meditate and detox.
As we speak with head nun Gye Ho about the philosophy of the temple, we sit on mats, drinking iced tea made from local berries. The drink is served with melon and squares of sweet, sticky rice topped with fruits and nuts. The nuns eat these sweets on head-shaving day, to replenish their energy.
Gye Ho explains that for the nuns, cooking and eating are spiritual as well as physical practices. "We prepare our food with a clear mind," she says. "We recognize that the best sauce in the world is the heart that we put into our cooking."
She says everything here is natural; while the rest of South Korea uses metal chopsticks, those at the monastery are made of wood.
At the risk of sounding impolite, I finally ask this aged nun, "Do you ever just crave french fries or chocolate?"
"Everyone has cravings," she replies. "When I have them, I focus my mind by making noodles."
Here's the temple's recipe for making Kongguksu, or soybean noodles.
2 cups of dried soy beans
1/2 cup of crushed sesame seeds
2 cups of flour
For garnish: Thin cucumber strips, black sesame seeds, red chili pepper
1) Soak soybeans in water for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
2) Boil the beans until tender, an hour or so.
3) Grind the cooked beans with sesame seeds.
4) Squeeze the mixture in a cotton cloth. Discard the pulp, and chill the juice.
4) Mix the flour and a pinch of salt with enough water to make a sticky dough. Store the dough in the refrigerator for 4-5 hours.
5) Roll out the dough and slice into thin noodle strips.
6) Boil the noodles for 3-5 minutes, then rinse under cold water.
6) Serve the noodles with cold soybean juice, cucumber strips, black sesame seeds and sliced red chili pepper
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Maybe you've had that friend come back from a particularly gluttonous vacation and declare, I am going on a detox diet. I don't know; maybe that person has been you. Detox diets are all the rage right now, but they come and go like other fads. Although in South Korea, one popular detox diet has staying power. It's been around for more than 1,000 years. Ari Shapiro, I am all ears.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CAWING)
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This diet has been around at least 1,600 years to be precise. That's when Jingkwansa temple was founded here in the mountains where two streams meet. The countryside around Seoul is dotted with Buddhist temples. Each has its own specialty. Jingkwansa is famous for two reasons. First, it's run entirely by women. Our tour guide directs the temple stay program for visitors to Jingkwansa.
SUN WOO: My name is Sun Woo. Everybody, nice to meet you.
SHAPIRO: Like all the nuns here, Sun Woo has a shaved head and wears traditional gray robes. The day before our visit, the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, was here.
WOO: And she interested in many Korean women's education.
SHAPIRO: But we're here to learn about Jingkwansa's second claim to fame. This place is renowned for preserving the ancient art of Korean temple cuisine.
WOO: You have to feel every food. And after then, your radio program is better, OK?
SHAPIRO: Wow, OK.
SHAPIRO: Sun Woo leads us into a room with sliding doors. Inside, there are at least 25 different dishes on the table. That variety is typical of a Korean lunch. Here's what makes temple food different.
WOO: There is no meat and no fish and no MSG and no garlic, no onion, no green onion, spring onion and leek.
SHAPIRO: It sounds remarkably bland. But the foods are pungent, fiery, funky or puckeringly tart. There are mushroom fritters, fermented radishes, fried roots and sauteed greens. Once we can't eat anymore, Sun Woo takes us to a roped-off corner of the temple grounds to show us one secret of monastic cuisine. The spot is in full sun all day long. That's important.
So you've brought us to this platform where there are dozens of ceramic jars of different sizes, each with lids. What's going on inside these jars?
WOO: OK, this platform is important to ferment many soybean sauce or soybean paste.
SHAPIRO: How many different kinds of soybean sauce do you make?
WOO: We can make 30 kinds of sauce - depend on our food. But this platform just period is different only - 20 or 50 years period fermentation.
SHAPIRO: There are soybeans that have fermented for 50 years here?
WOO: Of course, but it's a secret.
SHAPIRO: People come here to experience these secrets. During our visit, 240 visitors were participating in the temple stay program, waking up at 3:30 each morning to meditate and detox. Finally, we go to meet the woman who runs this temple. We sit on mats, drinking iced tea made from local berries and speak with Gye Ho. She has been a nun for more than 50 years.
GYE HO: (Foreign language spoken).
SHAPIRO: "We recognize that the best sauce in the world is the heart that we put into our cooking," she says. She explains that everything here is natural. Even the cups are made of wood. There was one last question I had to ask.
Do you ever just crave French fries or chocolate?
HO: (Foreign language spoken).
SHAPIRO: She says, "everyone has cravings. When I have them, I focus my mind by making noodles." Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.