Sanchon Temple Cuisine, Seoul

Finding a nice vegetarian/vegan Korean restaurant in Seoul is harder than you think. Although most of our side dishes are vegetarian-friendly, most Korean staple foods involve chicken (dakgalbi, jjimdak, samgyetang), beef (galbi, bulgogi), or pork (samgyupsal, bossam), and even “jjigae” (soup/stews) can be meat-broth based. However, with my friend and her vegetarian colleague visiting all the way from Pakistan, I wanted to find a restaurant that would finely introduce Korea’s traditional herbal and greens cuisine. It was my first time visiting as well, and Sanchon‘s Temple Food – entirely composed of vegetables, greens, and roots based – provided an impressive variety of intricate and well-presented Buddhist temple cuisine dishes.

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Sanchon was placed in a small alleyway off of the main road in Insadong – the traditional district of Seoul – and after following the narrow alleyway I came into this very spacious and tranquil old Korean hanok restaurant. The reservation was made for 6:45pm on a Thursday evening, and it was almost entirely empty and quiet with very soothing temple vibe music in the background. I didn’t get to take photos of the entire place (regretting it as I blog this post!) but the place was beautiful – and after passing through the bustling streets of Insadong and rushing over during rush hour in a crowded bus – this place was just so perfect for calming my mind, body and soul. After being asked to take our shoes off and wash our hands at this quaint sink by the entrance, we were brought to a table where we could sit cross-legged (if you can’t sit on the floor for long, you can ask to sit on the table with chairs as well). There was going to be a traditional Korean performance at 8pm and our table was right in the center, best seats in the house! Also, the timing was perfect to enjoy dinner starting 6:45pm with the courses and by 8pm we were generally done with eating and could enjoy the show with ease in the dark lighting. (We saw others coming in for dinner later, and for those that came near performance time, they had to watch and try to eat dinner in the dark which I assume must’ve been difficult).

After being seated, we were given two teas (one warm – soothing mulberry tea, and one cold – pine needle tea which had a kick as it naturally fermented to create some alcohol content). As appetizers, we were given pumpkin porridge and cold mul-kimchi. This was followed by a setting of 4 other dishes to share: acorn jello with dried seaweed, crispy rice cakes wrapped in cilantro and greens, bamboo root, lotus root between dried seaweed slices, roasted mushrooms, deodeok (mountain herb roots) rice cake, vegetable pancake with lotus root and chives, and salad with dried carrots, apples, and various greens with Korean spices.

And the main course arrived as we finished the appetizers, with around 12 side dishes surrounding the beautiful flower decoration box (all using mountain herbs and greens) and a thick soup to eat with the rice and side dishes. When opening the beautiful flower top, there were an additional 7 side dishes of various greens with different seasonings. Shepherd’s purse, perilla leaves, bracken, burdock, cucumber, various roots and stems, stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables, tofu, potatoes, and other greens that I had heard of for the first time 🙂

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The steamed glutinous rice (Korean rice is more sticky than Pakistani/Indian rice) called chalbap had beans, chestnuts, and jujubes. Just in case you are entirely new to Korean cuisine, you generally have your individual rice and soup bowl (which could come as individual dishes or you have bigger rice/soup bowls and you can move them to your smaller individual bowls at the table) and then you share all the side dishes together by placing what you want to eat on your plate as well. So be ready to share with your friends 🙂

By the time we were happily content with feasting, the Korean traditional performance began with the lights dimmed. I wish they had explained what each of the dances symbolized, because I wasn’t familiar with the traditional music they played. Nevertheless, it was a very unique performance with hanbok dresses and traditional Korean drums and instruments. By the end, the guests were invited to join in and play the instruments with them!

To close this evening, we were presented with dessert, composed of sweet potato, lotus, and potato chips, sweet rice cake and sweet teas. My friends were very satisfied with the menu and I was glad I got to experience temple food in a very tranquil and quaint hanok!

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For more information: Dinner course with performance is 45,000won per person (around 45 USD).

(Address) Jongro-gu Insadong-gil 30-13, Seoul [서울특별시 종로구 인사동길 30-13] How to get there: If you are traveling around by subway, Line 1 (dark blue line) “Jong-gak” station – go through exit “3-1” as shown on the bottom left of map! If youre on line 3 (orange line) “An-guk” station exit 6 would be closest! (Tel) 02-735-0312 (Website) http://www.sanchon.com/home/index.php

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