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(Yonhap Feature) Traditional Korean cuisine celebrated in Michelin Guide Seoul 2017

2016/11/10 09:00

By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, Nov. 10 (Yonhap) -- Temple food is often associated with the words "bland" and "flavorless," as it is a vegan cuisine that does not contain any garlic, onions or green onions.

So Michelin's selection of a humble temple cuisine restaurant among the one-star restaurants in its inaugural Seoul guide on Monday came as a surprise to many in South Korea.

Since the announcement, the restaurant Balwoo Gongyang run by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has received a flood of calls from curious foodies wanting to reserve seats.

The restaurant opened its doors just across from Jogye Temple in central Seoul in 2009 to further spread the culinary culture of temple food.

Employees serve food at Balwoo Gongyang, a temple cuisine restaurant run by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, in central Seoul on Nov. 8, 2016. (Yonhap) Employees serve food at Balwoo Gongyang, a temple cuisine restaurant run by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, in central Seoul on Nov. 8, 2016. (Yonhap)

Monastic cuisine has existed for 1,700 years on the Korean Peninsula, but it was not long ago that the food began to draw media attention as a healthy and nutritious diet style delivering a simple and clean taste.

It is a vegan diet that shuns the use of five pungent vegetables -- chives, garlic, green onion, wild chives and asafoetida -- to prevent Buddhist practitioners from possible distractions during meditation. Its use of natural flavoring agents such as kelp, mushrooms, wild sesame seeds and raw soybean powder, as well as Korean "jang," or traditional fermented soybean paste, matches the recent trend of the world food culture for healthy and slow food.

"We're honored and happy because this means they have recognized the status of Korean temple food at home and abroad," Lee Hyun-kyung, manager of the restaurant, told Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday.

About 40 percent of patrons are foreign vegetarians because it is hard for them to find a vegan restaurant in Korea, the manager said.

"We basically use 'jang' fermented for three to seven years, so they like it for being a place where they can enjoy slow food in a proper way," Lee said.

This undated photo provided by Balwoo Gongyang, a temple cuisine restaurant run by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, shows dishes from the restaurant. (Yonhap) This undated photo provided by Balwoo Gongyang, a temple cuisine restaurant run by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, shows dishes from the restaurant. (Yonhap)

About the restaurant, the Michelin Guide says, "Balwoo Gongyang forever changed the public perception of temple cuisine when it opened its doors in 2009... The dishes here boast a depth of flavor, seasoned with homemade gochujang, doenjang and soy sauce."

   Another surprise in Michelin's announcement was Keungiwajip, a dining establishment specializing in "ganjanggejang," a dish of fresh crabs marinated and fermented with soy sauce. It also received a star from the guide.

Ganjanggejang is undoubtedly one of the most popular traditional cuisines in Korea, but most foreigners remain unfamiliar with this type of food.

This photo, taken on Nov. 9, 2016, shows the exterior of Keungiwajip, a Korean restaurant specializing in "ganjanggejang," a dish of fresh crabs marinated and fermented in soy sauce, in central Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Nov. 9, 2016, shows the exterior of Keungiwajip, a Korean restaurant specializing in "ganjanggejang," a dish of fresh crabs marinated and fermented in soy sauce, in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

This photo, taken on Nov. 9, 2016, shows a dish of ganjanggejang at Keungiwajip in central Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Nov. 9, 2016, shows a dish of ganjanggejang at Keungiwajip in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

"It felt so unreal. I didn't even know that Michelin inspectors visited my restaurant," said Han Yeong-yong, owner-chef of the restaurant.

But during lunch time Tuesday, Keungiwajip was fully packed with guests, with about 70 percent of them foreigners from Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, China and the Philippines.

Han, who has run the restaurant for 16 years, scratched his head when questioned why so many foreigners visit his establishment.

"I'm also curious about the reason," Han said. "They usually look up information and plan to visit my restaurant before coming to Korea. I think they choose ganjanggejang because they want to experience the essence of Korean food, especially fermented dishes."

   The 47-year-old man is the second-generation owner-chef of the restaurant that was previously run by his mother, who is 80 now.

His mother opened the restaurant in Mokpo on the south coast in 1975, inheriting her in-law's family recipe for making ganjanggejang, which was passed from generation to generation for about 300 years. The son took over the establishment and reopened it in its current location in Sogyeok-dong in central Seoul in 1999.

The Michelin Guide says, "Restaurants specializing in soy sauce marinated crab abound, but perhaps none execute it quite as well as Keungiwajip does. The secret to its exquisite crab dish lies in the freshness of the local crustacean, as well as the marinade, made with a family soy sauce fermented for at least 10 years. For those who don't want to get their hands dirty, order the gejang bibimbap, which comes with an order of rice and a side of marinated crab flesh without the shell."

  

This undated photo provided by Gaon shows dishes from the three-star Korean restaurant in southern Seoul. (Yonhap) This undated photo provided by Gaon shows dishes from the three-star Korean restaurant in southern Seoul. (Yonhap)

Including Balwoo Gongyang and Keungiwajip, 13 of the 24 honored restaurants in the Michelin Guide Seoul 2017 were those dedicated to serving traditional and modern Korean food. Two of them received 3 stars: the highest honor currently retained by only 111 restaurants worldwide.

"The richness of selectiveness shows that Seoul has emerged as one of the most exciting and dynamic culinary scenes in the world," Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guide, said during the news conference for the announcement Monday.

The guide published by the French tiremaker bestows three stars to dining places offering "exceptional cuisine worth a special journey" and gives two stars to restaurants offering "excellent cuisine worth a detour" and one star to very good restaurants in their category. The 2017 Seoul Michelin Guide lists 140 restaurants and 30 hotels in Seoul.

The two three-star restaurants were Gaon, a Korean fine dining establishment operated by the GwangJuYo Group, makers of fine Korean ceramics that specialize in traditional royal court cuisine, and La Yeon, a traditional restaurant at Hotel Shilla.

Gaon, led by chef Kim Byung-jin, serves Korean food in courses, which reflects the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) king's daily royal table. The restaurant is located in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul.

Unlike La Yeon that was on the list of "Asia's 50 best restaurants" twice, this marks the first time for Gaon to be in an overseas food guide.

This undated photo provided by La Yeon shows a table at the three-star Korean restaurant in central Seoul. (Yonhap) This undated photo provided by La Yeon shows a table at the three-star Korean restaurant in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

This undated photo provided by La Yeon shows a dish from the three-star Korean restaurant in central Seoul. (Yonhap) This undated photo provided by La Yeon shows a dish from the three-star Korean restaurant in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

La Yeon received a high rank for providing time-honored traditions of Korean cuisine with a contemporary approach.

Kim Sung-il, chief chef of La Yeon, said during the news conference, "In light of getting the Michelin stars, my team and I will do our best to introduce the best Korean dishes to the world and make them into valuable tourism resources."

   Two stars went to Gotgan and Kwon Sook Soo, both Korean restaurants, and Pierre Gagnaire, a French fine dining restaurant at Lotte Hotel in Myeongdong, while 19 restaurants received one star.

The Michelin Seoul Guide is the 28th edition in the world and fourth in Asia following Japan, China and Singapore. Information on the restaurants and hotels listed on the guide are available on the guide's website (guide.micheline.co.kr) in Korean and English.

Kim Byung-jin (L), executive chef at Gaon, and Kim Sung-il (R), a chef at La Yeon, pose for a photo with Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guide, after receiving three stars from Michelin during the awards ceremony at Hotel Shilla in Seoul on Nov. 7, 2016. (Yonhap) Kim Byung-jin (L), executive chef at Gaon, and Kim Sung-il (R), a chef at La Yeon, pose for a photo with Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guide, after receiving three stars from Michelin during the awards ceremony at Hotel Shilla in Seoul on Nov. 7, 2016. (Yonhap)

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