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We recently went on an eye-opening culinary journey within the calming walls of contemporary Korean vegetarian restaurant Soil to Soul. Situated at trendy K11 MUSEA, Soil to Soul gives diners a different perspective on Korean food, shying away from the pungent flavours and indulgent meats we usually associate with this cuisine.
The man behind the menu is renowned chef Gu Jin Kwang, with over 25 years of culinary experience to his name, honed at revered institutions the likes of Le Gavroche in London. The jovial, affable chef graduated with a degree in electronic engineering before veering towards a master’s degree in culinary arts. He has worked with culinary giants the likes of Albert and Michel Roux and spent six years studying temple-food techniques and philosophy at the acclaimed Mahayeon Temple Food Cultural Centre in Icheon, South Korea. It was at this institution that he met his mentor, Buddhist nun Wookwan, a pioneer in bringing Korean temple food to the world stage with her popular book Korean Temple Food: The Road to the Taste of Enlightenment.
Soil to Soul’s Sunim Temple – The Taste of Enlightenment set menu ($780/person), launched last month, was conceptualised after Chef Gu spent three months living at the Buddhist nunnery studying the monastic traditions of traditional temple cuisine. The health-conscious menu offers 24 rejuvenating vegan dishes adhering to the ethos of minimising food wastage and pollution and is devoid of the five “pungent roots” of garlic, green onion, leek, chive and onion. Served on wooden trays in an array of small dishes following the same structure as at a Korean temple, this special menu is only offered on weekdays at lunchtime, with calming, zen-like music playing in the background.
Our first taste of the temple menu came in the form of assorted chips alongside a cleansing herbal drink. We really enjoyed the crisp seaweed, fried lotus root and pops of fried sticky rice.
A steamed shiitake mushroom stuffed with potato, accompanied by a cosy bowl of puréed vegetable soup, arrived next. Despite being steamed, the mushroom retained its robust, meaty flavour. The fragrant sesame oil dotted on top of the vegetable soup added a comforting aroma.
The third tray contained a delicious, mochi-textured pan-fried burdock, spirals of spicy fried enoki mushroom and grilled king oyster mushroom brushed with umami-rich aged soy sauce. Fermentation is a huge part of temple cuisine, and Soil and Soul uses soy sauce that is aged for up to 15 years to achieve a distinctly savoury flavour.
Up next was a tray bearing a juicy block of aubergine braised in 15-year-old fermented soy sauce, crunchy fried lotus root and sweet, spicy king oyster mushroom that reminded us of Korean fried chicken! Even devoid of garlic, the sauce tasted very indulgent, and the meatiness of the mushroom didn’t make us miss meat at all. It’s hard to believe that the sweetness of the sauce is purely derived from fruits that have been slow-fermented into a syrup.
Almost too pretty to eat, the zucchini noodle, topped with flavourful shiitake and a pretty blossom, was refreshing, while the rehydrated apple slices packed quite a punch with the fiery chillies. The pan-fried tofu had a firmer texture than the tofu popular in Hong Kong, tasting more robust and meaty.
The main course tray centred around a bowl of yellow rice topped with slippery strands of mushroom, surrounded by eight small dishes including kimchi, pickles, fried savoury pancakes, stir-fried glass noodles, salad and vegetable broth. The intensely flavoured dressing on the salad, made from fermented soybeans, had the same flavour profile as blue cheese, which had us scratching our heads in awe. The plump kernels of yellow rice were accentuated by the accompanying sweet and spicy gochujang-like sauce.
A dessert tray of barley water, freeze-dried strawberry with sesame cracker and dried persimmon topped with pine nuts concluded our meditative, healthful meal.
This restorative meal left us happily satiated. Despite being vegetarian and devoid of flavour boosters the likes of garlic and leek, we didn’t find ourselves craving anything more at Soil to Soul. The fermented soybeans had the robust flavour of cheese, while the grilled and fried mushrooms provided plenty of meaty juiciness. Even without garlic, the sweet and spicy sauces, highlighted by fiery chillies, made for toothsome bites. This new temple menu, available only on weekdays at lunchtime, is a delicious foray into mindful eating.
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.
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