Seoul: Sanchon

31 Oct

Sanchon (which means mountain village) in Insadong, came highly recommended on travel guides, blogs and tripadvisor, and I was highly intrigued by the idea of a meal wholly composed of buddhist-temple vegetarian dishes; made from just vegetables, roots, fruits, and barks of trees, seaweeds and cereals with no artificial seasonings.  The proprietor of Sanchon – Mr Kim Yon Shik – was once a Buddhist priest and has been collecting and studying temple cooking since young.

The restaurant was set in a hanok (traditional Korean house) and had a very elegant and traditional setting with dark wood interior. You could choose between normal table seating or on the floor with low tables.

The floor area had many of these pretty pink lotus lanterns, which were although gorgeous and apparently handmade, also made the area quite warm and made me look like a pink panther in all of my photos.

Upon seating, we were given the fixed menu printed on paper with an NYT article on the restaurant on the other side. The menu varies according to season. While temple food does not contain the five stimulants: onions, green onions, baby garlic, green peppers and honggo, they are used in Sanchon unless otherwise requested. It was going to be 20 courses and I was a little daunted as I wasn’t particularly hungry and I usually struggle during the 5th course of a 7th course degustation meal.

The appetisers of red bean porridge, watery plain based kimchi, radish mushrooms and other vegetables wrapped in a thin vermicelli pancake.

Seven wild vegetables, each with its own seasonings. One of them tasted like licorice though, it was the only thing in the meal I could not stomach. I enjoyed being exposed to an assortment of wild mountain vegetables as being in Singapore the concrete jungle, we often only eat the same imported vegetables over and over again.

The rest of the dishes except dessert arrived about the same time (some not pictured). They included kimchi, grilled eggplant, seasoned fresh lettuce, fried kelp, steamed beancurd, jelly, small potatoes glazed with soya sauce and millet syrup, seasoned wild mountain roots, beans, rice, soybean stew with mushroom radish and beancurd, etc. Not all the dishes were from the menu printed so we were a little lost for some dishes. Our favourites included the eggplant, the stew and the leafy vegetables. The bowls and utensils we used were made from the deep reddish wood of the zelkova trees, just like what a monk might have traditionally used (one of the few material possessions they are allowed).

The meal ended with yugwa (puff rice pastry) and some traditional tea (probably grains/cereal based).

Traditional music and dance performances last from 8pm to 845pm, so if you don’t fancy eating in dim blue lighting, you might want to arrive earlier at about 7pm.

Sanchon is definitely not for everyone, i.e. those who need meat at every meal or who are not adventurous with their veggies. Case in point: the hubs was craving for fried chicken after dinner. But I felt that it was a unique and eye-opening experience, that showed me how versatile vegetables could get. It was also a lovely setting that whisked me away from the hustle and bustle of Seoul for a while to somewhere more zen and at peace with nature.

Price: $$ (set menu per pax – lunch 22,000W, dinner 39,600W)
Location: 14 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu 110-300, Seoul (Angguk station). Look out for the map at the tourist information counter at the beginning of Insadong main street.

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