You can now read 10 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

Omnivore savors Seoul vegetarian meal by monks

The elaborate 10-course meal at Balwoo Gongyang in Seoul, across from the main temple, is made by Buddhist monks.

Matt Viser/Globe Staff

The elaborate 10-course meal at Balwoo Gongyang in Seoul, across from the main temple, is made by Buddhist monks.

SEOUL — I am not an adventurous eater. I like burgers. I am what you might consider a grilled cheese connoisseur. Wild for me might be a night with some tapas.

So heading to Seoul was a new way to sophisticate my palate. I had bulgogi (beef) and bibimbap. I tried the barbecue and the jeon (pancake). I sampled street food (potato slices spread out on a stick; a pastry shaped like a fish with bean paste inside).

Continue reading below

With almost every dish, I was served kimchi, which is fermented vegetables (often spicy cabbage). Many meals involved cooking at the table, with meats tossed on a grill as everyone shared the food together.

But nothing quite tested me like Balwoo Gongyang, a restaurant across the street from the city’s main Buddhist temple — and where monks cook your meal.

Food came in small white bowls.

Matt Viser/Globe staff

Food came in small white bowls.

It’s noted as one of the best restaurants in all of Seoul, a city with no shortage of adventurous and interesting restaurants. But unlike a city known for all kinds of meats — and owing to the restaurant’s religious affiliation — this place is vegetarian.

I was traveling alone, so I ordered the smallest meal on the menu. Which was 10 courses.

I was so out of place that initially I tried to eat the napkin. (In my defense, the waitress came and presented it by pouring water over it to make it grow into a tower. I thought maybe it was a root or some kind of noodle, until I took a soggy bite.)

I was so out of place that initially I tried to eat the napkin. (In my defense, the waitress presented it by pouring water over it to make it grow into a tower. I thought maybe it was a root or some kind of noodle.)

Quote Icon

The napkin tasted terrible. But the food was absolutely amazing.

Each dish oozed with flavor. Every bite was unique. Even the peanuts tasted interesting.

Matt Viser/Globe staff

I forced myself to try everything, including the slimy tofu and leaves that looked like they’d just been yanked off a tree.

At home, I won’t eat a pizza with mushrooms. Here, I used my chopsticks to devour fried mushrooms, packed with flavor and spice.

I had dumplings, and ate leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables. There were pancakes made out of zucchini.

I’m by no means a salad specialist, but the one I ate here — fairly simple greens, with pine nut dressing — was one of the best I’ve ever had. I couldn’t tell what half the things before me were, but all of it tasted good.

Dessert consisted of sweet potato chips and a sweet drink that hit the spot.

The restaurant has rooms partitioned off with rice paper screens where people sit on the wooden floor. (Perhaps sensing I was the kind of guest who would try to eat a napkin, they seated me at one of the tables.) Brightly lighted, it is a place where your inner Zen is easy to find.

I left feeling full and proud, but I discovered the enlightenment I had found had its limits.

Upon returning home, with no monks to prepare my meals, my diet reverted to burgers and pizza — hold the mushrooms.

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.
Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week