Ever since I first came to Korea, I’ve wanted to try the Buddhist temple food on offer in a few select restaurants in the city. Considerably pricier than a regular meal (usually starting at a minimum of ₩30,000 for lunch, more for dinner), however, I wanted to make sure that I went for a special occasion; when a friend suggested that we go for my birthday, it seemed the perfect opportunity. After a little research, I chose Sanchon (산촌), which seemed to be the most renowned and well-established restaurant – it’s been going since 1980. I assumed we wouldn’t need a reservation, but on the morning of my birthday, my roommate Min called up, just in case. It’s a good job we did, because although there weren’t many patrons when we went, they actually start preparing the food before you arrive, meaning it’s best to book ahead.
My small amount of research suggested that, nestled away in one of the many winding alleyways of Insadong (인사동), Sanchon would be a tricky place to find. Given my track record of finding even very obviously located establishments, I didn’t have high hopes, but amazingly we didn’t have much trouble. Once inside, we were greeted, asked to remove our shoes and wash our hands, and shown to our table. We were immediately taken aback by the beautiful interior; trees and vines wrap their way around a kind of inner courtyard, while lanterns cast a warm, comforting glow and statues watch over the patrons.
A couple of my friends were running late (little did I know, they were choosing me a birthday cake), so the rest of us had time to enjoy some tea and admire our surroundings.
Soon enough, we also began to pore over the menu, with our excitement for the extensive range of courses growing by the minute. As it turned out, the food we ate didn’t entirely correspond with the menu, meaning there were a few dishes that we couldn’t fully identify. I imagine this is because the menu changes seasonally, and by no means were disappointed by what we did eat – it was all delicious.
Soon after my other friends arrived, we were furnished with our first course – 묵 (muk, jellied foods), different types of seaweed, some crispy puffed rice, ‘plain’ kimchi (the first green kimchi I’ve ever come across), and some seasonal 죽 (juk, porridge), which luckily for me was my favourite type – 호박 (hobak, pumpkin) – and absolutely delicious. A bottle beautifully presented wrapped up in ribbon, which you can see below, contained a tasty beverage, though we spent a little time debating on whether it was vaguely alcoholic or not. In the end, we decided it probably wasn’t.
Next up came 전 (jeon, savoury pancake – one of my all-time favourite Korean foods), some skewered mushrooms with a delightfully meaty texture, crispy, flavoured seaweed, and salad.
The main section of the meal came beautifully presented in a wicker basket, complete with flowers. Inside were seven different types of wild herbs and vegetables, each with a distinctive taste. A couple were a little too bitter for my liking, but I thoroughly enjoyed the others. These seven dishes were accompanied by various other things such as 잡채 (japchae, sweet potato noodles – another of my favourite Korean foods), 찌개 (jjigae, stew), potatoes, kimchi, delicious sticky rice, and more. All of this was topped off with huge leaves to wrap a selection of foods inside and enjoy, much like those provided at Korean BBQ restaurants.
We had two sets of this enormous section of the meal between five of us, and we couldn’t finish everything, though we really tried. Almost too full to continue, thankfully we only had dessert left, which was a nice, light course of crispy vegetable chips – including delicious sweet potato chips (which I could easily eat every single day) and lotus root chips. As we were leaving, I noticed that you can actually buy bags of these at the counter, which was very tempting. Another sweet tea completed the meal.
This was certainly one of the most wonderful and memorable meals I’ve had the privilege of eating. The food itself boasted a huge range of flavours and textures, and was beautifully complimented by the gorgeous setting and calming ambience of the restaurant itself. I would strongly recommend a visit, whether or not you are vegetarian or vegan. If you are, then as well as the meal, please enjoy the novelty of a Korean restaurant where you can eat absolutely everything that is placed in front of you; if not, it’s a unique experience to enjoy traditional Buddhist cuisine, and the meal is an excellent reminder that meat is not always necessary.
산촌/Sanchon is located at 서울특별시 종로구 관훈동 14 (14 Gwanhun-dong, Chongno-gu, Seoul) / 서울특별시 종로구 인사동길 30-13 (30-13, Insadong-gil, Chongno-gu, Seoul)
Lunch: ₩33,000 / Dinner: ₩45,000
Extra drinks (including alcohol) can be purchased for an additional cost
Traditional Korean performances (approx. one hour) are held at 8pm every evening, and can be enjoyed at no extra cost