▲ Restaurateur and cook Kim Ae Ja serves delicous temple food in the warm environs of her own home. Photos by Tracie Barrett
Since I returned to Jeju several months ago, I have resisted friends and colleagues when they have, many times, tried to take me to a particular temple food restaurant. It’s not that I have anything against healthy, organic food. In fact, I lived on an organic farm in New Zealand where most of our vegetables were freshly picked and simply prepared, but I’ve had many experiences of vegetarian food that failed to satisfy my palate.
To all those friends - I was wrong! The food at Mulmaegol, located in the home of owner, Kim Ae Ja, in the Aewol district, is superb and I have been craving one particular salad every day since my visit. Going there, I was glad my friend Jenie had agreed to accompany me, not only so she could translate for me but because Mulmaegol was further out of town than I had expected and she is also a regular diner there. We arrived, on one of spring’s last snow-filled days (I hope) and entered the house to find two long wooden tables low to the floor, another with chairs for those less comfortable with sitting cross-legged, and more low seating in an adjacent room. The warmth of the wood was added to by the many craftworks displayed around the room, including hand-dyed and sewn scarves and clothing, cushions and linen made of traditional galot (persimmon dyed cloth), ceramic and pottery items and teas and foodstuffs.
Owner Kim added to the warmth of the welcome, greeting us wearing a tie-dyed tunic and scarves and a huge smile, and I felt I’d found an oasis of calm in the midst of my hectic work-week. She explained that since young, she had suffered an allergic reaction to meat and found at an early age that temple food suited her best. In 2005, she met a monk named Sun Jae while taking a masters course in Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University. Sun Jae, who has published books on temple food, was teaching how to cook such meals as part of the course. Kim noticed many similarities with local Jeju food so she invited the monk to visit her here and, in 2007, opened a tea and temple food cafe at Gwaneumsa, before moving her restaurant to her home.
I knew I liked the owner cum chef but was still a little hesitant about the food so we ordered a buffet meal, but asked that we only get a small taste of each dish so as not to waste any food. A seaweed porridge arrived first, accompanied by tiny pancakes, a selection of kimchi dishes, rice wrapped in lotus leaves and a tasty miso-based sauce to eat with the rice. All were much more flavorsome than I had expected but my absolute favorite was an almost Thai-style salad that included tofu, apple, copious amounts of fresh coriander (also known as cilantro), which Kim grows herself, topped with a sweet and sour chili-based dressing. I devoured each last leaf from the plate and just writing about it now is teasing my taste buds.
All of this for only 10,000 won per person was a fabulous deal, and we finished our far from humble feast with shindari - a traditional fermented rice drink to which Kim adds citron to make it more pleasant. That may well be the secret of her wonderful food, as she said she takes traditional temple food recipes but then alters them to take into account what is grown locally and is in season. I’ll definitely be going back for more.
Mulmaegol 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days 795-1 Susan, Aewol-eup, Jeju City
Tel: 064-713-5486 Cell: 019-696-5486
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