I went to one of Seoul’s famous Vegan-friendly restaurants in Insadong, and it is SO worth it.
My favorite place in Seoul will always be Insadong. The areas of Korea that are a mix of traditional culture surrounded by the evolving and ever-changing modern world have always fascinated me. I have been there at least 50 times each trip to Seoul, and I always find something new; like Sanchon, for example.
Sanchon is a beautiful restaurant run by Kim Yeon Shik – a former Buddhist monk who now creates beautiful and delicious temple inspired food with his family. They serve set menus at a fixed per person price that changes slightly for both lunch and dinner that change seasonally. If you go for dinner, there is even a free traditional performance at 8 PM every day.
Although Sanchon serves beautiful and tasty temple foods, it is to be noted that they are prepared a bit different from how they are made in the temples. Kim Yeon Shik utilizes what is known as Oshinchae (오신채) or 5 Forbidden Foods/Spices which are garlic, onion, scallions, chives, and dalrae (달래), which is a type of small wild onion. These are not allowed for monks to consume as they are believed to cause lust, anger and can interfere with their meditation. You can, however, get your food without these 5 items used but you must make a reservation at least one day prior.
Now let’s get to my favorite part – the actual food! This place was like heaven for me - there are soups, salad, and THE BEST banchan.
Our 18 dish meal started off with a nice hot cup of tea, a bowl of water kimchi and a bowl of a pumpkin porridge with red beans. Pumpkin porridge is one of my favorite Korean dishes and Sanchon made it really well. Unlike when I make it at home, it had a beautifully smooth texture - although I was sad that there were no rice balls in my bowl like how I typically have this porridge. The water kimchi was crisp, refreshing, and extremely fresh, being no more than a day or two old. The bits of radish still had a nice bite to them that cut through the simple texture of its accompanied porridge.
Midway through our bowls, a white square plate with more food was brought to our table. This is an ongoing trend of the meal - as dishes are finished, new ones are introduced. This first plate had an assortment of acorn jelly, crispy seaweed, seasoned lotus root and something I was too distracted to get the name of even though she said it twice. It was a flattened ball of rice cake sandwiched between two green cross hatched squares. Mostly, we just did not enjoy the outside texture of this dish as it felt like eating a square of gauze.
We were also given a small wrapped bottle of a delicious drink that had a slight tang like alcohol, but did not contain any. Some meals do provide an alcoholic beverage though!
Once all of these dishes were finally cleared, the second portion of the meal arrived. This portion consisted of marinated mushrooms on a stick that had a deliciously meaty texture, dried seaweed scraps that I sprinkled on my bean rice, and different blanched green leaves that came with Ssamjang and Gochujang - a fermented soybean paste and a red pepper paste respectively. We weren’t too excited about the blanched leaves, but we really enjoyed the bean and mushroom rice and the mushrooms on a stick, to the extent that we have been looking for places to buy them in the states.
Halfway through, we were once again brought more dishes including a kimchi root vegetable and marinated tofu in small bowls, and a plate containing a scallion pajeon and a wild herbs salad that contained herbs lettuce and dehydrated vegetables. While my best friend stole the bowl of tofu and the pajeon, I had the crispy aromatic salad to myself. This course of food had a larger variety of flavors compared to the previous one, and I personally enjoyed it more.
Lastly, we were served the 7 Greens course. The main dishes came in a shallow wicker basket with a small flower decoration and was surrounded by 10 other small bowls and a hot stone bowl of a mushroom juk (porridge). This was the glorious course for us as it was nothing but delicious banchan. There were a few different kimchi dishes, a small dish of vegetable japchae, more of the marinated tofu, small braised potatoes, Gosari (fernbrake), radishes and of course - mushrooms!
Everything in this course was beyond amazing. The different textures, the different seasonings, the mushrooms!! We couldn’t get enough. It was like a well-choreographed dance break on our taste buds and was something we were glad to have experienced. The real fun came when we were given an assortment of leaves to eat these dishes with. Mixing the flavors and textures was fun and delicious. And parents say don’t play with your food. Ha! But we were definitely full by the end of each bowl.
That is until dessert came about!
Dessert is always a favorite of mine, and Korean desserts are no exception. So when the lovely ahjumma completely cleared our table and came back with the last plate in all its simplicity, I felt complete. On a white plate similar to what we had received throughout the meal was a pristine arrangement of vegetable chips in three corners, a crispy puffed rice snack (I prefer the chewy ones I buy in grocery stores) in the last corner, and a small flower arrangement between two petite glasses of cold tea in the center. It was like the bow on a Christmas gift. Even better was finding out that we could buy some of the chips in the small shop area of the restaurant! We felt fancy at our little table with this cute arrangement, enjoying the earthy taste of the lotus chips being broken up with the sweeter, slightly chewy taste of the sweet potato chips. And the tea! Absolutely fantastic.
If you go for dinner and the show, this is where the lights will dim and the dancers will come out for their show, which is roughly 45 minutes of music and dance.
All in all, we were so full we had to be rolled out the door with smiles on our faces. Sanchon is definitely a place anyone should try. For a little place tucked behind an alley, it really does feel like walking into another era. So be sure to make your reservations as well as learn more about Sanchon including the location HERE on their official website, and remember you should wait to do big and bold fun things before going or at least an hour after going so that the food coma doesn't hit you.
Have you been to Sanchon? If so, what was your seasonal menu? We would love to hear what else we can try throughout the year!