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Mountain Food in the Middle of Seoul

By Lee Hwan-hee, The Korea Times, Aug 16, 2007

Seoul, South Korea -- Sanchon, meaning "mountain village," boasts vegetarian dishes made from all-natural ingredients. The restaurant is located in the heart of Insa-dong, which is primarily known for antique shops and foreign tourists.

<< Radish Mushrooms, Peppers and Other Vegetables, Wrapped in Thin Vermicelli Pancake

If you're not acquainted with the area, it is advisable that you bring along someone who is, for to get there is immensely confusing, albeit in a delightful way, stroll through a tangle of narrow alleyways packed with shops, restaurants, and people.

Sanchon is in a trendy and famous part of Insa-dong, with its menu proudly incorporating a copy of a New York Times review from the 1980s. But it is not at all a trendy-looking place. It is a traditional Korean building that incorporates elements of Korean Buddhist temples, such as wooden columns and floors and stone steps. It is a cozy, if a bit spare-looking, place. Likewise, the menu has only two choices: lunch at 19,800 Won or dinner at 35,200 Won.

<<Fried Vegetables

The menu informs us that the owner of the place, Kim Yon-shik, was a Buddhist monk for the fifteen years of his life. Indeed, the vegetarian dishes that the restaurant serves are called "sachal'' food, meaning temple food, for Buddhist monks. Though a vegetarian restaurant in a tourist district, being run by a former Buddhist monk sounds somewhat kitschy, vegetarianism is in fact an integral part of Korean Buddhism.

The full-course lunch includes twenty dishes, including appetizers and desserts, and most of them are not separate dishes to be eaten on their own, but eaten as side dishes along with rice. These add-ons include seasoned vegetables and plant roots of various sorts, and steamed bean curd and soybean stew. To native Koreans seeking novelty, the appeal of these dishes is probably not terribly great, given that one can find them readily in Buddhist temples anywhere in Korea.

But a couple of dishes may broaden the restaurant's appeal beyond tourists: they are fried vegetables of various sorts, and Korean pancakes. The pancakes are crispy, not oily, and the wide array of vegetables includes mushrooms, squash, and sesame leaves, all well kept from being soggy.

The best, and the most novel, dish one would experience in the restaurant is what the menu calls "bing,'' which is described as radish mushrooms, peppers, and other vegetables wrapped in a thin vermicelli pancake, which, ironically looks like a thin slice of rolled-up meat, but it is actually quite sweet in taste and is pleasingly chewy. The dish is closest in taste and texture to Korean rice cake with fillings, but it has a strong cinnamon-like flavor, which is not common in a rice cake.

The restaurant is open from 11am to 10pm, and for reservation and information, call (02) 735-0312 or 0709. Its address is Jongno-gu, Gwanhoon-dong 14. By subway one should get off at Anguk station, and as it is a little difficult to find, one should consult the map provided on its website (www.sanchon.com) before venturing out.

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