Bolting Lettuce Pancake and
Bolting Lettuce Kimchi
At Baengnyeonam Hermitage of Haeinsa Temple
Don’t Throw Away Even Lettuce Stems
Leafy vegetables like cabbage and spinach are known to “bolt.” Some people call it “going to seed.” When that happens, they lose their taste, the leaves become tough, and they grow a tall stem. Many people consider them inedible at that point. However, lettuce is an exception. Lettuce has the softest leaves among leafy vegetables, and even the stems of bolting lettuce are tender. Without the need for much compost, they continually grow new leaves from spring through summer. That’s why for centuries people have praised lettuce as an “Cheongeum-chae” (lit. veggie of a thousand pieces of gold), and made it the main item in their home garden.
In summer, when we lose our appetite and lack sleep, there is no other vegetable as good for the body as lettuce. However, bolting lettuce tastes too bitter to be eaten fresh, despite the known medicinal value of bitter plants. Still, with their tradition of not wasting even the smallest amount of food, ancient temples didn’t throw away bolting lettuce.
In early summer when rain is frequent, leaf lettuce has almost reached the end of its season. Lettuce grows thick stems, and its leaves get thicker and shorter. Things are different today with a sufficient food supply, but in the past, every temple had a fairly large lettuce patch. That’s why temple tables were filled with diverse kinds of lettuce dishes every day, beginning from the moment it sprouted to when it bolted. Lettuce was used for rice wraps, fresh kimchi, salad, kimchi pancakes, steamed dishes, soups and even doenjang (fermented bean paste) stew. Leaving small numbers of plants to grow in order to collect the seeds, the rest was used for side dishes without discarding even one stem. Naturally, cooking recipes had to be diverse.
Arriving Too Early for Bolting Lettuce
Of the many different dishes made from bolting lettuce, the most well-known are lettuce pancakes and lettuce kimchi, made at Baengnyeonam hermitage and Haeinsa temple. Devotees who have tasted them have spread the word. Thus, all over Gyeongsang-do province, lay people regard these two dishes as a summer delicacy, and many city residents originally from that area miss them.
Because of this, I began my journey lighthearted. I visited Baengnyeonam first because I remembered that a few years ago I had tasted various dishes there made from bolting lettuce three days in a row; and also because Baengnyeonam is blessed by the footsteps of Master Seongcheol. It also has the added charm of being able to walk along a mountain path. However, out of carelessness, I went there based solely on a phone conversation I had with the kitchen master, who told me the lettuce patch was as well maintained as ever. Well, that was true, but there had been a change of personnel. The monk in charge of the kitchen was a new postulant, and the kitchen master was a new lay Buddhist woman. Both of them were unfamiliar with the local term for “bolting lettuce.” In desperation, I followed the old lady I escorted as a helper to the vegetable garden. Alas, young lettuce was prospering well, but there was no bolting lettuce. Because the hermitage is high on a mountain, the season for lettuce arrives late, and I had come too early, specifically to taste a dish made from bolting lettuce. What a disaster!
Laity Remembers Its Precious Taste
Fortunately, some of my old friends who live in Busan, Masan and Gyeongnam province are faithful devotees of Baengnyeonam, and I consulted them. Half out of worry and half out of encouragement, they enthusiastically responded. My phone kept ringing as they told me their memories of the taste of bolting lettuce pancakes and kimchi they had eaten there; they also gave me their recipes. Just in time, I was connected to a friend who had just picked a basket of bolting lettuce on her weekend farm and was about to make kimchi. She said she would send the bolting lettuce right away. My crisis was averted.
Dishes made from bolting lettuce fell out of favor at temples with the changing times, but the laity who had visited the temples for decades and had eaten it had not forgotten its precious taste. Their cherished memories helped me recreate the dishes, and the Buddhist faith of my old friend who wanted to repay a debt of gratitude to the late Master Seongcheol was more than beautiful. It is our natural duty as Buddhists to preserve the traditional culture of Korean Buddhism, but this time I felt my efforts were truly worthwhile.
Baengnyeonam Hermitage of Haeinsa Temple
122 Haeinsa-gil, Gaya-myeon, Hapcheon-gun, Gyeongnam Province, South Korea