Buddhist Cuisine Is Hitting The Masses At Chef Ji Hye Kim's Michigan Restaurant

She’s serving mindful goodness.

Courtesy of Chef Ji Hye Kim
buddhist cuisine Chef Ji Hye Kim

For some, cooking is simply necessary, a chore in life to keep one fed and nourished. For others, time in the kitchen is a hobby or passion, a time to play and be creative. And then there are those for whom cooking is a more spiritual practice, a vehicle to connect with yourself and the world on a deeper level. In the Buddhist faith, for example, diet is embedded in the self-enlightenment-focused philosophy. This approach is actually what brought award-winning Chef Ji Hye Kim to build her culinary career, and her buzzy Ann Arbor, Michigan, restaurant Miss Kim around Buddhist temple cuisine.

Kim’s love affair with food first began at home. Born in South Korea, she explains that, growing up, her house was always filled with family and delicious meals. “I'm the firstborn of my generation, and my mother is a firstborn and my father is a firstborn,” explains Kim to TZR. “That information is important because that meant that every holiday was at my house.” As the best cook in the family, Kim’s mother was typically the designated chef for most occasions. But, during special holidays, everyone would get involved. “All the cousins, uncles, aunts, they all congregated in our house and we spent two to three big holidays making lots of food together. For New Year, there would be dumpling making, for Harvest Moon Festival, we would make stuffed rice cakes.”

After moving to the U.S. as a teenager, Kim pursued a career in political science and economics. earning degrees in each at the University of Michigan. At the time, the chef says her education was a means to retaining a student visa and eventually landing a job that would support a green card. “I never had an opportunity to ask myself, What is it that I want to do?” Then, an epiphany hit her in her 20s, while working away from home at one of her first “white-collar” desk jobs: She missed her mother’s cooking. In an effort to self-soothe, Kim began to re-create the home-cooked meals she was raised with herself, unearthing a true passion for the culinary arts.


In making the abrupt decision to change the direction of her career, Kim also decided not to pursue typical culinary education. “I didn't want to go to culinary school in the United States because I was very clear that I wanted to do Korean food,” she says. “So my way of digging into that was to look at different types of Korean food and really studying it. I was looking at ancient Korean cookbooks from the 15th century, 16th century, 17th century, all the way to early 20th century, trying to decipher the stories of these dishes that we eat today.”

It was in this research that Kim, who was raised in a Christian household, stumbled upon the ancient principles of Korean Buddhist temple cuisine. Originally followed by monks and rooted in Mahayana Buddhism (which reached the Korean peninsula from China in the 4th century), this diet is commonly understood to be vegan and vegetarian, based on the Dharmic concept of ahimsa, or non-violence. “The mindful eating of Buddhist monks include green food only,” explains food and beverage research analyst Sagar Kasturi. “There is a saying from a Buddhist monk [Gurdev Singh], ‘A lion can fight for up to three hours continuously but gets tired soon. However, an elephant can fight continuously for 20 hours.’ Hence, green food has more power than flesh.”

Kim is quick to clarify that while a plant-based approach to eating is common in a Buddhist diet, this is “not the entire story,” and that Korean Buddhist cuisine is actually centered around being rooted in where you are. “Buddhists often have their own garden and get everything within the area that the temple is,” she explains. “They don't go and use a whole bunch of expensive imported ingredients, for example. So they're very tied to their own local bubble.”

And, yes, avoiding killing is emphasized in the Buddhist faith, but that doesn’t always mean meat is off the table completely. “It’s more about no lives being lost because you wanted to have a bowl of food,” says Kim. “Buddhists used to get food donated to them. So if it was a donated food and it had already been made, I believe that was OK. And I don't want to give this example, but let's say there was a roadkill and it's already dead by accident, then that is also OK because that was not an unnecessary killing just for the food. So those things really intrigued me.”

Buddhist cuisine can include the restriction of certain strong-smelling vegetables, particularly alliums like shallots, garlic, onions, chives, and leeks (“believing that eating them raw will raise anger and when cooked, will stimulate sexual desire,” says Kasturi), so methods like fermentation are often employed to bring out flavors in foods. This was another point of interest for Kim. “They're not trying to make up for the lack of meat, they're just looking for deeper flavor and really digging into the existing fermentation traditions of Korean cuisine,” she says. “So they make their own sauces, they make their own syrups, and they may harvest their own spices. So I think that's all in line with traditional Korean food.”


With a newly vested interest in this niche food category, Kim got to work, experimenting with various recipes and ingredients, and leveraging the principles and restrictions of a traditional vegan Buddhist diet to expand her creativity and skills as a culinary artist. “I stick to avoiding alliums, but you have many ways to get around to it,” she says. “A lot of it is heavier use of ginger and making good use of different peppers. So, between those things, you actually get a good amount of kick in your food without having to use garlic.”

In addition to the vegan and allium-free components, Kim says keeping her ingredients as locally sourced as possible is another Buddhist tradition she adheres to in her restaurant, which she opened in 2016. “I try to stick to really sourcing local vegetables and local vegetables for the vegetarian dishes that I label as ‘Buddhist’ [on the menu],” explains Kim. “But I don't make a claim that it's 100% local because we get our rice from either Korea or California, definitely not local. Michigan is not a rice-growing state. So I make a 100% effort to use as many local ingredients as possible, but I don't make a claim of 100% local in those dishes.”

This last statement is key in that it also aligns with the Korean Buddhist philosophy of avoiding taking anything to an intense or all-consuming level. “The practice of connecting with the soil and connecting with ingredients, and then bringing the dishes together with your whole heart to serve to your family and your community, [is important],” says Kim. “But [Buddhists] also emphasize not having that to be an obsession, not to take it to the extreme because now you're sort of worshiping that obsession. So not turning it into your desire and obsession, but still putting in your 100%.”

With these principles in place, Miss Kim offers a garden variety of Korean dishes. While many are not inherently aligned with Buddhist cuisine, a good portion are vegan, and align with the faith’s traditional diet. There’s the Lotus Roots, which consist of toasted cashews in doenjang and green pepper sauce, served over lotus roots. Every May, in honor of the Buddha’s birthday, the eatery offers a vegan bibimbap that has Californian or Korean rice. “All the vegetables are very local,” explains Kim, noting there are various farms she partners with for her fresh produce. “So it has microgreens, beets, and spinach. We try to get as many local vegetables as possible and avoid alliums. We put it all in a bowl that's light and beautiful and nutritious.” (Miss Kim also serves a Buddhist-friendly gochujang sauce or ramp soy sauce that does not have any garlic.)


Much of the menu is also inspired by the home-cooked Korean dishes Kim was raised on (like the Soy Butter Rice) as well as other cuisines that have inspired the chef along the way, like pickled fried green tomatoes, which are offered at the end of summer, and Cacio e Pepe Tteokbokki. “The fact that it's vegan, the fact that it's local, the fact that it's seasonal, and then it's lightly deep-fried, to me, that's like a continuation of how we work with Buddhist cuisine ideas at my restaurant,” explains Kim of the former, traditional Southern-style dish. “But we don't put it out there like, ‘This is Buddhist fried green tomatoes.’ At Miss Kim, 56% of all the dishes that we sell are vegan or vegetarian. We're not a vegetarian restaurant, but we just have a lot of vegetables on the menu and they’re popular across the board, whether you're a meat lover or folks who are coming in as vegetarian.”