DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Maybe you've had that friend come back from a particularly gluttonous vacation and declare, I am going on a detox diet. I don't know; maybe that person has been you. Detox diets are all the rage right now, but they come and go like other fads. Although in South Korea, one popular detox diet has staying power. It's been around for more than 1,000 years. Ari Shapiro, I am all ears.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CAWING)
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This diet has been around at least 1,600 years to be precise. That's when Jingkwansa temple was founded here in the mountains where two streams meet. The countryside around Seoul is dotted with Buddhist temples. Each has its own specialty. Jingkwansa is famous for two reasons. First, it's run entirely by women. Our tour guide directs the temple stay program for visitors to Jingkwansa.
SUN WOO: My name is Sun Woo. Everybody, nice to meet you.
SHAPIRO: Like all the nuns here, Sun Woo has a shaved head and wears traditional gray robes. The day before our visit, the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, was here.
WOO: And she interested in many Korean women's education.
SHAPIRO: But we're here to learn about Jingkwansa's second claim to fame. This place is renowned for preserving the ancient art of Korean temple cuisine.
WOO: You have to feel every food. And after then, your radio program is better, OK?
SHAPIRO: Wow, OK.
SHAPIRO: Sun Woo leads us into a room with sliding doors. Inside, there are at least 25 different dishes on the table. That variety is typical of a Korean lunch. Here's what makes temple food different.
WOO: There is no meat and no fish and no MSG and no garlic, no onion, no green onion, spring onion and leek.
SHAPIRO: It sounds remarkably bland. But the foods are pungent, fiery, funky or puckeringly tart. There are mushroom fritters, fermented radishes, fried roots and sauteed greens. Once we can't eat anymore, Sun Woo takes us to a roped-off corner of the temple grounds to show us one secret of monastic cuisine. The spot is in full sun all day long. That's important.
So you've brought us to this platform where there are dozens of ceramic jars of different sizes, each with lids. What's going on inside these jars?
WOO: OK, this platform is important to ferment many soybean sauce or soybean paste.
SHAPIRO: How many different kinds of soybean sauce do you make?
WOO: We can make 30 kinds of sauce - depend on our food. But this platform just period is different only - 20 or 50 years period fermentation.
SHAPIRO: There are soybeans that have fermented for 50 years here?
WOO: Of course, but it's a secret.
SHAPIRO: People come here to experience these secrets. During our visit, 240 visitors were participating in the temple stay program, waking up at 3:30 each morning to meditate and detox. Finally, we go to meet the woman who runs this temple. We sit on mats, drinking iced tea made from local berries and speak with Gye Ho. She has been a nun for more than 50 years.
GYE HO: (Foreign language spoken).
SHAPIRO: "We recognize that the best sauce in the world is the heart that we put into our cooking," she says. She explains that everything here is natural. Even the cups are made of wood. There was one last question I had to ask.
Do you ever just crave French fries or chocolate?
HO: (Foreign language spoken).
SHAPIRO: She says, "everyone has cravings. When I have them, I focus my mind by making noodles." Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Seoul.