BUKHA-MYEON — When I arrived at Baekyangsa temple in South Jeolla province, 270 kilometers south of the South Korean capital of Seoul, I was met with rain sliding from tiled roofs.
The venerable Jeong Kwan was waiting for me in front of the Chunjinam hermitage. Like all Buddhist monks and nuns, Jeong Kwan’s head is shaved. She looks grandmotherly in her grey robe, but she won’t tell me how old she is. Then again, age is just a number. The nun has lived at the temple since she was 17, and she’s been cooking for even longer.
She says she feels a spiritual connection with the food she prepares. “Humans are like seeds. You plant a seed in the soil and it grows,” she told me. “Just like the way we come from our mothers’ bodies. This is how we are all connected to the universe. Nature takes time to grow all things. I can be a cucumber, I can be cabbage. When I cook, I become that ingredient.”
Jeong Kwan speaks mostly in Buddhist spiritual terms — it’s a little over my head. But this perspective on food and life is what has made her a celebrity, philosopher chef. Last year, she was featured in the Netflix documentary series The Chef’s Table. Now food lovers from far and wide make the pilgrimage to Baekyangsa to learn from her.
The nun has lived at the temple since she was 17 — Photo: Giancarlo Cadengue
But Jeong Kwan says her new celebrity status has not changed her. She is a monk first, chef second. Inside a sanctuary, Jeong Kwan shows me how to pray in front of a large Buddha statue. She says there is no difference between meditating here and cooking in the kitchen.
“To me, cooking is like praying. When I enter the kitchen, I enter without thoughts. It’s just like I am bowing to Buddha. I concentrate only on myself and what I’m doing at that moment. I hope that those who eat what I’ve cooked feel happy and at peace,” she says.
The kitchen is where Jeong Kwan says she can best communicate with others. Standing in front of the stove, she’s preparing seaweed soup. Next to her are bowls of diced kimchi, persimmons and noodles. All ingredients are grown on or near the temple grounds.
Unlike a lot of Korean cuisine, which relies heavily on salt, pepper paste and other sauces, Jeong Kwan says she keeps her dishes simple.
“It’s like if you put on too much make up, you don’t feel free. So when I cook, I avoid using too much sauce or marinade. I want to maximize the original taste of the ingredient. I seek the emotional flavor of a vegetable”
She says you need to taste the food with your entire body. But most people don’t understand that what they put in their mouths affects them in ways they never expect. “These days people eat too much fast food, especially those who live in cities,” she says. “When you eat this kind of food, your mind also rushes. It makes you angry, or violent. I think by eating slow food, it transforms you as well, but in a positive way.”
Last year, Jeong Kwan was featured in the Netflix documentary series The Chef’s Table — Photo: Sweet Beet Acupuncture
And don’t cook when you’re angry either, Jeong Kwan adds. It poisons the food and will make those who eat it angry, too.
When dinner is served, we eat soybean stew, shitake mushrooms and multigrain rice. It is a delicious feast, but Jeong Kwan doesn’t think it's anything special. She says food is just fuel for her meditation. She never actually craves anything.
“All human beings have three desires. The desire to sleep, the desire to eat and the desire to live for a long time,” she tells me. “But if you can’t relinquish these desires, then you’ll never become free or enlightened. Giving up the desire to eat is the most difficult. I think if we all could end this desire then we’d all feel more comfortable”
Giving up wanting food? I find that hard to swallow. I also can’t believe she doesn’t crave anything from outside the temple. So before I said good-bye to Jeong Kwan, I had to ask if she had any guilty pleasures. What she told me was, well, enlightening.
“Well, sometimes, not too often, I enjoy ice cream, or maybe chocolate. Especially after I’ve been meditating all day,” she says with a giggle. “I feel ice cream really refreshes my body and energy.”
Vanilla and green tea flavored ice cream to be exact, she adds.
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