Neatly tucked away in Naejangsan National Park you’ll find Chunjinam hermitage part of Baekyangsa temple, a few hours south by bullet train from Seoul. Here, surrounded by mountains, trees, insects, animals and clear waters Jeong Kwan manages her private cooking studio besides performing her daily duties as a Buddhist nun.
Thanks to her appearance in season 3 of Netflix series Chef’s Table, Jeong Kwan Sunim is now the front woman of a cooking tradition labeled ‘Temple food’ or ‘Temple cuisine’. The popularity of this type of cooking has sky rocketed amongst Western travelers. Balwoo Gongyang, part of Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, even carries a Michelin star since 2017. It’s one of the few Michelin starred vegan restaurants in the world. If you’re curious to find how tasty vegan cooking can be, it’s definitely time to dive into temple food.
Soil to soul
Once you connect with Jeong Kwan’s mindset and experience her food coming from her own garden down the road, you immediately know most of us have completely lost touch with nature. ‘Farm to table’ or ‘locally sourced’ have become marketing terms in major supermarkets without any added value whatsoever besides a higher price tag. Lots of hip terms form external triggers to present us the idea of buying high quality food while being responsible consumers.
From a Buddhist nun’s perspective every single ingredient has a certain truth encapsulated in it, the essence of what it can taste like when grown and prepared with attention. Slow cooking and aging or fermenting marries well in this type of kitchen. Fermenting has a long tradition in South Korea. It may come to no surprise that in Jeong Kwan’s kitchen almost all dressings, sauces or seasoning are made with fermentation to bring out a distinct character.
During our visit we get to taste kimchi aged for 5 years, but we’re told some clay pots carry kimchi that are fermenting for over 100 years! Aging beautifully gets a whole new meaning. The process is somewhat uncontrolled, natural and therefor never the same. That’s why most of it cannot be copied. Every fermentation process will turn out differently according to attention, surroundings and weather. This way flavor isn’t something that’s just added afterwards.
In that sense Jeong Kwan sheds a whole new light on food adding elegance and taste, but without ego. She looks closely at the nature of the ingredient. In her mind every plant or vegetable is already perfect, as she cooks she observes (and tastes) to feel if it stays true to its innate nature. Her mastery lies in simplicity, by taking time to let every ingredient pass through her hands letting every leaf or root speak for itself.
Talk to the heart
Korean temple cuisine is made without meat, fish, dairy, garlic or onions, ingredients that arouse the body and interfere with a calm mind. Like in yoga philosophy and Ayurveda certain foods have the properties to balance out or even heal illness and physical conditions. Food can truly be medicine.
On top of that everything we eat or prepare has a certain vibration. The way food is handled has an effect on how it impacts your body. Jeong Kwan chooses to use her hands as much as possible, kitchen utensils, even knifes are barely used. Those who are familiar with the human chakra system know how our hands are connected to the heart chakra. You could say this chef fully connects with the food, only adding care, love and attention. She lets her heart speak through her cooking.
If you open up to her philosophy, carefully prepared mushrooms can soon make you forget about meat. A full force of flavors will smack you in the mouth, while leaving your guts happy and healthy too. It’s true, Jeong Kwan’s cooking isn’t meant to just wow you on the plate (although it does look beautiful), she’s preparing food in such a way, she can touch your heart.
After lunch we meditate
As we all sit silently, a small gust of wind passes. I have a sense she’s touching every single one of us with child like joy. When we open our eyes again she concludes the afternoon with one simple question: “Happy?”