The most recognised authority figure on Korean temple food shares her philosophy when it comes to cooking, and our relationship with nature.
At a one-night-only event at the Asia Society earlier this autumn, over 400 curious minds took a rare glimpse into the world of Korean temple cooking thanks to Jeong Kwan, the authority figure widely known as the philosopher chef, a term coined by journalist Jeff Gordiner two years ago in an evocative New York Times profile. But it wasn’t until the Korean nun’s appearance on the second series of Netflix’s Chef’s Table that Jeong Kwan’s story was shared on a global level, the humble figure becoming an overnight sensation.
Jeong Kwan’s food affair began at the age of 12. As a dutiful daughter, she prepared daily meals for her mother. The nature of these kitchen duties changed when she became a nun—for over 40 years, she has cooked for not only other nuns, but also for the masses who gather at the temple she stays at, the Chunjinam hermitage in Jeolla province in the south of South Korea.
Though she faced the shifting of priorities through cooking, Jeong Kwan was optimistic about these changes. “When I cooked for myself and other nuns, it is no longer just for fun. Instead it is my responsibility to use food as a bridge to help others reach enlightenment,” she explains. “It is a means for me to help them, hoping whoever consumes the food will get something out of it beyond physical satisfaction.”
Temple food, according to Jeong Kwan, is far from simply vegetarian as one might assume. Living in the remote monastery among the mountains means her diet relies on nature alone, with high regard and respect for seasonality. Simplicity may be key, but that’s not all there is.
“You need to have carbs. Basically, we will have rice, soups, and fermented foods. Kimchi, pickled vegetables, and wild plants that you can get from the mountains. The crucial thing is salt. We only use sea salt from the west coast of Korea. With the salt, I would make the sauces like soy sauce, fermented soybean pastes, and the quintessential Korean chilli sauce. If it’s in season, wild plants and vegetables are mostly just blanched and served with sauces. If it’s out of season, like winter for instance, you can dry it rehydrate it for later,” explained Jeong Kwan. “For depth in our food we would use a lot of sesame seeds in different forms—whole, powder, paste, and dressing for our blanched vegetables. We can also add sweetness from our homemade brown rice syrup, and sansho peppers harvested from the countryside. In other words, it is nature that gives us our daily food. It takes care of our seasoning, too.”
Seasonality is an essential factor to consider for Korean temple cooking, as Jeong Kwan practices farming all year round, harvesting leafy greens and fruits throughout spring and summer, and root vegetables for autumn. During the seasons of abundance, she would preserve the harvest for the cold winter ahead. “Cabbage, aubergines, and cucumbers are the most popular choices for making kimchi, but other wild greens and vegetables can be used as well.”
Despite having practised cookery for more than 40 years, Jeong Kwan thought little about the individualistic remark that she’s an expert in cooking. “I would not consider myself a good cook or not, but I do enjoy making a good difference to people who eat my food. Hopefully they will get something out of my good intentions.” Her Buddhist beliefs have a heavy influence on how she carries out her cooking, and how she views it. “Food is never just food—it is made with plants using sunshine, wind, and water, which means all ingredients are a part of nature. So are humans, as we share the air and space with everyone and everything else. We must learn to respect nature as a way to reciprocate and appreciate with gratitude. It is our duty to take greed out of our intentions and take what we need and waste less.”
The man-nature connection is the most basic concepts to understand, according to Jeong Kwan, as human beings and nature are strongly linked together. “We use ingredients in cooking, and in the process of preparing food, we develop the connection with our ingredients. The consumption of food is broken down into contributing to building our minds, which in return will facilitate the growing of more ingredients. It is the basic cycle of life, intertwining between us and our food, and rather similar to ‘you are what you eat’, even in a spiritual way.”
From the man-nature connection to the development of oneself, Jeong Kwan is keen on explaining the key to self-discipline. “As nuns we meditate as part of our discipline towards the goal of enlightenment. But not only do we need our discipline, so does everyone. Our discipline can be exercised with controlling greed or other desires that may cause harm to nature. We must strive to stay happy in a complicated world.” Jeong Kwan could not stay away from food in her explanation.
“In order to be happy in this world, one must view things in the simplest ways, or as things are without too much complications. By doing so we are sending good vibes to our surroundings, and more importantly, to our ingredients that when combined with good intentions, become good food that not only nurture others, but also to ourselves. It is as much food for the body as it is food for the mind. Everyone in the world is entitled to this.” As it turns out, happiness, according to Jeong Kwan, is about seeing good in your surroundings. A good practice to have in life, and passing it on to others, is simply the best way to make a better world.