Jeong Kwan: A Day in the Life of a Korean Monk Chef

Today was a very happy day. I met Jeong Kwan seonnim, a monk (who happens to be great at cooking) featured on Netflix’s Chef Table Season 3, and ate her food! The experience was worth the journey; it’s practically why I went to Korea. I guarantee a day with her will change the way you think about food. I don’t believe I will meet another person that shares her love for cooking in the same way.

1. Signing up and getting to Chunjinam hermitage

The hermitage is part of Baekyangsa temple, south west region of Korea, in the Jirisan mountain. We signed up online for the Temple Food Experience.

Jeong Kwan seonnim is too busy these days (in the words of her assistant) and she only cooks for guests in the weekends. She travels in the weekdays, in Korea or abroad, to share her love for Buddhist temple food.

We went on the KTX train from Seoul to Jeongeup [정읍] Station then took a 30 minute taxi [~36,000 won].

2. Cooking temple food with Jeong Kwan

Jeong Kwan’s two assistants cooking

Three Philosophy in Buddhist Cooking

  • Dehydration · using the sun to naturally draw water out from the plants to preserve for the winter time.
  • Fermentation · using jocheong (rice syrup, seonnim makes it by hand in a time-consuming process), soy sauce (also made by hand), salt, or red pepper powder. She showed us a vegetable to eat only after 3 years of fermentation! The richness and complexity in flavour this process creates is unlike anything I tasted. Umami is the word Japanese people use for flavour that engages all of your taste buds.
  • Seasonality · seonnim uses plants that are in season in her garden, province, and country. She will not use ingredients that are imported. Everything is fresh and there is no waste created in transportation.

Preparing Ingredients

Upstairs she has a large kitchen. She first showed us how to trim the ends of greens grown above 700m in the northern Gangwon province and available only in May that seonnim picked yesterday. She only picks the young part of the plant at the top for us to eat raw. I see the ends of her fingers were stained with soil; she gardens and handles vegetables so often that it has left a stain that won’t be erased.

As seonnim prepares the vegetables, she picks off a raw leaf for each of us to try. She does this in each step of the cooking process. We can see how the ingredient transforms over time and how she’s retained the raw flavour of each green in the process.

Preparing sinabeoul [sp?] with Mama and Jeong Kwa, it’s furry and more fibrous than spinach

She then blanched the vegetables and made kanjang (fermented soy sauce with jocheong) on the burners. She would stuff a whole leaf in her mouth to taste her cooking, none of that dainty teaspoon tasting!

We washed many bunches of maneuljjong (chives) with her assistant. With her hands, she gently dunked one bunch inside a large circular pail and we mimicked her method. The maneuljjong looks very fresh. I’ve never seen someone so methodical about vegetable washing.

We watched her cook sticky sweet rice in shiitake-soaked water. The subtle flavours in everyday dishes that she composes is magic for me. She pays attention to the details and smash the stems of the leaves with the end of her knife, so the texture is similar to the leaves of the plant.

She cooked the sinabeoul [sp?], which are the bags of green leaves she picked from Gangwon, two ways, one in the pot with the rice and the other blanched. Both ways, she uses her hands to incorporate the small amount of soy sauce, jocheong, and bean paste into the vegetables. They say the warmth of the hands affect the flavour. The hand is used in each step, from gardening to the table.

While cooking, she picked up a large leaf once and hid her face behind it! She is super silly and a joy to be around; we all laughed many times. She’s over 60, but she’s faster than any of us combined; she’ll be out the door with her shoes on and upstairs way before any of us young’ins.

Simple whole foods – vegan and organic too!

Enjoying lunch

Downstairs, we watched seonnim’s assistant cook dotori-muk (acorn jelly) and prepared fermented perilla leaves, marinated tofu and cucumbers, fermented greens in red pepper paste, and soft stems in sesame sauce. Seonnim uses very little sauce to enhance the natural flavour of the leaves. We ate three types of plants raw, all picked from Gangwon. She tore apart the larger leaves for us by hand. We dipped it in bean paste, mixed with mild green peppers. Together with the very organic greens that are peppery and fragrant it’s a perfect combination of savoury and palate cleansing.

Seonnim’s assistant prepared a whole head of kimchi, cutting off the bottom of the cabbage. It was the most flavourful kimchi I have ever had, with a strong kick, sour, and oddly fizzy, as if it was carbonated. This kimchi might have been fermented for years to achieve this flavour.

For dessert, we had chamoe (Korean melon) and a rose red tomato. Both gently sweet, probably the most delicious tomato I have (and will ever). Makes me realize that great food starts from how it is cultivated.

3. Gardening with seonnim

We followed the custom in Buddhist temples and washed our own dishes afterwards. The temple’s principle is to leave no food wasted and clean up after your own dishes.

As we were saying goodbye to her assistant, Jeong Kwan seonnim appeared and motioned us to come back. She wanted to take a picture with us and then asked us to follow her to do some gardening!

We walked upstairs and started helping her assistant move rocks from the car (I don’t know why there were rocks). When her assistant saw us helping, she laughed, “Seonnim!”

Before we went to the garden, her assistant brought some pear juice and choco-pie (!). We sat down on the heated floors of her living room to take the time to enjoy our snacks without hurry, even though I was eager to garden. We had tea just after we finished eating and now having snacks once more – I could get used to this.

We found it funny that Jeong Kwan seonnim goes through great lengths to cook whole foods without processed sugar, but in the moment we were all eating and enjoying choco-pie. Buddhist monks really know how to have fun and live happily.

She drove us with the gardening tools, and we planted the seedlings at her garden in the base of the hermitage.

Seonnim walked around, tending to her garden with care and time, unhurriedly. I see the amount of love she gives to create her food as she tends the weeds carefully. I feel deeply inspired by seonnim, a strong reminder to be gentle in all I do.