Man at His Best

Second To Nun

Lessons from the kitchens of a famous Korean temple.

BY ming | Nov 17, 2017 | Culture

All photographs by Paul Gadd

We arrive at Jangseong mountain country ten days after criss-crossing Korea on a study trip designed around food. The peninsula’s southernmost province of South Jeolla is marked by hilly terrain and girded with steep slopes. There’s a winter chill in the afternoon, but all around us, spring blooms. I forget where I am and swear loudly—the view is ridiculously picturesque.

In Naejangsan National Park is a hermitage that’s attracted the attentions of the global press corps. Jeong Kwan sunim lives here. Word of her divine cooking began dripping from the grapevine to the world at large fairly recently. Michelin-starred chefs called on her, climaxing in a full episode of the wildly popular Netflix series, Chef’s Table, in season three. Chunjinam Hermitage is located a kilometre-and-a-half inside Naejangsan, a 20min trek up from the main Baegyangsa temple grounds. As the preeminent temple of the Korean Buddhist Chogye Order, Baegyangsa receives a steady stream of visiting monks, nuns, devotees and, now, a small but growing number of foodies. 

* * * * *

We walk past a dragon-head, towards a dozen well-maintained traditional Baekje-era structures with dramatic-looking roofs, none more than two-storeys high. One has posters stuck onto its modern sliding glass doors. At the entrance step, pairs of rugged but technical-looking hiking shoes are lined up beside three pairs of Nike Flyknit trainers. We slide open the glass doors and surprise a brawny monk in mid-conversation with three younger nuns seated at a low table. He holds his teapot in mid-pour. A few seconds of awkward bowing, and we’re quickly welcomed inside. He introduces himself as Hye Oh sunim and explains that his colleague, who’s more proficient in English, has been expecting us.

“I, temple stay director,” he says. “Please sit, wait for Mr Kim.” His severe face cracks into a welcoming smile; he motions us to sit on cushions. We’re stuffed from lunch but eager for a taste of our first consumable at Baegyangsa. Hye Oh sunim discards the remaining tea in his teapot and fills it twice with hot water, swirling it, checking for stray leaves each time. “Try new spring tea,” he offers, filling the now-spotless pot with hot water and clinking the lid on. He adjusts his heavy tunic’s billowy, wizard-like sleeves and cups the teapot in large hands, looking up at us, then at the three nuns who’ve gone politely quiet. They unsheath smartphones from under their robes and begin tapping. A nervous silence; only the faint chirping of birds outside. Then one of them speaks in fluent English. “Now I am a second-year student at the university for sunim. We are here for a temple stay to visit Baegyangsa, too.” She was a tour guide, she says, and joined the order only recently. As Hye Oh sunim asks us several questions, she patiently translates. Everyone nods sagely when we tell them we’re here to meet Jeong Kwan sunim and sate our curiosity about Korean temple cuisine.

In pops a cheerful Mr Kim, temple employee and all-round nice guy with a full head of hair. We bid goodbye to Hye Oh sunim and the nuns, and follow Mr Kim to our living quarters. The mid-afternoon sun brings with it a gentle, warm breeze as we crunch gravel and earth underfoot.

* * * * *

The staff cookhouse has two adjoining dining rooms that seat 50 or 60 diners. Components of each meal are served on an open counter-top for monks, nuns and devotees. I stand at a glass door to the kitchen and watch two ajumma (middle-aged women) work in a space familiar to me: tiled floors, drainage points, exhaust system, gas burners, low boys and four-door fridges—standard equipment in a professional kitchen. It doesn't fit with the monastic imagery of my mind. Strange chopped vegetables thrown into soups; thick, maroon sauce ladled out of a dark earthenware. Two massive, steaming rice cookers, indicator lights blinking. The smell of intense sesame and grassy note of dried laver. A stainless-steel tilting kettle in a corner. This spacious kitchen is as well-equipped for mass cooking as any in a major city.

I'm brought out of my reverie by a young man in a dark-red outfit that identifies him as a novice monk. He smiles politely; outsiders are not allowed in the kitchen, he says. I expect him to tell me to leave, but he doesn’t. Bowing slightly, he turns and walks away to wipe tables and gather cutlery.

* * * * *

At 4.55pm, Mr Kim is waiting for us by the canteen doors. “Take as much as you want, but no leftovers please,” he says. Devotees, repairmen and temple workers stream inside, stamping feet on a straw mat to remove packed dirt from their footwear before entering. They're greeted by a long counter of food on stainless-steel trays and warmers: fragrant, pearlescent, steamed short-grain rice; three types of pickled leaves; two types of kimchi; plump beansprouts (the virile Korean kind with large heads) tossed in sesame oil and salt; chunks of nashi pear; burgundy-red gojuchang, mounded gently into bowls to be scooped onto rice and mixed. At both ends of the pass are two large marmites of soup, full of doenjang, daikon and other vegetables I cannot name. A burly monk ahead of me has a plate piled high with perhaps 2kg of food.

Mr Kim joins us at our table, and shows us how to wrap rice with sheets of seasoned laver using chopsticks. We wolf down our food; it is delicious, clean and punchy. He smiles, telling us again we’re free to hit the line for seconds if we finish everything we take. We all go back for the lovely banchan and that delicious rice. I pause to snap a picture with my phone, then realise the other 20 people in the dining room have not touched their devices. I’m eager to document our first complete meal in a mountain temple, but I put my phone away without taking a single picture in the staff canteen.

* * * * *

As I sit on a stone bench watching ripples form slowly across a pond, I realise the temple staff don’t quite understand the fascination foreigners have with their food, and even less our curiosity about Jeong Kwan sunim. They acknowledge she’s a very good cook and appreciate the publicity Baegyangsa has received as a result of Chef’s Table, but have a completely different view of food.

* * * * *

This is the day! But first, compulsory dawn prayers. We arrive at the main temple to see three cushions laid out on the floor for us. We’ve lost all feeling in our legs within minutes of kneeling and noisily rearranging numb limbs as we go through the motions for the next one-and-a-half hours in a corner of the hall. Unsuited to disciplined activity, we struggle to maintain a peaceful exterior.

Suddenly, it’s all over. Mr Kim, eyes closed and hands clasped in front of him, leans in and whispers: “Now we meditate for 20min.” Cue the chirping of birds and a gentle light streaming in! The tranquillity of the moment strikes me from out of nowhere. I'd been counting down the seconds I could leave the hall, work the yard, and trek up to the kitchen of Jeong Kwan sunim. I'm fairly certain I'm having an out-of-body moment. It’s just as well. Little do I know what follows will test my new-found zen.

* * * * *

Mr Kim guides us up the path to Chunjinam Hermitage, where two nuns and two lay devotees reside, preparing food for residents and guests. We fail to manage our expectations as we see the facade of Chunjinam, set into the side of a hill, starkly beautiful. Faces flush from the sun and the anticipation of meeting Jeong Kwan sunim, we snap selfies. As we approach the main building, we see two figures in grey tunics, one of whom is bald.

I've seen pictures of Jeong Kwan sunim before, but her genderless appearance startles me—her face is gentle and smiling, but the set of her shoulders and her stance are completely masculine.

She drops the bombshell: she's can't conduct our cooking class.

Curiously enough, instead of utterly losing my shit, I calmly suggest that as guests, we’re happy just to spend time in Chunjinam. Nevermind that we booked a trip to Baegyansa just for our cooking lesson with her, and just yesterday told every monk and nun about it. Maybe it's the spring breeze or the morning bird-assisted meditation… I don't feel frustrated. We are but travellers hoping to spend time with her, while she needs to go out in search of ingredients for a temple festival. Who are we to demand a cooking class?

Jeong Kwan sunim is apologetic. She instructs a senior nun to conduct our lesson, then takes us by our hands. She shows us her room and where food is fermented on the magic roof-top garden, full of dark, oxblood and maroon jars sporting cloth and ceramic lids. They might be organ-amphoras of embalmed ancient royalty or the eggs of an alien queen. To break one would probably undo decades of 'flavour development'. She presents us each a small bracelet, poses for a picture and disappears on her market run. I struggle to reconcile the stark male image with the warm, motherly presence she exudes—but I get how even the hardest Michelin-starred chef bastard would melt in her presence.

In the days before I reached Baegyansa, I’d imagined the kitchens of Jeong Kwan sunim to be artisanal and disciplined. Monasteries are depicted as centres of focused study, so I was prepared to meet uncompromising cooks going about their tasks with exactitude, assisting a visionary leader – not unlike those who run celebrity kitchens. But Myojin sunim is a soft-spoken sous chef with a peaceful Luna Lovegood countenance.

We’re living in the moment; the cooking lesson’s menu is being planned as we're welcomed into the kitchen for a cup of sweet pear tea. As the nosey, know-it-all F&B professional, I touch things and examine utensils. Most of the knives are not what I'd consider sharp. The place is modern; full of sleek silestone countertops for food prep, but it seems unorganised. Plates are stacked in random piles near kitchen sinks. Then we're told that water supply to Chunjinam is being cut for the rest of the day. “National park repair works,” says a calm, smiling Mr Kim. He returns 10min later with two large office-sized barrels of distilled stuff.

* * * * *

Nothing has been pre-prepared, there are no recipes to be seen. No notes, weighing scales or writing implements. Halfway through assembling our first item, Myojin sunim decides that mugwort and butterbur leaves will make a good addition to the meal, so we stop peeling Aurelia leaves and clamber up a small hill behind one of the buildings to look for some. She speaks little English, so Mr Kim joins us on the side of the hill. We examine craggy logs with bark specifically primed for mushroom growth, recently bare from being harvested the day before. Myojin sunim points out a sheet of blue tarpaulin in the distance, showing where the morning sun has started to dehydrate the fresh fungi.

We bring back fistfuls of broad, bright-green leaves and smaller, silver-lined fronds, their heady smells intensifying as they’re thrown into a steamer and wilt quickly. No one fusses about overcooking the leaves; they're deemed cooked when we're ready to eat. I'm tasked with slicing a pear for a soup, and confidently make short work of it, giving Myojin sunim a plate of perfectly shaped pieces of pear in less than a minute. I suddenly feel stupid and embarrassed for doing so. No one gives a damn about immaculate garnishes or the precise temperature of poaching liquid. Instead of a kitchen run with martial discipline, I observe an easy-going nun who simply prepares food that can be appreciated as it is.

Everything is delicious. The banchan have an incredible clarity drawn from long ferments and slow pickling. Of all my meals in Korea, this is easily the simplest, and tastiest. The experience eludes words, like when you realise you know nothing about a subject despite having worked as an industry professional for years. None of the things I'm accustomed to in a working kitchen matters any more.

To be clear, the nuns prepare food with none of the pressures of a commercial enterprise. There is no large group of demanding customers; no pressing need to pretty up a dish for photography or stress-cook in industrial volumes; no display of extreme technique or vigorous manipulation of produce. The holistic approach is simple, and it will continue to attract curious professionals the world over.