Man at His Best

Lessons From The Kitchens Of A Famous Korean Temple

Nun, the wiser.

BY Ming | Sep 7, 2017 | Food & Drink

Photographs by Ming. The writer (extreme right) and friends with Jeong Kwan sunim (second from left).

My travel companions and I arrive in the mountains of Jangseong County just after lunch. This is the tail end of a 10-day long traipse across Korea, a study trip designed around everything and anything edible. We are in the southernmost province of the Korean peninsula, smack in the middle of hilly terrain and girded by steep slopes of spring green. The nearest city is an hour away by bus, by means of a winding road that weaves through verdant valleys.

The three of us stand at the entrance of the park; the passing chill of winter is still apparent in the afternoon of this April day, but all around us, spring is in bloom. Above the lacquered park gates is a loose canopy of branches full of small maple leaves, translucent in the sunlight, glowing a youthful green. These branches shelter a cobbled path that leads half a kilometre up a gentle slope towards the Baegyangsa Temple complex. As we start on this path, I get a glimpse of a large, mirror-surfaced pond near the park entrance. It is fed by a mossy creek that appears to have been taken straight out of some high-def desktop wallpaper. I forget that I am essentially standing on sacred ground and swear loudly—the view before me is ridiculously picturesque. Separating our paved walkway and the raised grounds of the temple, this stream is dammed in intervals to create tranquil pools of water that flow slowly, an emerald stillness reflecting trees and mountains in the daytime, moonlight and paper lanterns at night. The odd, fallen leaf floats on the surface, spinning lazily downstream, whilst larger, older leaves from seasons before are clearly visible on the bottom, unmoving and unmolested in the crystal-clear, cold water. It is, without doubt, the handsomest creek I have seen in my life, and I vow to spend more time with this curvy, languid beauty later in the day.

We have come to the Naejangsan National Park in the province of South Jeolla, where a particular hermitage has been receiving attention from the international food press. This scrutiny began several years ago with visits from famous food figures and journalists who heard of an ethereal nun named Jeong Kwan sunim and her incomparable vegetarian cuisine, later culminating in a full episode in Season 3 of the wildly popular Netflix foodporn series Chef’s Table. In various articles, she is described as a master of temple cuisine, harvesting most of her own produce, and then curing, saucing, fermenting and cooking it with her team of chef-nuns. Having been visited by numerous Michelin star-winning chefs, she is highly respected and sought after—a kind of food celestial almost. Her isolated palace is the Chunjinam Hermitage, located a kilometre-and-a-half inside Naejangsan and a 20min trek up from the greater Baegyangsa temple grounds.

It had been no small feat to remotely coordinate a trip here over the phone, and it took weeks of contacting the temple before someone eventually responded in English. We would later find out that as the preeminent temple of the Korean Buddhist Chogye Order, Baegyangsa receives a steady stream of visiting monks, nuns and serious Buddhist devotees, but less commonly so international visitors with a specific food bent. Through choppy emails, we then inferred that the best opportunity to catch this nun in action was in the mornings, and that an overnight experience at the main temple would give us the best chance to spend a full morning in her coveted kitchens. In the days preceding, we allowed ourselves to speculate on the rare opportunity that lay ahead of us, but imaginative as we were, no one knew entirely what to expect.

Further in the distance, forested hills rise with more shades of green than I can identify, and the highest of these peaks are engulfed in a smoky blue-green mist. Together, they form a spectacular backdrop for a pavilion near the entrance of the temple, an entrance that curiously opens up not onto a central courtyard, but the side of the temple compound instead. The landscape bursts with Korean maples, poplars, nutmeg-yews and magnolias; I half expect to see a film crew and two impossibly good-looking celebrities busying themselves on set. Every breath of air is brisk and invigorating, and the trek to the temple is on its own an incredibly compelling argument against city-dwelling. It is no stretch to wonder if perhaps famous chefs seek solace in these surroundings not just to learn about the (purportedly) amazing food, but also to unplug from a harried, stressful life in the fast lane. I find myself almost not caring if the food turns out to be disappointing, because the landscape more than makes up for it.

In general, the food industry is demanding on establishments and staff—the rapid proliferation of food-related shows in recent years has shed light on the stresses of kitchen work, but not so the underlying requirements for food businesses to make money. Obscured by Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef are the frustrating inner workings of running an organisation defined by razor-thin margins and dozens of moving parts, all waiting to go awry when you least expect it. How then, does one approach an organisation (if you can call it that, even) like this hermitage, with its formidable reputation as a beacon of enlightened nourishment? The basic requirements to meet revenue numbers, manage food costs, balance loss-leaders, feed patrons daily and operate as a self-sustaining entity simply don’t exist here. The ways of the world make it such that these requirements sometimes run counter to unrestricted enjoyment. Were we hence about to encounter a singularly unencumbered institution that made food with the purest of intentions?

Baegyangsa Temple vegetable garden.

Entering Baegyangsa, we walk past one of those dragon-head good-luck water things, and approach a dozen well-maintained traditional Baekje-era structures of various sizes. The buildings vary in size and all have dramatically designed roofs, but none are more than two-storeys tall. One of them has posters stuck on a set of modern sliding glass doors. At the base of the entrance step to these doors, pairs of very rugged, technical-looking hiking shoes are lined up beside three pairs of Nike Flyknit trainers. We slide open the glass doors to find a surprised, brawny monk holding a side-handled teapot in mid-pour, in mid conversation with three younger nuns seated across a low table set on the floor. A few confused seconds and some awkward bowing later, we are quickly welcomed inside. The monk introduces himself as Hye Oh sunim and explains in halting English that another temple worker more proficient in our language has been expecting us.

“I, temple stay director,” he says matter-of-factly, “Please sit, wait for Mr Kim.”

His severe face cracks into a surprisingly welcoming smile as he motions for us to sit on some cushions and proceeds to make us some tea. My companions and I are still stuffed from lunch but we take our seats quickly, eager to taste our first consumable from this famous temple. Hye Oh sunim proceeds to discard the remaining tea in his ladle-handled teapot and fills it twice with hot water, swirling it around and inspecting the teapot for errant tea leaves each time. Something like six electric water kettles are arranged neatly in a bank on his right—not enough, I think to myself. “Try new spring tea,” he offers as a way of explanation of his actions, before filling the now-spotless pot with plain, hot water and clinking the lid on. He adjusts the billowy wizard-like sleeves of his heavy, grey tunic and cups the teapot in his large hands, looking up at his three foreign visitors first, then at the three nuns who were here before us. I realise that the nuns have gone politely silent, perhaps not wanting to exclude us from a conversation impossible for us to comprehend. Quietly, they reveal modern smartphones from within their robes and begin to fiddle with them. A nervous silence fills the office, interrupted only by the faint sounds of birds chirping outside. Directly above me, a small, open window frames a silent wind-chime, and behind that, another unreasonably picturesque mountain rises in the afternoon sun. The older monk smiles wordlessly at us, still cupping the teapot, testing its temperature by releasing his grip occasionally. He nods in assent as the temperature of the hot water pleases him, then rummages through a container on the floor to pull out an elaborately packaged bag of leaves. We watch him tip a quantity of these leaves into the teapot, and then we wait further as he places the lid back on, and looks at us with a slight smile on his face. There is no dramatic pausing, but then again, none of his actions are rushed either. Given that our previous 10 days of travel have required us to be in constant, efficient motion, this sudden change of pace feels incredibly disconcerting—time means less in these mountains.

Out of the silence, one of the nuns starts engaging us in excellent English, and reveals that prior to becoming a nun, she was a tour guide, tasked with travelling the world with groups of South Koreans. “Now I am a second-year student at the university for sunim,” she explains, having only recently renounced the world and joined the order. She gestures to her fellow nuns, adding, “We are here for a temple stay to visit Baegyangsa too. We leave tomorrow morning.” At the expense of her own conversation with her countrymen, she patiently translates for us as Hye Oh sunim asks several questions. All in the room nod sagely when we describe the purpose of our visit, our desire to meet with Jeong Kwan sunim and our curiosity towards Korean temple cuisine. We are interrupted several minutes later by a cheerful Mr Kim, temple employee and all-round nice guy. I notice he has a full head of hair, compared to our shorn tea-time companions. Mr Kim hands each of us a bundle of grey cloth, thick cotton tunics for us to wear for the duration of our stay here. We stand and bid our goodbyes to Hye Oh sunim and the nuns, and follow Mr Kim to our quarters to put our bags down and change. The mid-afternoon sun brings a gentle, warm breeze across a courtyard as we crunch over the gravel and the compact dirt that make up the pathways between temple buildings.

The view should you choose to sit cross-legged at the rock-path to become one with the stream.

Our dwellings are situated away from the main temple buildings, in what appears to be a newer copse of buildings lacking the weathered look of their brethren. We pass by the staff cookhouse where most of the temple staff eat, and seeing our queried looks, Mr Kim explains that we will have both dinner and breakfast in this cafeteria before heading up the mountain to the Cheunjinam Hermitage where Jeong Kwan sunim resides. Our rooms are spartan but spacious with a large adjoining toilet, each equipped with an electric heater. Men and women sleep separately. Bedding comes in the form of thick, linen mats, a stack of which is neatly arranged in one corner of the room next to a wall socket and my belongings. I am conscientious of the nothingness in the room, and endeavour to leave my things in the neatest manner possible, lest they conduct some temple cleanliness inspection. I change into my grey tunic and trousers—they are massive, baggy things that require constant adjustment but feel comfortable enough to wear daily. Stepping out of my room, I encounter my companions who have started to waddle around in the thick, cotton garments like penguins, shuffling about in the many folds of cloth that they now find themselves in.

Dinner begins only at 5pm, and there is time to explore the temple buildings now. My travel buddies wander off, and I find myself again at the cookhouse wanting to observe the food operations required of a typical meal here. Two connected dining rooms house seats for 50 or 60 diners, and a large pass separates it from the kitchen. Components of each meal are loaded onto this open counter-top for monks, nuns and devotees alike. 

Myojin sunim (left) and Mr Kim (second from right) picking herbs for lunch.

I stand at a glass door to the kitchen and watch as two ajummas work in a remarkably recognisable space—there are tiled floors, drainage points, an exhaust system, gas burners, low boys and four-door fridges—all standard (and current) equipment for any professional kitchen. I find myself unable to reconcile this with the image of a sparse, back-to-basics temple lifestyle that I had envisioned. Entering the kitchen and standing against a wall, my eyes hungrily drink in the sights of a foreign kitchen meant for a foreign cuisine. I watch as strange, chopped vegetables are thrown into soups, and a thick, maroon sauce is ladled out of a dark earthenware jar. Two massive rice cookers emit steam as their indicator lights blink. I smell intense sesame and the grassy note of dried laver. A stainless-steel tilting kettle sits in a corner, its large pot supported by a frame that enables one to empty it at an angle—not a home-style piece of gear. As far as I can tell, remote as it is, this spacious kitchen is as equipped for mass cooking as any in a major city. I am brought out of my observations by a young man wearing a dark-red outfit, whom I identify as being in the early stages of monkhood. He smiles politely, then points out that normally outsiders are not allowed in the kitchen. I hesitate, waiting for him to tell me to leave, but he doesn’t. Bowing slightly, he turns and walks off to wipe tables and gather cutlery, leaving me to stand at the entrance to the kitchen watching the backs of the two aunty-cooks.

At 4.55pm, Mr Kim is waiting for us by the canteen doors. “Take as much as you want, but no leftovers please,” he tells us of food collection. From all over the temple complex, devotees, repairmen, temple workers and tunic-wearing religious folk stream into the canteen, stamping their feet on a straw mat before they enter, to remove packed dirt stuck to their footwear. They are greeted by a long counter of food, served in utilitarian stainless-steel trays and warmers. Steamed short-grain rice, pearlescent and fragrant. Three kinds of pickled leaves, two kinds of kimchi. Plump-looking bean sprouts (the virile Korean kind with large heads, not the thin, weak local ones) tossed in sesame oil and salt, chunks of nashi pear, a bowl of burgundy-red gojuchang, mounded gently and waiting to be scooped onto rice and mixed. On both ends of the pass reside two large marmites of soup, full of doenjang, daikon and other vegetables that I cannot name. A large, burly monk ahead of me has a plate piled high with what looks like 2kg of food. Mr Kim joins us at our table, and shows us how to take sheets of seasoned laver between our chopsticks and wrap bundles of rice within. Upon seeing us wolf down our food, he again remarks with a smile that we are free to hit the line for seconds, as long as we finish everything that we take. We all go back for the lovely banchan dishes and that delicious rice. As I finish my second bowl of food, I pause to snap a picture with my phone, then realise that aside from us visitors, the other 20 people in the dining room have not touched their phones. The food is delicious, clean and punchy so we are eager to document our first complete meal in a mountain temple, but I suddenly realise that this meal is no occasion. All of the other faces in the room exhibit none of the wonder and the curiosity, none of the wild-eyed enthusiasm that the three of us have—this meal is fuel for them, a means of ingesting enough items to provide the body with calories for survival. That is not to say there were no reactions or that our dining companions disliked the food, but there was very little thought spared as to its nature or quality. I put my phone away without taking a single picture within the staff canteen.

Freshly-picked silver mugwort from Chunjinam temple grounds.

After the meal, Mr Kim teaches us how to walk around the temple grounds with our hands clasped in front of us. “Hands behind your back, not correct, please do not do this,” he intones, then smiles as we position our hands for him to see. We are then informed that bedtime is 9pm, and that the temple complex wakes before 5am for morning prayers in the main temple hall. It is barely six in the evening, and there are evening devotions as well as the ringing of four temple-specific artefacts between now and lights-out. Knowing that we are less interested in experiencing temple life than temple food, Mr Kim leaves it up to us to join the evening prayers, and suggests we take a walk around the temple to meditate. We end up spending most of the time crossing a rock bridge that spans the slow-moving stream, and sitting on a bench, admiring the reflection of multi-coloured lanterns on its mirrored surface as the sun sets. Seated on that stone bench and watching slow ripples form on the pond, I realise the temple staff don’t quite understand the fascination foreigners have with their food, and understand even less the curiosity surrounding Jeong Kwan sunim. They acknowledge that she is very good at her craft and appreciate the recent media coverage Baegyangsa has received as a result of Netflix and Chef’s Table, but their overall demeanour reflects an unusually utilitarian attitude towards food. To take up robes requires minimising material needs and cravings. Whilst these monks, nuns and temple workers enjoy tasty meals like the next person and the efforts taken to prepare that meal, they seem to feel that the primary purpose of eating is not for pleasure, but to nourish one’s self.

The Mansetu pavilion leading to Baegyangsa temple.

Morning comes and we are roused from our sleep by the rolling call of the temple bell. I change and pack my bedding enthusiastically, knowing that soon, I will be in the kitchens of Jeong Kwan sunim. Dawn prayers are compulsory, and we arrive at the main temple to see three cushions laid out on the floor for us. Within minutes of kneeling, all our legs have lost their feeling and need constant readjustment. We spend the next one-and-a-half hours sitting in a corner of the temple, noisily rearranging our dead limbs as we participate cursorily in the prayer proceedings. Unsuited to this disciplined activity, the three of us struggle to maintain a peaceful exterior until all of a sudden, the prayers are over.

Mr Kim, with his eyes closed and hands together in front of him, leans in and whispers: “Now we meditate for 20min.” As if on cue, the faint chirping of birds can be heard outside the main hall, and a gentle light starts to stream in. The tranquillity of the moment strikes me out of nowhere, given that the entire morning prayer session had me counting down the seconds to leave the hall, do yard work, and then trek up to the kitchens of Jeong Kwan sunim. In recounting this state, I may be embellishing the story a little, but I am fairly certain that I had an out-of-body moment—it felt surreal to be in this silent, cold and carpeted great hall, hearing birds chattering away outside, surrounded by robed monks with fewer expressions than hair. I am glad that I experienced that moment, because what followed in the morning would normally not have seen me behaving in the most zen-like fashion.

Here’s another picturesque creek to dispel complicated city-thoughts. Good luck with that.

After sweeping the yard and being unofficially welcomed as guests by a surprisingly genial head monk, Mr Kim guides us up the path to Chunjinam Hermitage, home of Jeong Kwan sunim. Here, in a complex by itself, two nuns and two lay devotees reside, preparing food for guests, special temple events or workshops in Buddhist Schools. It is starkly beautiful, and it is impossible for us to manage our expectations as we see the face of Chunjinam set in the side of a hill. We snap several selfies, faces flush from the sun and the anticipation of meeting the famed nun. As we approach the main building, we see two figures in grey tunics, one with hair and one without. I have seen pictures of Jeong Kwan sunim before, but her gender-less appearance startles me—her face is gentle and smiling, but the set of her shoulders and her stance is completely masculine. She then shocks me further by telling us apologetically that she is leaving the hermitage complex for the next seven hours, and will be unable to conduct a cooking class for us.

The Roof of Fermentation.

Curiously enough, instead of utterly losing my shit, I calmly suggest that we are guests here and that we would just be happy to spend time in Chunjinam. Unproductive as it may potentially have been, frustration would not have been unwarranted since we had specifically booked a trip to Baegyansa to experience a cooking lesson with her, and every monk and nun that we had a conversation with the previous day had heard about our plan to do so. Maybe it was the spring breeze, or the morning bird-assisted meditation, but instead of feeling frustrated, I am inclined to remember just how insignificant we are as travellers hoping to spend time with this nun. Her trip out was an ingredient-haul in preparation for an upcoming temple festival. Who were we to stop those plans and demand a mere cooking class?

Jeong Kwan sunim is apologetic and tries to make amends. Realising that this class warranted a trip in our eyes, she instructs her other senior nun-cook to conduct the lesson for us, and by way of a gift, gives us a tour around the complex, holding our hands as she does so. She introduces with pride her Room and Roof of Fermentation, full of dark, oxblood and maroon jars sporting cloth and ceramic lids. They appear pregnant with promise, like the organ-amphoras of embalmed ancient royalty, or the eggs of a mature alien queen. To break one of those would probably undo decades of flavour development. She departs with a small bracelet for each of us, then poses for a picture and disappears off on her market run. I struggle to connect the stark male image she wears, to the warm and motherly presence she exudes—but I get how even the hardest Michelin-starred chef bastard would melt in her tender, tender presence.

Mr Kim and Myojin sunim explain the dishes.

In the days before I reach Baegyansa, I imagined the kitchens of Jeong Kwan sunim to be disciplined, organised and artisanal. Monasteries are depicted as centres of focused study, so I prepared myself to meet exacting cooks going about their tasks without compromise, assisting a visionary leader not dissimilar to the kind running a world-class kitchen. Instead we encounter one Myojin sunim, sous chef and nun, soft-spoken and wearing a permanently peaceful, Luna-Lovegood-type expression. The spirit of being in-the-moment is followed closely, and the cooking lesson’s menu is planned as we are welcomed into the kitchen for a cup of sweet pear tea. Being the nosy know-it-all food professional that I am, I start to wander about the kitchen, touching things, examining utensils. Most of the knives in the kitchen are not what I consider sharp. Whilst modern and full of sleek Silestone countertops for food preparation, there is little uniformity or organisation within. Plates are stacked in random piles near kitchen sinks, and to make matters worse, we are informed that the water has been cut to Chunjinam for the rest of the day, “National park repair works,” says a calm, smiling Mr Kim. He exits the kitchen into a pick-up truck in search of water, as we grapple with that information, and returns 10min later with two large office-dispenser barrels of distilled stuff. 

Nothing has been pre-prepared, and there are no recipes anywhere to be seen. No notes, no weighing scales, no 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 temple buildings to look for things to pick. Myojin sunim speaks little English, so Mr Kim is forced to join 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. One of us loses our footing on the hill and swears loudly in English, although I am damn sure everyone understands the universal nature of the invective. We bring back fistfuls of broad, bright green leaves and smaller, silver-lined fronds, their heady smells intensifying as they are thrown into a steamer and wilted quickly. No one fusses about overcooking the leaves; they are deemed cooked when we are ready to eat. No one gives a damn about perfectly-shaped garnishes or the exact temperature of a poaching liquid. I am 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. Instead of finding a kitchen run with military precision, I observe an easy-going nun whose goal in preparing food is simply for it to be appreciated as it is, tasted, and then consumed for fuel.

Everything is delicious, with the various recognisable Korean banchan dishes possessing an incredible clarity drawn from long ferments and slow pickling. Of all my meals in Korea before this temple visit, this is the simplest and the tastiest by far.

My lack of detail here is intentional, because to attempt to explain and describe my experience is to rob you of your own epiphany, the sort of sensation that you know nothing despite having been in an industry for years. Surrounded by those Korean maples, I felt petty and clueless. How did that meal taste so good, when none of the things that I am accustomed to in a professional kitchen mattered? To be clear, these nuns prepare food for far fewer people than a normal restaurant, and with none of the pressures that a business faces. There exists no large group of demanding customers, no pressing need to pretty up a dish for photography, no need to stress-cook in any volume to sustain this organisation except to feed themselves and the handful of people who visit. There is no demonstration of extreme technique, or vigorous manipulation of produce. Rather, the entire approach is to keep it simple; a singular quality that I have no doubt will continue to attract curious food professionals the world over.

This article was first published in Esquire Singapore's The Big Food And Drinks Book 2017.