Sec­ond to nun

LESSONS FROM THE KITCHENS OF A FA­MOUS KOREAN TEM­PLE.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - WORDS BY MING PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY PAUL GADD

In the kitchens of a Korean food god­dess, in­dus­try pro Ming goes for the les­son of a life­time. Paul Gadd cap­tures rev­e­la­tory im­ages.

WE AR­RIVE AT JANGSEONG MOUN­TAIN coun­try 10 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.

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 Flyk-

nit 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 all­round 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 dark­red 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 tochun­ji­nam 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.

Above Jeong Kwan sunim pre­pares the kal-guksu.

Ba­e­gyangsa pond.

Af­ter prayers, af­ter the cook­ing class, af­ter a talk, and af­ter an an­ces­tral cer­e­mony, pho­tog­ra­pher Paul Gadd says thank you to Jeong Kwan sunim for her zen and a se­ri­ous amount of carbs be­fore his long drive back to Seoul.

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