What are your earliest memories of food? “I never thought much about cooking when I was little – I didn’t understand the concept. I would help my mother in the kitchen, and it was out of curiosity that I started to learn. For instance, I cooked boiled rice. When I put the rice in the pot, I tried it, and when I steeped it again, I tried it again. I tried it several times during the process because I was curious about how it cooked.
A sceptic’s guide to achieving overnight spirituality and enlightenment – Korean Buddhist temple stay explored
“Cooking sets me free. It does something good for the mind and soul. No one taught me – I watched my mother and older sister cook, and I followed them. Once I picked an eggplant and put it on top of the rice, so it could be steamed at the same time. I seasoned it with soybean paste, and it tasted so good. How could it be, that I could make food that tastes so good? That’s when I decided that perhaps I could cook when I grew up.”
“When I was eight years old, my father cooked kuksu [a noodle dish] for us. I wanted to copy him, so I mixed flour and bean powder with salt and water. I kneaded the dough and cut the noodles with a knife, and I cooked it for my parents. I wanted to hear them praise me, to say that the dish was delicious, and made them feel full of vitality and happiness. I realised that food can make people happy.”
Why did you become a nun? “When I was a child, I believed I would live alone. I imagined living in a cottage surrounded by nature, and I would need only salt and rice to cook. I told my father about this.
“When I was a high school student, my mother passed away suddenly and I was so shocked. [I thought] if I get married and have a child, maybe my son or daughter will feel that same shock. So I felt it best not to have children. I learned about Buddhism and decided to look for freedom in life. I decided to become a nun.”
What do you like about cooking? “I’m not a cook but a nun, and cooking is part of my meditation process, a journey. If I understand the essence of the ingredients, and know about the core of myself, that’s the basics.
“I look at the ingredients and feel the energy so spontaneously that I come up with ideas to cook. If you know when a vegetable seed is planted, and when to harvest it, and know the entire process of how it grows, then you know when to cook it. You will know whether to boil it or fry it. The ingredient is alive even though it’s not moving. Humans can create something new, something different, with the ingredient, so you give new life to it.”
Why are people so interested in temple food? “Korean temple food is about enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be fancy or even tasty. Think of food as a connection between the body and the mind. As long as the food gives you the minimum energy necessary to meditate, that’s all that matters.
“When they go to a fancy restaurant, people want tasty food, but [at the temple], it’s not fancy or tasty; what the food contains is something different. Maybe that’s why people find it interesting.”
How did you feel about Netflix making a documentary about you? “First, when they approached me to film the documentary, I said no. I said, ‘I’m not a professional chef, I’m a nun.’ I initially thought it’s not for me. But then I thought, ‘Maybe if they documented the culture of Korean Buddhism, and nature, then maybe we could try.’
“There’s a spiritual ceremony when eating in the temple called barugongyang. If we could show people that, introduce the culture, then I would be interested in participating in the documentary.”
Thanks to that documentary, many people visit you at the temple to try your food. “I didn’t expect that much of a reaction at all. You can’t expect things or know what will happen in the future. I just enjoyed the moment, being there and sharing thoughts and passions and emotions about food.”
How do you feel about travelling? “I don’t travel much, but when I go somewhere and meet people, I feel like I’ve met them in a former life, I feel like I know them already. I enjoy that and do that with an open heart.” ■
Jeong Kwan was in Hong Kong to showcase temple food at the Asia Society, in Admiralty.