Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan Seunim teaches Korean temple cuisine at the farm – Advice Eating

Ven. Jeong Kwan Seunim viewed the seasonal produce at the O’Donohue family’s Stanford Educational Farm on Monday when she visited Stanford to give community members a culinary demonstration of Korean temple cuisine.

In keeping with the plant-based, green future paved by the Stanford Food Institute (SFI), Buddhist nun Seon and recipient of Asia’s 50 Best Icon Award 2022 was invited to explore the possibilities of plant-based cuisine at a tasting event at the farm. This special presentation was part of SFI’s commitment to sustainability in Stanford kitchens and beyond.

Jeong Kwan Seunim wore a green cap and looked at the pea-green, spade-shaped leaves growing behind the barn. A mischievous smile spread across her face. She shouted, “가위” (scissors). With a knowing look, her assistant cook and interpreter, Yoon Hee Kim, asked for a pair of pruning shears. Undeterred by the busy commotion in the barn, Jeong Kwan Seunim paused to hand-pick the plants she would use for her “pyogo mushroom jocheong jorim” (braised shiitake).

This is Jeong Kwan Seunim’s style. The self-taught “Philosopher Chef” – hailed as a leading figure in the modern avant-garde of sustainable vegan cuisine – began her demonstration by telling attendees that she wasn’t here because she was a chef. She is here because she is a Buddhist practitioner who cooks. Never one to rush a process, she believes she must become one with her ingredients and tailors her recipes to the life forces of her food.

On her mission to share Korean temple cuisine and Seon Buddhism with the world, Jeong Kwan Seunim begins her demonstration with a chant. Jeong Kwan Seunim tries to stay attuned to the life forces of the ingredients while cooking. (Photo courtesy of Dexter Simpson ’22).

In fact, she prayed before she started cooking. Through her interpreter, Jeong Kwan Seunim engaged us in chanting to “prepare our bodies and minds to receive that sustenance” that we know we are “unworthy” but which we nevertheless receive with gratitude “in pursuit.” receive enlightenment. Their food is for sustenance, not pleasure. Jeong Kwan Seunim appreciated the energies that surround us and meditated on the coexistence and interdependence of all living, earthly beings.

Restoring balance between people and the world we live in is central to Jeong Kwan Seunim’s cuisine. No matter where in the world she is, she cooks with ingredients from her garden in Baekyangsa, South Korea and combines them with local produce from her immediate surroundings. But sourcing ingredients sustainably is arguably a more important lesson in patience. Many of their ingredients are fermented for months or even years. She uses a five-year aged ‘ganjang’ (soy sauce or, as she calls it, ‘tears of the spirit’) – part of the trifecta of Korean spices, along with ‘doenjang’ (bean paste) and salt. When Jeong Kwan Seunim triumphantly holds up a plump shiitake, the inconspicuous mushroom reveals nothing of its journey. Homegrown in their hermitage, the shiitake is air-dried for a week in the cool mountain air of Naejangsan. Boiled and then steamed, the shiitake returns to its fullness. Prepared to hold more flavor than if freshly picked, the result bears a wonderfully chewy texture and accentuated umami.

Jeong Kwan Seunim’s culinary creed is that all ingredients have an essential form to which they should be restored. She is based on Buddhist philosophy and compares this idea to formal sitting meditation, which promotes the equanimity of inner and outer energies.

Presenting an effortless simplicity that harbors a sophisticated complexity, her cuisine nourishes her consumer and nurtures the life forces of her ingredients. Jeong Kwan Seunim’s focus on restoring ingredients to their essential form is the ultimate homage to the orchestral harmony found in nature. Dynamically balanced, prepared with intention and spontaneity, the finished dishes resemble the sacred ground Jeong Kwan Seunim draws inspiration from: nature.

Jeong Kwan Seunim looks directly into the camera.
Jeong Kwan Seunim heads to Stanford Farm for her culinary demonstration of Korean temple cuisine. Through her presentation, Jeong Kwan Seunim showed the other side of Silicon Valley. (Photo courtesy of Dexter Simpson ’22).

When people think of Stanford, they picture Silicon Valley and rapid innovation. A place of thriving entrepreneurship; an intellectual playground for the aspiring founder of the next big tech thing. Not Jeong Kwan Seunim. Instead, she sees architecture cleverly intertwined with nature and an abundance of green spaces. 5,734 miles from Baekyangsa, Jeong Kwan Seunim says it feels “like home”. Unbound to any particular place or time, Jeong Kwan Seunim’s center rests on an unwavering belief in her calling to become a Buddhist monk. The world she perceives is permeated with these values.

There is a lesson in this for all of us. We are responsible for shaping the kind of Stanford we want to see. Perhaps it makes sense to occasionally get lost on this large campus. If you take enough wrong turns you might find the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies tucked away in Building 70, which houses an excellent reference library open to all students. Or, stroll past Governor’s Corner and see over 200 species of plants growing at O’Donohue Farm.

An afternoon with Jeong Kwan Seunim reminds us that we are co-dwellers on this planet with a collective duty to preserve it, and we are empowered to do so with the resources and communities on campus. Though it takes time and commitment, the ripened ferments that Jeong Kwan Seunim brings to fruition are ready-made and admirable examples of patience’s worthy rewards. From the choices we make every day to the food we consume, there are small changes we can make at Stanford right now to become more sustainable. This strange place we call home is actually just a farm.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts, and criticism.

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