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Cooking, eating and the path to nirvana

Jeong Kwan, who made Korea’s temple cuisine famous, was in a India for a special dinner

Chef Vanika Choudhary (left) and Jeong Kwan.
Chef Vanika Choudhary (left) and Jeong Kwan. (Photo by Anurag Banerjee)

On a hot afternoon in Mumbai, Jeong Kwan is at the restaurant, Noon, to host a 10-course dinner menu. The Korean Buddhist monk—from the Chunjinam Hermitage in the Baegyangsa temple in South Korea, where her primary responsibility is to look after the kitchen, feed the resident monks and those who visit the temple—is no ordinary chef.

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Her food piqued the curiosity of New York chef Eric Ripert, owner of the three Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in 2015. He had visited the temple as a practising Buddhist, and to learn more about Korean food. In 2017, she gained worldwide attention when Netflix featured her in the series Chef’s Table.

Vanika Choudhary, chef-owner of Noon and Sequel in Mumbai, had invited Kwan to collaborate with her and create an intimate dinner for 15 guests. Choudhary considers Kwan her “biggest mentor” for her deep knowledge of fermentation. A master of culinary techniques, Kwan teaches the basics of preparing temple cuisine. At the temple, Kwan is the custodian of large vats of soy sauce, some of which has been fermenting for more than 30 years. The two are busy planning the menu with ingredients like lotus stem, seaweed and potatoes that the monk has brought from Korea.

My expectation—that of a monk with a perpetual serene smile—doesn’t meet reality: Kwan appears focused with a red pen in hand, a notebook on a table placed beside some crockery and fresh vegetables. I wait for an hour, before she gives me her full attention. With the help of a translator—a young chef Yejin Jeong who spent more than a year at the temple to learn Korean vegan cooking—Kwan explains her cooking philosophy and speaks of her connection to India.

For her, preparing food is akin to practising Buddhism. A Buddhist seeks to answer the question: Who am I? This enquiry, according to Kwan, can be applied to understand ingredients. “Find out what the ingredient is, where it comes from and what it can be; that is the journey. In that sense, an ingredient and I are one.”

At the dinner, the ethos of preserving the nature of an ingredient and building on it becomes clear. It is reflected in techniques like tempura frying, blanching, tossing ingredients with a bit of soy sauce and serving them with complementary condiments. The vegan menu encompassed each of these aspects, complete with a 10-year-old gochujang in a chocolate mousse served with fermented strawberries. The dish that was eaten in revered silence was mushrooms cooked in soy sauce. The fleshy shiitake mushrooms were served with cherry tomatoes sun-dried and preserved for a year. The tomatoes were slow cooked with the fruit ginjinha that has all the five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami .

Yejin explains in Korean temple cuisine, sauces that end with the suffix jang, like ganjang, doenjang and gochujang, are ubiquitous. They help breakdown plant protein and make them easy to digest. Dishes served at the Chunjinam Hermitage are vegan, seasoned with fermented sauces and devoid of garlic, onion and chives, and Kwan grows her own vegetables.

“Food—whether I am cooking or eating it—is a way to enlightenment,” she says. Kwan has visited India several times and explored places sacred to Buddhists, including Bodh Gaya. “This is where Buddha was born. For me, it’s like coming home."

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