Chozen-ji is a Buddhist temple deep inside Kalihi Valley. Earlier in March, renowned chef Jeong Kwan Sunim stopped by on her way from Seoul to Los Angeles.
Kwan is an unusual culinary star. A Zen Buddhist nun, she spends most of her time living and cooking at a monastery in the mountains south of Seoul, South Korea. With no formal culinary training, she came to fame after her elegant, homegrown vegan dishes and meditative cooking style were featured on the Netflix series "Chef's Table." Kwan is also a veteran of "Avec Eric," whose host, Eric Ripert of three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin in New York City, is a fellow Buddhist.
Invited to Honolulu by the Daihonzen Chozen-ji Buddhist Temple and sponsored by the Paul Honda Foundation and Pacific Rim Foundation, Kwan was supposed to rest, but she generously offered to lecture, cook and dine with a small group at the dojo. Traveling with her and translating was Korean tea master Yoon Hee Kim.
Kwan already had dishes simmering on the stove when we convened at the temple. Wonderful aromas welcomed us. In the kitchen were local sweet peppers, mamaki leaves, bean sprouts, potatoes and a cornucopia of ingredients she brought from Korea including wild sesame seeds, miso pastes and oils.
Kwan warmly greeted us and explained that Korean temple food is not only vegan, it also restricts garlic, onion, green onion, scallions and leeks. It feeds body, mind and soul. Planning, preparing and eating it requires a mindfulness that most of us do not often bring to the kitchen.
Kwan grows most of her food. Unlike modern farmers who force the soil to produce and reproduce faster than is natural, Kwan merely spreads seeds and lets the sun, wind and earth direct her garden’s life cycle. She waits for the earth to produce what she needs. She does not follow recipes and rarely replicates the same meal. What she makes is based on what is available and how it tastes to her that day.
She demonstrated how to prepare mandoo, shiitake mushroom stir-fry, julienned potatoes and fried laver. Then we cooked while she stopped at our stations, giving quick, decisive guidance.
Balanced, light and flavorful, Kwan’s food showed as much restraint as technical skill. It wasn't as limited as I imagined. Being Korean American, I have had many of these dishes before and was surprised to find that omitting ingredients like garlic and scallions didn’t change the food. What did change it, what made it taste even better, was the mindfulness of its preparation by all of us together, and the love that Kwan brought.
Simple ingredients prepared by many hands working together made for a wonderful meal. Four simple dishes turned into a lesson in mindfulness from a master chef.
In Hawaii, Korean temple food is available on occasion at the Muryangsa Temple in Palolo Valley, depending on their cook’s availability. Other Buddhist temples also provide occasional temple food that varies depending on the sect.