Temple architecture

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

Fri. Jeong Kwan Seunim browsed seasonal produce from the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm on Monday when she visited Stanford to give community members a cooking demonstration of Korean temple cuisine.

In line with the green and forward-thinking future of the Stanford Food Institute (SFI), Buddhist nun Seon and recipient of Asia’s 50 Best Icon Award 2022 was invited to share the possibilities of plant-based cuisine during a tasting on the farm. This special presentation was part of SFI’s efforts for sustainability in kitchens at Stanford and beyond.

Donning a green cap, Jeong Kwan Seunim gazed at the spade-shaped pea-green leaves growing behind the barn. A mischievous smile appeared on his face. She exclaimed: “가위” (scissors). With a knowing look, his assistant chef and performer, Yoon Hee Kim, asked for a pair of garden shears. Unaware of the buzzing bustle inside the barn, Jeong Kwan Seunim stopped to handpick the plants she would use to plate her “pyogo mushroom jocheong jorim” (braised shiitake).

This is the style of Jeong Kwan Seunim. The self-taught “philosopher chef” – celebrated as a leader at the modern vanguard of sustainable vegan cuisine – began her demonstration by telling attendees that she’s not here because she’s a chef. She is here because she is a Buddhist practitioner who cooks. Never one to rush a process, she believes in becoming one with her ingredients and tailors her recipes to the lifeblood of what she’s cooking.

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

Indeed, before starting to cook, she prayed. Through his interpreter, Jeong Kwan Seunim engaged us in a song to “prepare our bodies and our minds to receive this nourishment” of which we know ourselves “unworthy”, but which we nevertheless receive with gratitude “in the pursuit of enlightenment”. His food is for sustenance, not for indulgence. Appreciating the energies around us, Jeong Kwan Seunim meditated on the coexistence and interdependence of all living earthly beings.

Restoring the balance between humans and the world we inhabit is at the heart of Jeong Kwan Seunim’s cuisine. No matter where she is in the world, she cooks with ingredients from her garden in Baekyangsa, South Korea, combining them with local produce harvested from her immediate surroundings. Yet sustainable ingredient sourcing, arguably, relies on a more salient lesson in patience. Many of its ingredients are fermented for months or even years. She uses a five-year-old “ganjang” (soy sauce, or as she calls it, “tears of the spirit”) – which is part of the trio of Korean seasonings alongside “doenjang” (bean paste) and salt. When Jeong Kwan Seunim triumphantly brandishes a plump shiitake, the unassuming mushroom betrays nothing of the journey he’s been on. Grown in his hermitage, the shiitake is air-dried for a week in the cool mountain air of Naejangsan. Boiled then steamed, the shiitake regains its roundness. Prepared to absorb more flavor than if freshly picked, the result features a wonderfully chewy texture and accentuated umami.

Jeong Kwan Seunim’s culinary credo is that all ingredients have an essential form to which they must be returned. Based on Buddhist philosophy, she compares this idea to formal seated meditation, which encourages equanimous balance of internal and external energies.

Showcasing an effortless simplicity that cradles within it a demanding complexity, his cuisine nourishes his consumer and nurtures the life forces of his ingredients. Jeong Kwan Seunim’s emphasis on returning ingredients to their essential forms is the ultimate tribute to the orchestral harmony that occurs in nature. Dynamically balanced, made with intentionality and spontaneity, the finished dishes are akin to the sacred lands from which Jeong Kwan Seunim draws inspiration: nature.

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

When people think of Stanford, they imagine Silicon Valley and rapid innovation. A thriving place of entrepreneurship; an intellectual playground for the future founder of the next great technological revolution. Not Jeong Kwan Seunim. Instead, she sees architecture skillfully intertwined with nature and an abundance of green space. 5,734 miles from Baekyangsa, Jeong Kwan Seunim says she feels “at home”. Unrelated to any particular place or time, the center of Jeong Kwan Seunim is based on an unwavering belief in his calling to be a Buddhist monk. The world she perceives is imbued with these values.

This is a lesson for all of us. We are responsible for shaping the kind of Stanford we want to see. Maybe there’s merit in getting lost on this big campus once in a while. With 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, if you walk past Governor’s Corner, you’ll see over 200 varieties of plants growing at O’Donohue Farm.

An Afternoon with Jeong Kwan Seunim reminds us that we are co-inhabitants of this planet with a collective duty to preserve it, and we are empowered to do so with campus resources and communities. Although it takes time and commitment, the aged ferments that Jeong Kwan Seunim has put to use are ready and admirable examples of the worthy reward of patience. From our daily decisions to the foods we eat, there are small changes we can make right now at Stanford to become more sustainable. This curious place we call home is, after all, just a farm.

Editor’s note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, reflections and criticisms.