For Ven. Jeongkwan, spring sprouts are the very essence of spring. Every tiny shoot has come to be what it is by enduring the cold winter months.
“It is that energy of nature that we’re sharing today and that will help us to stay strong this spring,” she said as she kicked off a cooking demonstration featuring temple-style rice porridge with wild spring herbs.
If it wasn’t for this event, organized by Sempio, South Korea’s No. 1 soy sauce maker, it would have been difficult to meet her in person. Not a professional chef, she practices, meditates and cooks for monks, nuns and visitors at Baekyangsa, a temple in South Jeolla Province, about four hours’ drive from Seoul.
Since she appeared on the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” last year, her cooking classes and lectures have exploded in popularity. All Baekyangsa Templestay programs that include a cooking class led by Jeongkwan are booked through the end of August, and the temple isn’t taking reservations beyond that time yet.
At her hermitage, Chunjinam, nestled on a mountain famous for its beautiful fall foliage, wild herbs are an essential food source.
“We gather spring greens at their peak, and we blanch and dry them for consumption throughout the year. Some are pickled. Some are made into kimchi,” she said.
When The Korea Herald asked Jeongkwan how many varieties of spring sprouts she had cooked, the venerable spiritual teacher answered with an anecdote from her childhood. At first, it sounded somewhat off point.
“I was 8 years old or perhaps 9. I went out to the field to collect ssuk (mugwort) and other spring herbs and returned home with a basket full of them,” she said.
It turned out that she had gathered young doraji sprouts -- cultivated plants that belonged to one of her neighbors. That night, she got a scolding from her dad.
“The next day, I returned to the site and replanted them all.”
That experience was a step toward mastering which plants, roots and flowers were edible and how they tasted.
“Everything was food unless it was inedible.”
Jeongkwan wasn’t special, she said. At that time, learning about edible plants was just part of growing up.
“It is pointless to try to count how many varieties there are. It is everything. It’s everywhere,” she finally answered.
Nowadays, people think food is what they see at grocery stores and markets, she continued. They are afraid of eating what’s out there in nature.
“That’s because they don’t go out to the mountains or to the fields. They’ve lost contact with nature.”
Understanding the ingredients is the beginning and the end of any cooking experience because food can be poison or medicine, depending on how it is cooked and consumed, she said.
“You need to thoroughly understand what you’re cooking. Only then do you know what to do with it -- whether to blanch or steam it or pair it with soy sauce or doenjang (bean paste) to counterbalance it,” she said.
At the event she demonstrated one of her typical spontaneous, no-recipe creations. This one consisted of two seasonal vegetables -- bangpung (coastal hog fennel) rice porridge and two side dishes based on dureup (Aralia elata shoots).
“Early April is when old nuns and monks do away with the inner garments they’ve worn throughout the winter months, and they shiver in the wind. To warm them up, we prepare bangpung rice porridge,” she said.
It was Jeongkwan’s first time putting together this new version of the thick doenjang sauce that she served alongside the rice porridge, she revealed.
“Cooking the same dishes the same way all the time is boring,” she said. “I always try something new.”
By Lee Sun-young (email@example.com