August 27, 2017

Korea Michelin tour day 3: cooking time with Jeong Kwan

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I didn't sleep well last night.  I guess my body's not really used to being on hardwood floors for an extended period of time, and there was that snoring from a certain friend of mine a couple of meters from me.  Thankfully when my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m., I had slept enough that I felt refreshed.  I quickly cleaned up and reported for duty at the Daeungjun Hall (大雄殿) promptly at 5 a.m.  Thus begins my day at Baekyangsa Temple (白羊寺).

We seat ourselves on cushions inside the hall, and the morning chant began.  Not able to speak or read Korean, I was reduced to trying to clear my mind and meditate a little... except I couldn't keep my eyes closed, as I needed to know when to repeat the rituals of standing up, bowing, kneeling prostrate for more bows, and sitting back down.  This went on for 45 minutes or so.  Then the lights went out and it was time to meditate.  The next 15 minutes felt much, much longer than it actually was.

The senior monk led us on a clockwise walk around the pagoda, and after a short talk we were dismissed.

At 6:20 a.m. we reported to the cafeteria, where we took in breakfast.  It was explained to us that originally only porridge (cooked with red jujube water) and pickles were offered, but based on popular demand they gradually added toast (with margarine and not butter, of course!), yogurt, and even coffee to the list of offerings.

So I took some porridge with pickles, added a couple of pieces of toast with peanut butter, and nibbled on some seaweed.

After breakfast, we reported to the bodhi tree in the middle of the temple, where each of us picked up a broom and started to sweep the temple grounds according to the senior monk's instructions.  To be honest, I don't think we were the most capable of sweepers... and with a minimal amount of organization, some of us were simply sweeping areas others had just swept minutes ago.  In any case, we tried our best to help, and at least made ourselves feel like we contributed...


We finally had some time to ourselves - for the first time since we got here - so I took the opportunity to get some droning time in.  I did ask for permission, and received it - kind of...

After yet another tea session, we finally split into two groups, and our not-so-little band headed up the hill to the Chunjinam Hermitage (天真庵) for the main event of our trip - a cooking class with Jeong Kwan (正寬) sunim

For those unfamiliar with her, Jeong Kwan sunim is regarded as one of the masters of Korean temple cuisine.  One of her biggest fans happens to be Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin, and Season 3 of David Gelb's Chef's Table includes an episode on her life and her cooking.  I, like many others, only became aware of Jeong Kwan sunim from the Netflix series, and our whole trip came about because of the opportunity to meet her.

I was one of the last ones to enter the cooking studio, so naturally I didn't get myself a front-row seat...

From the beginning, it was easy to see that Jeong Kwan sunim was very affable, and she practically radiates with positive energy which was simply infectious. 

She explained to us about her philosophy, and showed us the preparation of two dishes - acorn squash stuffed with minced tofu, and the shiitake mushroom dish which became the very last dish she cooked for her father days before his passing.  Along the way she showed us a few of her special ingredients - including her aged soy sauce, her molasses made from rice, and the salt she aged herself for 5 years.  All of these ingredients help her deliver incredibly deep flavors.


We were plenty hungry by the time lunch was served, and couldn't wait to dive into the feast she and her helpers have laid out for us.

First there were the pickled vegetables, including 8-year-old nolmul? radish.

Doenjang jigae (된장찌개) 

Japchae (잡채) - with snow fungus mushrooms.

Pepper with flour and squash - it was spicy, as we were warned.

Spicy mushrooms - seasoned with mint?

Sliced ginseng root with Korean "pasta" - made with susam (수삼) ginseng and seasoned with with yuja sauce.  The pasta was chewy, with consistency like gluten.

(Oyster?) Mushrooms

Dried and pickled daikon

Cucumber and daikon salad - flavored with 15-year-old omija sauce.

Pickled cucumber and mushrooms - much more acidity here.

Acorn squash stuffed with minced tofu and diced peppers - as you can see from the video, she (along with a few others in the audience) mashed the tofu with her hands.

Shiitake mushrooms - picked in the morning and dried for a few hours, then cooked in water flavored with acorn squash seeds - she tries not to waste anything - and seasoned with homemade molasses made from rice.  Very, very tasty.  I would have had two of these, except Hello Kitty just casually snatched one from my plate.

The full spread... I ended up taking more food than I thought I did.  I seemed to have been the only one who took a whole acorn squash... but that was because I was sharing it with Hello Kitty...

Sweet potatoes

This was eye-opening. All the dishes were tasty and interesting, with many of them delivering complex layers of flavors.  None of the one-note stuff one expects from "just veggies".

We were all amazed by this tiny lady.  She was incredibly humble, all smiles, and despite our lack of ability to understand any Korean, incredibly fun to be around.  When she found out that a few of us came from Hong Kong, she told us that she would be coming for an event, and left us her phone number and email address and invited us to join her.  How nice is that?!

We were told that Jeong Kwan sunim would be a guest at a pop-up dinner we were attending in a few days' time, which was surprising since we knew it would be full of seafood and meat.  Through the translator, we asked her whether she was coming to dinner, and indeed she was!  Apparently she will travel to Seoul and the chefs will cook vegetarian dishes that she can eat.  So it looks like we may get to see her again.

With our bellies full - well, I knew mine was... but not sure about that guy from City Foodsters whom Hello Kitty and I shamed into getting a smaller plate of food - we had a train to catch.  So we rushed back to our dorm to pick up our bags and got into our pre-booked taxis, and bid farewell to this serene hideaway.

Our friend Mikacina greeted us at Seoul Station, and we checked back into The Shilla Seoul.  Service was incredibly efficient, and soon we found ourselves back downstairs at The Library.  It was a little more than 2 hours to dinner, and we needed to check something off our list.

Apple mango bingsu (애플망고빙수) - this, apparently, is the best version of mango bingsu (빙수) in town.

This big bowl of shaved ice made with milky water came with a thin layer of mango syrup in the middle, along with a very, very generous serving of Jeju Island apple mangoes, then topped with a little more shaved ice.

Served with a small bowl of azuki beans and a scoop of mango sorbet on the side.

With a little help from Hello Kitty, DaRC and I managed to finish the bowl we were sharing.  We then started to pick off the mango chunks from the bowl that The Great One and Mikacina were sharing - and promptly realized our bowl came with riper, sweeter mangoes.  SLURP!

After stuffing our faces, we thought it best to retire to our rooms and clean up before our highly-anticipated dinner...

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