Rediscovering temple food and kimchi

Ven. Sunjae, master of Korean Temple Food, holds a basket full of vegetables she grows in her garden in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

YANGPYEONG, Gyeonggi Province — It was with renewed attention and mindfulness to nature-based lifestyle and environment — after the COVID-19 pandemic — that we visited Ven. Sunjae’s residence in this town about two hours east of Seoul. The nation’s first master of Korean Temple Food had mentioned that she held temple food classes in her residence, which she referred to as “togul” or “cave.” The monk, renowned for her tireless schedule of lecturing in Korea and overseas, was giving monthly classes on making kimchi on that early June day.

The class was about making not just one but five types of kimchi. The five were a watery kudzu vine kimchi, a small radish and cabbage kimchi with emphasis on using watermelon water, a cube-type radish kimchi, a kimchi with soybean water and a cucumber kimchi with Zanthoxylum piperitum that smells highly like coriander. The kudzu vine kimchi was good for enhancing estrogen, Ven. Sunjae explained, while the watermelon was recommended as summer food helpful for reducing thirst and helping with urination. The Zanthoxylum piperitum is used for its strong flavor, which traditionally was used before the arrival of red chili pepper into Korea. For this temple food kimchi, the five common Korean ingredients — garlic, green onions, leeks, wild chives and Chinese squill — are not used. Neither are salted fish or shrimp, found in most regions of Korea.

Her students were those who had already finished a year of temple-food classes with her at the Korean Bhiksuni Association. She still teaches occasionally at the association, located in Seoul, these days.

Once the mountain of main vegetables were sliced up and salted, they were then poured into a large, circular steel bowl filled with a small amount of vegetable water, “tongmiljuk,” or wheat porridge, dried chili pepper and soy sauce. Then the monk mixed them up using both hands in a wide circular motion about 20 to 30 times.

In one of her books, “Temple Food Weaved through Ven. Sunjae’s Narrative,” she highlights kimchi as comprising the six flavors of food — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, chilly and astringent — crucial to health.

“Kimchi has all the good elements. A food material produced under the soil, radish; food source produced above soil, cabbage and calyptra; one-year plants, pepper and sticky rice porridge: multi-year products, fruit; and food source 추천 produced in the sea, sea staghorn, dashima and salt.” Seasonally minding to take in kimchi could improve the health, she wrote. This food practice was a given in past Korean households, but not so in today’s Korea.

She worked speedily, completing the final stages of the five kimchi in about two hours. The ingredients were all prepared beforehand. Ven. Sunjae rapidly gave instructions, and the students asked even the smallest details such as how to slice the vegetables or when to start the rice for lunch. It’s a signal of resonance that she inspires in people around her — respect or compassion, hope and healing — through her food.

For anyone who makes food, Ven. Sunjae agreed to share the kimchi recipes. “But they may need my soy sauce,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Her students appraised her temple food cooking as traditionalist, with emphasis on self-prepared soy sauce “ganjang” and soybean paste “doenjang.” The two sauces of ganjang and doenjang, along with “gochujang” or red chili pepper paste, are pillars in Korean food as a whole.

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