Learn an Exclusive Vegetarian Recipe From “Chef’s Table” Star Jeong Kwan
The Buddhist monk from South Korea known for her moment on the hit Netflix show recently taught temple food philosophy and techniques at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific in Honolulu. Here's a recipe for you to try at home.
Photos: Martha Cheng and Lisa Yamamoto
Jeong Kwan has trouble starting the cooking lesson. About 15 students and just as many guests and media are loosely clustered in a teaching lab at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific. Not all of us can see Kwan, the Buddhist nun who lives in the Chunjinam hermitage in South Korea, whose temple food was made famous by an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. We are too scattered and she doesn’t know how to direct her energy, she says through a translator. She begins to arrange us, as if we were part of her mise en place, and by the time she is done, she and all the ingredients she has laid out before her, are viewable by everyone.
“We all eat, food is unifying,” she begins. But it is not inherently so—it can segregate and divide (vegans versus carnivores, say, or fast food eaters versus slow food cooks), just as we physically were, in the classroom, until she repositioned us. It also becomes clear early on, that though this is ostensibly a cooking class and we are given a recipe for her braised shiitake mushrooms, we will not be able to recreate the dishes she makes exactly anymore than we can become Buddhist from watching a few YouTube videos.
For the secret to her cooking is time and nature. She has brought with her an array of ingredients—including preserved daikon, a five-berry syrup, persimmon vinegar, shoyu, soy bean paste—all of them prepared by Kwan and aged for five years or more in earthenware jars at her remote hermitage in the mountains. I imagine that if we, too, spent five years there, feeling the breezes and the sun, that we would emerge as better versions of ourselves.
Ever since Kwan’s Chef’s Table episode in 2017, visitors from around the world have traveled to see her in the hermitage, and she also travels to teach temple cuisine, which eschews meat and animal byproducts and garlic, onions, scallions, chives, and leeks. Those five aromatics are sources of spiritual energy, but too much of that energy will prevent a monk’s spirit from achieving a state of calmness. This is a distraction to meditation,” Kwan had said on Chef’s Table. “Secular food is focused on creating dynamic energy. But temple food keeps a person’s mind calm and static.”
But as we taste her dishes, few of us are calm and static about the dried persimmons and cucumbers, bound in a sauce of five-berry syrup, persimmon vinegar, rice syrup, chili flakes, chili paste and sesame seeds; the mushrooms that have soaked up her melange of tart and sweet syrups; and the delicately scented sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves, which she recommends pairing with the preserved radish. In describing cooking and each ingredient, she imparts Buddhist philosophy. Preparing food begins with “understanding what we take from nature,” she says. She exhorts us to pay close attention every ingredient and its season. When it comes to cooking the mushrooms, they must be braised until the sauce saturates to the core, she says. “When you bite into something and there is an inner taste and an outer taste that does not work in unity, then you have not properly prepared that dish.”
The pickled daikon have been transformed since they were pulled from the dirt. They were packed with salt inside earthenware jars and “let sit for an entire year. The jar breathes and lets nature do its work,” she says. Then the daikon is removed, fermented in shoyu, and then soybean paste, and finally, the pulp from making the five-berry syrup. The time in the sweet syrup “extracts the true saltiness so when you taste [the daikon], you have complex layers and flavors without a punch in the face saltiness.”
She continues, “Ingredients, like human beings, and animals and plant life, we have our original essence. That origin comes from the past life and current life. Like all of us, radishes have taken in spirit and energy. And when we consume the radishes, we are now some of those energies. They can conflict with our own energies. The philosophy of temple cuisine is you need to allow some foods time, whether through fermentation, to pull some of the energy out of the ingredient. Only then, when the spirit and energy that conflicts are removed, the only thing that remains is its original essence. Then that ingredient becomes more than food, it becomes a healing.”
Clockwise from top left: sticky rice steamed in ti leaf (left) and in lotus leaf (right); dried persimmon and cucumber salad; braised shiitake mushrooms; pickled lotus root.
Braised Shiitake Mushrooms (Golden Balwoo)
Recipe adapted from Jeong Kwan. More common substitutions for some of the ingredients are provided at the end of the recipe, but there is no true replacement for the time and patience Kwan has poured into her syrups.
- 12 fresh shiitake mushroom (whole)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons perilla oil *
- 3 tablespoons five-flavor berry syrup (omija chung) **
- 3 tablespoons rice syrup (jo chung) *
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- Pinch of sea salt
- Remove the mushroom stems with a knife, then gently rinse and lightly steam the mushrooms in a steamer.
- In a braising pan, combine water, soy sauce, and perilla oil and bring to a boil. When the braising liquid comes to a full boil, add the prepared shiitake mushrooms and braise, adjusting the heat if needed.
- When the liquid has reduced by about half, lower the heat to medium, then add rice syrup, five-flavor berry syrup and continue to braise for another three minutes.
- Continue braising/reducing on low heat, while spooning the braising liquid over the mushrooms.
- When the liquid in the pan has mostly reduced, leaving a nice sheen on the mushrooms and the flavors of the seasoning fully absorbed, mushrooms will have also reduced in size and are ready to be removed.
- Drizzle sesame oil over the mushrooms and plate.
* These can be found at Korean supermarkets. Honey (though not vegan) can substitute for rice syrup.
** The berry syrup has a sweet-tart flavor—pomegranate molasses (available at India Market) makes for a good substitute.