Sometimes life doesn’t go exactly as you planned. There will always be hiccups and things you wished had been different. Then, I have found, life quickly reminds you that it is truly beautiful and radiant.
I had such a reminder recently. It was a perfect, beautiful day surrounded by warm, generous, humble souls. The sun was out and we were entrenched in nature. And of course there was food – food that had mostly been grown by my friends, prepared with such love and care and shared among us as new friendships were formed. It was a glorious, beautiful day.
It was the day after Jeong Kwan seunim’s event at the Asia Society. She, her team of three assisting chefs, her manager and I were ready to relax. I had asked a special group of friends if I could bring seunim and her team for a potluck lunch at their hideaway in Tai Po. Our hosts were Wallis Leung of A Beautiful Store and her boyfriend, KongKee, Sunny Chan and his wife, Kobe, (also known as the Sage Farmily), and Helen Sung. The setting was A Beautiful Store, which (for the moment) is set at the back of a village in Tai Po, in a small blue house by a stream and surrounded by banana trees and giant elephant ear plants.
We had agreed the menu would be vegan and free of the five pungent vegetables (oshinchae) prohibited in Korean Buddhism (garlic, onions, green onions, garlic chives and wild chives). I brought a homemade jackfruit coconut curry and local fruit we had picked up at the market. These didn’t even make it onto the table because our hosts had prepared such a feast for us.
We were greeted with citronella tea made from citronella grown at the Sage Farmily farm and mountain spring water that Helen had gathered near her house. The water came from Hong Kong’s tallest mountain and Helen lugged 10 liters of it to A Beautiful Store for our lunch. The tea was cooled with ice cubes dotted with local flowers and we all cooed as we received our tea cups. Wallis carefully dripped local honey on the edges of our tea cups for a hint of sweetness. Every detail of our lunch was as carefully thought out.
The table was set outside with small bouquets of the miniature daisies that we had set the tables with the night before at the Asia Society. The ceramics were carefully selected and made by a local artist Toki Nashiki. Our feast included a local tofu dipped in glutinous rice flour and served with a vegan XO sauce, a jar of which was gifted to seunim by our hosts. We had Sunny’s famous homemade sourdough bread made from a starter he made from apples picked in Germany years ago. (I was lucky enough once to have Sunny bring an entire rucksack filled with sourdough boules straight from the oven.) We had a cucumber salad dressed in a vegan yogurt made from cashews.
There was purple sauerkraut, aubergine dip made with koji, local kelp salad, preserved Yunnan mushrooms, fermented roselle, stir-fried tofu and black soybeans, choi sum, a savoury pumpkin puree seasoned with my favourite Korean green, gajuk namul. I had no idea it grew in Hong Kong, and since Hong Kong winter is like Korean spring, it is growing even now! I’ll be trying to plant some of it immediately once I get my hands on some seeds. We had an elegant and surprising chilled soup of bitter melon, dashi and topped with shaved frozen papaya. Ending the meal on a sweet note, we had a Cantonese-style soup made from a local yellow seaweed of the carrageenan family.
Everything we ate was vegan, seasonal, organic and locally grown, if not grown by the Sage Farmily or Wallis themselves. Their food incorporates fermentation and preserving and most of all patience. When the mozzies came to devour us, Wallis lit mosquito incense that she had made herself from herbs they had grown. Yes, I know, this is Hong Kong.
I am so grateful to be friends with this special community. Every aspect of the lunch was imbued with love, generosity and humility. As we sat around their table, all stresses fell away. We basked in the sun, savoured the food and exchanged recipes, histories and dreams for the future. We laughed a lot, mostly at seunim’s hilarious stories. Sunny would run to the kitchen periodically to bring out things for seunim to taste. He event brought out an earthenware jar with his gooey sourdough starter for us to sniff as we literally broke bread. Seunim poked around in their kitchen, picking up a bitter gourd and explaining how she would pickle it.
The connection was palpable and everyone couldn’t stop smiling we were so content to be there. Heeyoung, one of the chefs seunim brought with her, threatened to cry she found the experience so moving. Every meal should be so soulful, so full of love.
After lunch, we strolled over to the Sage Farmily’s nearby farm. Seunim delighted over their gigantuan broad beans and explained how they are cooked in Korea. I saw how okra grows for the first time, marvelling at their red okra plants. They have a tiny rice paddy, which is extremely rare in Hong Kong. Seunim plucked roselle off the bushes and Sunny and Kobe gave seunim so many gifts from their farm, they filled an entire Ikea carryall.
We all connected over our shared love of nature, the earth and others, not to mention cooking, and our desire to live simply and sustainably. For me, being around people who are actually living their ideals every day was incredibly inspiring as I sit here in my industrial urban enclave typing this up. I'm mulling over ways to adapt my life to live closer to my principles. And also, I was so happy to see everyone that happy. For the first time in days, I breathed deeply. I’m forever thankful to the Sage Farmily, Helen, Wallis and KongKee for having us.
A Beautiful Store will be moving in a couple of weeks to a new space near the Flower Market in Prince Edward, and I cannot wait to celebrate the grand opening. The Sage Farmily will continue to offer cooking workshops and private kitchen dinners in their charming blue house. I look forward to spending more lovely lunches with them soon!