Birthday for Buddha

Last time I stayed with Jeong Kwan seunim at Chunjinam hermitage in southern Korea – just a month and a half ago – Chunjinam was still shaking off winter. The trees covering the mountains were still bare, and the air was frigid. There were just a few bold daffodils recklessly beginning to bloom at the foot of Chunjinam’s main temple hall.  

When I returned to stay with Jeong Kwan seunim at the end of April—a week before Buddha’s birthday—Chunjinam was blanketed in greenery and blossoms. Magenta and white azaleas dotted the grounds; plum blossoms still lingered on the trees; and travellers were streaming to Baekyangsa temple to admire the tiny, forked Japanese maple leaves (with the sweet name of aegi danpoong or baby maple) that had emerged. Nature was truly glorious, as if on cue for the upcoming celebrations for Buddha’s birthday.

As in many Asian countries, Buddha’s birthday is a national public holiday in South Korea. Streets throughout the country are strewn with brightly coloured paper lanterns in honour of Buddha. In Seoul, there is a national parade and Lotus Lantern Festival surrounding Jogyesa temple. Similar celebrations occur throughout the country, and temples prepare for the crowds of visitors that will teem in for prayers and a celebratory meal on the holiday itself.

Jeong Kwan seunim was expecting 300 devotees at her small hermitage alone. She also needed to prepare food to be sold at a booth at the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul a few days before. There was a formidable amount of organisation, cleaning and cooking to be done, and the old adage “it takes a village” was no more pertinent than during this week that I was with the seunim. Throughout the week, dozens of people cheerfully offered their time, their resources, their vegetables and their energy to prepare for Buddha’s birthday.

Surrounding Jeong Kwan seunim every day at Chunjinam are Myojin seunim, the other nun residing at the hermitage, and Songhee Park bosalnim, a talented cook from a nearby town who assists in the kitchen and daily operations of the hermitage.  Then there were long-term guests Dr. Anne Park, a Korean-Canadian professor who is working on an academic treatise on temple cuisine and Chef Kwang Uh, who happens to be the chef of my very favourite restaurant, Baroo, in Los Angeles. Both the professor and Chef Kwang have been residing at Chunjinam for several months.

With Buddha’s birthday approaching, an itinerant group of assistants appeared several days beforehand to help out as well. Among them were Jeonju bosalnim, an experienced temple cook who has worked with the seunim for decades and who now runs her own temple food cooking school in Jeonju. Two young chefs-in-training who had worked for Chef Kwang at Baroo arrived with energetic spirits. Chrystal Park, the founder of a cool, creative food studio in Busan, had assisted the seunim the year before and returned. Rounding out the holiday crew were two nuns from other temples who assisted with the ceremony, a couple of American schoolteachers stationed in rural Korea, and an army of well-trained women with their official satiny Korean Temple Food aprons.

Songhee  bosalnim  and Jeonju  bosalnim

Songhee bosalnim and Jeonju bosalnim

All of Jeong Kwan’s soldiers put their heads down and worked unstintingly to ensure a smooth celebration and delicious food for the guests. Days started early and ended late. Our menu for Buddha’s birthday lunch seemed simple enough: vegan bibimbap or the classic Korean dish of rice mixed with vegetables (and when not in a temple, meat and egg or raw fish). We would be serving bibimbap individually, along with a buffet of several side dishes, bowls of refreshing water kimchi made from young radish leaves donated by a local farmer, and a dessert of freshly steamed rice cakes with beans. My primary station during the preparations was the dried vegetables.

All over Chunjinam’s grounds, there are sacks of dried vegetables – dried aubergine, dried potato stems, dried aster scaber, dried radish, dried seaweed, dried fern bracken. If it’s an edible vegetable that grows in Korea, it has been dried in alarming volume and housed in a dark storeroom or refrigerator at Chunjinam. Before we started prepping Buddha’s feast, Jeong Kwan seunim pulled out sack upon sack of dried vegetables from all over the property. I discovered rooms that I didn’t know existed filled with vegetal treasures.

Before this trip, I had assumed I could cook vegetables for bibimbap with my eyes closed. I was wrong. At the beginning I saw that one volunteer wore disposable plastic gloves as she cooked, so I found a pair and put them on. I began to season one bowl of vegetables when Jeonju bosalnim came over. “What are you doing?” she asked incredulously. In the US, for hygiene reasons, you are usually mandated by law to wear gloves when cooking for the public, and I was confused by her confusion.

Jeonju bosalnim lifted her right hand and pointed to her palm. “All of your energy comes from here.” She circled her palm with her pointing finger. “You pass your energy to the food from your hands. The positive feelings that you have, that’s what gives the food its flavour. If you wear gloves, you block that energy.” I mentioned that I had seen one woman wear gloves, and Jeonju bosalnim looked at me and explained very patiently that that volunteer had cut herself so of course had to wear gloves. But everyone else was not to wear gloves. “Keep sliced lemon close to you and clean your hands with the lemon to disinfect them. But absolutely, never ever wear gloves. This is how we make our food delicious.” I disposed of the gloves quickly.

After seasoning the vegetables and massaging them with my bare hands, I found myself sweating over three oversized woks filled with vegetables, heated by gas flames. I ran from one end of the wok station to the other stirring the contents of each wok quickly, in turns, and my arms ached from tossing and lifting the hefty mountains of vegetables. Even with the hours ticking closer to the feast, I was told not to rush when cooking. “We have to remain calm. Don’t rush. We have to do things properly and with a clear and calm mind.”

I worked methodically and didn’t move from the woks for hours. The repetition of manning the woks—seasoning the vegetables, sautéing the vegetables, adding water to the vegetables and letting it evaporate several times, then starting over with another batch—became like a meditation.

We worked mostly in silence in the kitchen, and every now and then Chef Kwang would yell out in Korean: “Everyone good?” We shouted back, “Yes Chef!” And then he would call out people individually to make sure that everyone was still alive and not drowning in work. “Mina, are you good?” “Yes Chef!”

Jeong Kwan seunim buzzed around attending to every detail of the preparation and tasting each dish. While we didn’t take many breaks in the days before Buddha’s birthday, there was always time to eat a fresh staff meal together. The night before Buddha’s birthday, the whole team fatigued, we sat on blue tarps on the floor of the terrace eating bibimbap made from vegetables we wouldn’t be using the next day. There was a slightly cool breeze, I leaned back and we all enjoyed the fresh air after being in the kitchen all day.

The next morning, we congregated at 6am. With most of the cooking done, I spent the morning putting up flowers in the temple hall, decorating the prayer area with bright blooms at Jeong Kwan’s seunim’s direction. The seunim and I decorated a statue of an elephant with pots of flowers, and she giggled as she put one pot underneath the elephant’s tail so they looked like they were growing out from the elephant’s bum. “Mina, look!” and she laughed like a young girl.

The sun came out in full force and it was clearly going to be a hot day. A group of young musicians studying Korean classical music tested the sound system, sweating in layers of Korean traditional clothing. Stacks of prayer books were set up on the welcome table beneath a tent.

I had to fly out that same day from Seoul so had to leave Chunjinam in the afternoon. Though the team was busy, Songhee bosalnim stopped what she was doing to prepare me lunch. “You have to eat something before you take the train.” I protested that there was still too much to do before I left, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Perhaps my proudest moment was when one of the women grabbed my hand and offered me an official Korean Temple Food apron. “This is for you. You worked hard. Thank you.”

The seunim gave a quick speech before lunch. She had asked Chef Kwang to set up a room where we could play the Netflix Chef’s Table episode on her for the guests. Since most of the people there would not have access to Netflix, she wanted to give them an opportunity to view the episode. “Some people from America came here one year ago to film us. This show is about our food, our community, what we are doing right here. The world is interested in us and in this food that we have made especially for you. I hope you enjoy your lunch.” The seunim moved through the crowd welcoming her guests, stopping especially to fawn over the children and babies. Ever the consummate hostess, she made sure that everyone had enough to eat.

This post along with some of the photos were originally published in substantially the same form on 26 May 2017 by Hong Kong Tatler here.