So I was at culinary school in Korea last month, attending a lecture on the pedagogy of Korean cuisine - heavy stuff. We were discussing the traditional philosophical principles of yin and yang and its relation to food as medicine. Ever the school nerd, I was loving this class. Then the teacher starts talking about the power of the number five. In traditional Korean and Chinese cultures, there are five elements that make up the universe - wood, fire, earth, metal, water. There are five colours in Korean cooking that traditionally had to be present in all meals - blue/green, red, yellow, white, black (more on this in a later post). There are five flavours - sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, salty. She goes on and on because the list is long of all of the categories of things in the universe that are ruled by the number five.
Then in passing, she says, "oh and of course the five seasons" and moves on to next topic. My Mongolian classmate and I looked at each other with our heads cocked - did she say five seasons? What the hell was she talking about? Excuse me, could she back up a bit? No one else in the class blinked an eye.
Maybe this is where my upbringing in the west becomes painfully obvious, because my mind was blown. Did everyone know this but me (and my Mongolian friend)? I grew up in the US listening to Vivaldi's masterpiece, the Four Seasons. I have stayed at hotels named after the Four Seasons. I spent most of my life believing spring is followed by summer which is followed by autumn which is in turn followed by winter, and then you start over again because there are FOUR seasons to a year. Now, as I learn more about traditional Chinese and Korean medicine as it relates to cooking, my whole universe has opened up literally.
This fifth season that I only recently learned about is a transitional season, falling between summer and autumn, often called late summer (gammee in Korean). Some literature describes this fifth season as an Indian summer, or a period of unseasonably hot weather stretching into what should be autumn.
The fifth season lies at the center of the cycle of the universe. Its corresponding element is Earth. The flavour profile associated with this season is sweet, and during late summer, you're encouraged to eat grounding, sweet food like fresh fruit. Just FYI, here are the five seasons, along with their corresponding elements, directions, colours and flavours:
Late Summer (gammee)/ Earth / Center / Yellow / Sweet
Autumn (sinmee) / Metal / West / White / Spicy
Winter (hammee) / Water / North / Black / Salty
Spring (sanmee) / Wood / East / Blue / Sour
Summer (gomee) / Fire / South / Red / Bitter
As I write this, we are wrapping up what feels like the fifth season. September is winding down but it's still 33 degrees celsius (CELSIUS) in Hong Kong. We are sweating bullets even as we prepare for harvest festival holidays. I was finding this time somewhat disconcerting - there was a huge disconnect between the time of the year and the weather, in my mind. But as it turns out, this is completely natural and just an integral part of harmony in the universe.
The energy of late summer is about grounding yourself to prepare for the autumn and winter, traditionally busy times. It is a time for nurturing your desires so that they can bear fruit. As a transitional season, the fifth season is a time to contemplate your present self and where you're going. This completely dovetails with where my head has been recently.
Almost a year ago, I quit my legal job to pursue my passion for food. I have had an incredible journey, learning so much about Korean cuisine and doing pop-ups around the world. But now as it creeps closer to one year that I've been in exploration mode, I find myself in a transition phase. I am constantly thinking about the next chapter of my life, trying to envision what that looks like, and more importantly feels like. Where will I be? What have I been working towards this year, either intentionally or unintentionally? Forget living in the present for just a moment, my head is all in the future.
As I sweat through this fifth season, all of this is becoming more clear. I look forward to sharing it with everyone over the coming weeks. In the meantime, here are some photos that I shot and styled this week, along with photographer and artistic director Amanda Kho, truly one of the shining talents in Hong Kong. Her photographs are so souful and elegant and I love seeing the world through her eyes. We spent a morning playing around in my studio with light and shadow, with the remaining summer fruit. For me, these photos capture the transitional mood of the fifth season quite perfectly...