Korean Cooking with Buddhist monk and chef Seonjae – Dani Valent

There is always so much to learn when it comes to food, so I was grateful for the opportunity to dive into Korean food at a cooking class and lecture in Melbourne last week. The guest of honour was Buddhist monk Seonjae, who is also a chef and the President of the Korean Food Promotion Institute.

Chef Seonjae, 63, spoke about the long tradition of food as medicine in the 5000-year history of Korean cuisine, particularly when it comes to balancing heavy foods with fermented foods to aid digestion. The staple food in Korea is rice, eaten as regular boiled grains, in combination with other grains, as a brewed drink, and also in the form of tteokbokki, a kind of rice flour dumpling similar to gnocchi. I love tteokbokki but they are heavy and that’s why they’re always eaten in combination with fermented foods.

As a Buddhist monk preparing temple food, Seonjae adheres to dietary restrictions. She is vegetarian and avoids the five pungent vegetables: onion, garlic, chive, green onions and leek. Interestingly, chilli is okay.

I was honoured to have the opportunity to interview chef Seonjae after her lecture. I asked her about the spiritual aspects of cooking and how I might bring some higher intention to the daily acting of preparing food. Our conversation came back to the humble cabbage, which is a key ingredient in kimchi, the fermented staple that’s on every Korean table.

“Think about the cabbage,” she told me, through a translator. “Just like a human, the cabbage grows on the earth and it needs air, water and sunshine to grow and thrive.” I don’t consider myself a religious person but I respect the wisdom and insight of those on a spiritual path and, as she said these words, I started to feel a spaciousness inside. Seonjae spoke of the cabbage’s stillness and how I could reflect on that as I cooked. Her words also made me think of the many layers of a cabbage, some tightly packed and some looser, and how that can relate to all of us with our many layers of experience and emotion.

“Kimchi is a way to give new life to a cabbage,” she continued, “And as we do that, we also give new life to our own bodies. We take the properties of the cabbage and we add to it.” I love that idea of kimchi, and fermented foods generally. They rely on the base ingredient, then encourage new life in the form of good bacterias. These tiny life forms grow and thrive on their host and, in turn, bring new energy to our human bodies. It’s a simple cycle that is also profound.

Chef Seonjae’s lecture and our interview was followed by a cooking class by Korean chef Heather Jeong. We made bulgogi beef and chive pancakes and they were delicious! Beyond the recipes, what really stayed with me was the concept of ‘son-mat’, as described by Heather. This is ‘the taste of your hands’ and every cook brings it to the food that they create. Yes, there are ingredients, methods and techniques, but what really elevates cooking is the involvement of your own senses and the heart you put into it. I love that!

Have you tried making kimchi? I love this kimchi recipe from Sharon Flynn. I dip into my kimchi jar almost every day!


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