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Wookwan Sunim

Introduction to Korean temple food

 

2019.09.09

 

'Where did this food come from?'
Temple food refers to food cooked to capture the original taste from ingredients usually grown in Buddhist temples or found in nature. Temple food is special even in South Korea. To meet temple food is to go beyond the act of eating and think about where the ingredients came from and how the food was made. It is to realize the preciousness of food. Right now, when so many people have much interest in the preservation of humankind and protecting nature, Korean temple food is finding its place as a cultural element as it opens up a new view into food.
Wookwan sunim is an expert on South Korea's temple food. It may seem strange to see the suffix 'food expert' attached to a Buddhist nun's name, but it is not that strange when you consider in Buddhism, growing food, cooking it, eating it and cleaning up is all part of asceticism. Wookwan's temple food and the stories in her food are popular among non-Buddhists as well. Her philosophy towards food is 'as the many waters of the world flow into the ocean to become one taste, all the flavors embrace to become the taste of enlightenment', and perhaps it was because this philosophy is embodied in her food that many people seek it out.
Until now, Wookwan has published three books on temple food and her philosophy on food. Her third book, Wookwan's Korean Temple Food was the first to be translated into English and awarded a silver medal in the cooking book category by the U.S.-based Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). Korean temple food and Wookwan's book, which could have been easily disregarded as purely Korean, have sparked interest amongst readers in the United States. We met with Wookwan to listen to the story inside her book and the stories she wishes to tell going forward.

 

우관스님

 

Wookwan sunim, you are the head sunim of Gameunsa and an author of temple food books. Usually when you think of Buddhist monks, you picture their asceticism for enlightenment. It must have been a difficult decision to publish cookbooks as an author given this fact.

 

While I was giving lectures at Dongguk University (a South Korean university established by Buddhist institutes) in 2012, a publisher approached me about writing a book. I hesitated when I first received the offer because I thought it was shameful for one in my position to write a cookbook when I was supposed to write poems from the heart about enlightenment. However, at the end of my hesitation, I decided to write a cookbook, and because I thought it would be my first and last, I tried to include as many recipes as I could. Therefore, my first book, Wookwan Sunim's Temple Food with a Mother's Touch (Stylebooks) ended up this thick book with over 230 recipes.

 

 

After publishing my first book, I changed my thinking to focus on communicating with
people of the world and ended up joyfully working on my books because I realized
they were what the world and its people wanted, and it was useful to them.

 

 

Three years after the publication of your first book, your second book Wookwan Sunim's The Tsate of Awakening (Lamp on the Moon) was released in 2016. You must have had a change of heart after publishing your first book.

 

Three years following the release of my first book, two publishers approached me about another book, and I was contemplating what to do. Around that time, the photographer who helped me with my first book, Moon Duk-gwan, requested he wanted to publish a temple food book with me at his newly established publishing company. I trusted him and his work and agreed. Also, after publishing my first book, I changed my thinking to focus on communicating with people of the world through my lectures and ended up joyfully working on my books because I realized they were what the world and its people wanted, and it was useful to them.

 

<Wookwan's Handmade Temple Food >, <Relishing Barley>

Wookwan Sunim's Temple Food with a Mother's Touch , Wookwan Sunim's The Tsate of Awakening

 

The two books we mentioned, Wookwan Sunim's Temple Food with a Mother's Touch and Wookwan Sunim's The Tsate of Awakening were both books on temple food released in South Korea. Although they have the same theme that is temple food, I am guessing there is a difference in the message you are sending to readers. What are the meanings the books have?

 

When I first released Wookwan Sunim's Temple Food with a Mother's Touch, I introduced ingredients that were easy to come by for most people and easy cooking methods. It was because I wanted people to have healthy food on their table they could make easily, and through that, they could improve their eating habits. Wookwan Sunim's The Tsate of Awakening was the opposite: it had ingredients that were hard to find. I wanted to tell people some grasses that could easily be seen in the mountains were not blades to be trampled but rather, healthy ingredients for food that were edible.

 

 

Temple food is not just about chasing after flavor and eating it,
it is food to be thankful for, thinking of all the effort by people who brought the ingredients to you.

 

 

We are aware that you take part in lectures quite often inside and outside South Korea to teach temple food. Temple food can't be limited to just cooking style, so it must be difficult to describe. How do you describe temple food to overseas audiences?

 

Temple food is not just about chasing after flavor and eating it. One should be thankful for the effort that went into bringing the ingredients to them and cook it with minimum seasoning with no thoughtless waste created. It is a meal to be thanked and shared with others. It is an ascetic practice; it is frugal food, and it is equal for all. We stress three virtues when cooking it. These would be cleanliness, flexibility and adherence to teachings when it comes to ingredients or cooking style. Only when the person who does the cooking and the person who eats the food has all three of these virtues does the food become useful to the mind and body.

 

In May 2018, your first English cookbook Wookwan's Korean Temple Food was published in the United States. We're curious about the story behind that cookbook.

 

In 2010, the cultural department of the Jogye Order in South Korea sent me to New York to spread awareness on Korean Buddhism at the '2010 Experience Korean Cuisine' event. I was there as a temple food expert. At that time, I visited the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and also stopped by their library. It was saddening to see there were almost no Korean cookbooks. It occurred to me that I should write a book on Korean food and temple food. Time passed, and I was back in New York at the invitation of the Korean Cultural Center there in December 2017. There someone who worked with temple food offered me a deal on an English cookbook. I had always thought of this as an undertaking I would have to do eventually since that visit to the CIA in 2010, and there was no hesitation then. We moved quickly, and the book was published in May 2018. The book not only has recipes but also brings together the mentality and philosophy of temple food. I also tried to introduce the most symbolic and basic temple food there is.

 

<Wookwan's Korean Temple Food>

Wookwan's Korean Temple Food

 

We are quite proud of the fact that you were able to highlight Korean temple food in the United States. However, many there are likely unfamiliar with the topic. What was the reaction like in the United States?

 

I was aware that various people were interested in temple food after it was introduced in the United States and Europe, but the reaction was palpable only after I held a book concert in the United States and the United Kingdom. I felt my work had been worthwhile when people came to me and thanked me for introducing recipes that were easy to follow. There were even three to four people who said I should open temple food restaurants with them in Manhattan. (laughs)

 

 

I was grateful and thankful that people who had no connection to me
appreciated my work as I had written the book with my utmost efforts.

 

 

In April 2019, Wookwan's Korean Temple Food was awarded the silver medal at the Benjamin Franklin Awards at the IBPA under the cookbook category. The thought you put into the cookbook must have touched them. How did you feel?

 

I was grateful and thankful that people who had no connection to me appreciated my work as I had written the book with my utmost efforts in mid-winter. I would like to offer a word of gratitude for everyone who now shares that beautiful relationship with me.

 

You are an ascetic, and as part of your asceticism, you are taking part in a number of activities to spread the word on the meaning inside temple food. Among those, publishing books is an excellent way to disseminate your thoughts. Please tell us about your personal philosophy or faith that you include in your books.

 

It's difficult to include much philosophy or faith in cookbooks, but the difference in cooking techniques can be an act of faith. In my everyday life, I cut out the complicated and cumbersome and live simply. As a result, my attitude towards food is also simple. With ingredients that are in season and easy cooking techniques combined with the right seasoning, you can be free of the complications of cooking, even just a little bit. In addition, if you add sincerity into your food, your table will be one to keep your family and neighborhood sustained.

 

Are there more books planned? What kind of books would you like to write next?

 

They say one's habits at age three stay with you until 80. Your tastes when you are young are saved in your mind until you become an adult. Palates at a very young age, as an infant or child, are very important so I am now thinking of a cookbook about feeding infants, toddlers and children. This is in order for them to become accustomed to healthy food so they can have healthy eating habits as adults. I would also like to write a book for those who are suffering from illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes so they can have healthy eating habits. And I also have a small dream of publishing a poetry collection someday.

 

 

 

 


Arranged by Jeon Hye-young

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