A Monk, Chef, and Climate Activist All Rolled Into One: Introducing Jeong Kwan
Yongin-si, Republic of Korea
2023, Senior, Creative Writing
Climate Hero: Jeong Kwan
Instantly hit by a mouth-watering aroma, I head to the kitchen where my mom has a wide assortment of banchan on the table. The food is delicious, but eventually, I become full. There’s still some rice and side dishes left on my plate, but I think nothing of them as I shovel the remainder into the food waste bin. Little do I know that this simple act is part of a larger problem: food waste.
Food waste is one of the major factors that worsen climate change. The production, transportation, and handling of food alone generate significant CO2 emissions. When the waste ends up in landfills, it generates methane, an even worse greenhouse gas.
However, a potential solution to the food industry’s increasing global carbon footprint can be found tucked away in the valley of Naejang Mountain in South Korea. Among the soothing beats of the moktak and the vast pine trees in the Seon Buddhist Baekyangsa Temple, a Buddhist nun aims to teach the art of conservatism and simplicity. However, this individual is not just a monk. She is also a renowned chef and climate activist: Jeong Kwan.
With one meal at a time, Kwan aims to spread sustainability through the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and temple cuisine. Her philosophy begins with Barugongyang, a traditional method of eating meals that strictly adheres to the idea that you should only take as much food as you need (Knowing Korea). This step-by-step process is centered around acknowledging and appreciating the provided food, which reflects Jeong Kwan’s journey towards her passion.
The teaching begins in the dining room with clean, white walls and warm wooden floors. Flanked by two rows of soban – Korean low tables – Jeong Kwan sits at the head of the room as the others shuffle to their respective tables with the four bowls wrapped in cloth on top. Once everyone is seated, they are enveloped by a calm silence as Jeong Kwan reaches for the bamboo clapper.
Tap, tap, tap. Jeong Kwan signals Barugongyang’s first step of arranging the four bowls of different sizes, which indicate their purpose of rice, soup, side dishes, and water. This is in reference to each of the four heavenly kings giving Buddha a stone bowl following his awakening.
Such a step is similar to Jeong Kwan’s upbringing towards her passion for food. Ever since she was young, food has always been a major part of Kwan’s life. She grew up on a farm, surrounded by fresh produce every day. By the age of seven, she was well-versed in making noodles by hand. However, Kwan was dissatisfied – at least, until she set foot in a Buddhist temple. Feeling enlightened, she left the farm at the age of 17 and officially joined the order of Seon nuns two years later (Gordinier). Despite not receiving any formal training, Kwan managed to polish her culinary skills and knowledge through her past experiences and teachings from the temple.
Kwan’s upbringing contributed to her insistence on growing food by not relying on machinery or chemical fertilizers that can generate greenhouse gases. Instead, Kwan focuses on one’s spirituality, stressing that a person’s spirit belongs to the universe and is connected with nature. To her, ultimate cooking is ensuring that the food being served is not just good for our palates, but for our bodies. Her dishes are centered around highlighting not only the taste, but ultimately the nutritional value one gets from food (Colombo). Therefore, Kwan only makes her food with the freshest organic ingredients, all grown within her temple. She emphasizes that both consumers and farmers should consider proper farming techniques as well as the consequences of climate change.
Tap. Jeong Kwan signals the second step, followed by monks making rounds with the communal food. Water is served first, followed by rice, soup, and an assortment of side dishes. Each person only takes as much food as they need to ensure no leftovers, pairing just the right amount of flavorful soup and side dishes with rice.
With the practice of sensory restrainment, Jeong Kwan teaches how to incorporate the essence of Barugongyang in limiting food waste. Raised by her parents to be frugal, which was enforced by her time as a monk, Kwan engraved in her mind the significance of appreciating how precious everything is, particularly food. This philosophy can be applied to today’s overconsumption as well. In the U.S., food waste embodies 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions; globally, around one-third of all the food produced is wasted (Buzby). That means around 1.3 billion tons of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, seafood, and grains ready for consumption are instead thrown away, spoiled during distribution, or never even leave the farm (“Fight Climate Change”). In Barugongyang, not a grain of rice nor a drop of soup goes to waste, and it is considered to be one of the most sustainable ways of eating.
The rice bowl is raised in the air after another strike of the bamboo clapper, when the monks all chant together. Then – tap, tap, tap. Jeong Kwan signals that it is finally time to eat. All around the room, the monks grow silent as they eat, save the faint sounds of chewing.
All the food eaten – the entire cooking process conducted by Kwan herself – is wholly vegan, only using fruits and vegetables, herbs and beans, mushrooms, and grains. These ingredients are used completely, from tough leaves and roots to the skins of fruits and vegetables (Colombo). There are few seasonings or added condiments. Meat, fish, and dairy are excluded. Of the entire food industry, meat production makes up 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and releases 340 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere from significant deforestation (Graham). Jeong Kwan’s vegan-based meals endorse plant-based cooking that isn’t focused on raising livestock, which produces fewer carbon emissions.
Tap. The monks rinse out their bowls with their own drinking water and a piece of kimchi. Ensuring that there is no food left in the bowls, they then drink the remaining water.
Tap. Jeong Kwan signals the final step as the bowls are rearranged and stacked to their original places. The sounds of shuffling feet and rustling clothes can be heard as the monks form two lines to bow at one another, signifying the end of a good, healthy meal.
Jeong Kwan has long worked to spread her food philosophy, from winning accolades to giving cooking lessons. She even appeared on the popular Netflix series Chef’s Table, in 2017, reaching even wider audiences. Rather than striving for fame, Kwan aims to express that the form of cooking she practices is easy, requiring less energy from both the person and the environment. Not only does she emphasize the simplicity of temple food, but even the philosophy of only eating as much as you need is something that can be followed by ordinary people.
An individual who puts her entire heart not just into her cuisine but her environment as well, Jeong Kwan continues to prove herself as both a chef and a climate activist. She has “a hope that we can live a life that honors and respects nature and our environment, promotes a sustainable lifestyle, and has a positive effect on climate change and saves lives” (Wong).
“Barugongyang – the Traditional Buddhist Meal Where Nothing Is Wasted.” Knowing Korea, www.knowingkorea.org/contents/view/96/Barugongyang-the-traditional-Buddhist-meal-wh ere-nothing-is-wasted. Accessed 14 June 2023.
Buzby, Jean. “Food Waste and Its Links to Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change.” USDA, 24 Jan. 2022, www.usda.gov/media/blog/2022/01/24/food-waste-and-its-links-greenhouse-gases-and-climate change#:~:text=Food%20loss%20and%20waste%20also,even%20more%20potent% 20greenhouse%20gas.
Colombo, Marta. “In Conversation With Jeong Kwan, Buddhist Monk And Asia’s 50 Best Icon Award Winner.” AugustMan, 30 July 2022, www.augustman.com/my/food-drink/dining/interview-with-jeong-kwan-buddhist-monk-an d-asia-50-best-icon/.
“Fight Climate Change By Preventing Food Waste.” WWF, www.worldwildlife.org/stories/fight-climate-change-by-preventing-food-waste.
Gordinier, Jeff. “Jeong Kwan, the Philosopher Chef.” The New York Times, 16 Oct. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/t-magazine/jeong-kwan-the-philosopher-chef.html.
Graham, Rachel. “Why Is Eating Meat Bad For the Environment and Climate Change?” Sentient Media, 21 Dec. 2022, sentientmedia.org/why-is-eating-meat-bad-for-the-environment/#:~:text=Meat%20production%20accounts%20for%2057,significantly%20contributes%20to%20climate%20change.
Wong, Maggie Hiufu. “How a Female Buddhist Monk Became One of Asia’s Most Revered Chefs.” CNN, 8 June 2022, www.cnn.com/travel/article/south-korean-monk-chef-jeong-kwan/index.html.
When I was deciding who I should write about, I knew that I wanted to write about someone Korean, who shared my cultural background. I decided to write about Jeong Kwan after watching her on Chef's Table on Netflix because I remembered being incredibly inspired by her way of cooking, which was sustainable yet delicious. Moreover, I felt like in the discussion of climate change, food waste wasn't focused on as much by the general public and the media compared to other major problems such as deforestation or burning fossil fuels. With my writing, I want to express to people that the type of cooking Jeong Kwan practices is amazing, for both the environment and body, and introduce the sustainability of temple food by showing the process of Barugongyang. Even if the general public doesn't go out of their way to consume temple food, the philosophy of only eating as much as one needs is something that can be followed by anyone and can still help reduce food waste. Through researching Jeong Kwan, I realized that while climate change is a major issue, everyone can partake in alleviating it, and the little things - such as simply reducing your food waste - does end up having a positive impact, making me a little more hopeful for the future.