“She wanted me to listen,” muses Jeff Gordinier, one-time writer for The New York Times and Esquire’s current food and drink editor. Talking about the time he met the renowned Buddhist nun and cook, Jeong Kwan, Gordinier speaks tenderly, measuring each word in his mouth and delivering the story slowly for maximum effect. He pauses. Jeong Kwan had led Gordinier to a brook near the Chunjinam hermitage, where she lives, deep in the forests of South Korea’s Naejangsan National Park. “This is the moment we never get to have in contemporary life: just listening to the water. And then, all of a sudden, she looked in my eyes and she said, in English, ‘orchestra’. That said everything about her cooking; that said everything about her practice. It said everything about her worldview. The world itself is an orchestra. That nature itself is an orchestra. That every piece is working together… That’s it. That’s what this is all about.”
The episode of Netflix’s popular Chef’s Table, in which Gordinier recounts this memory, is a moving one: it chronicles Jeong Kwan’s life and work, drawing a portrait not just of a nun, but of a woman – one who left her family when she was barely 17 and who trod an uncertain path through those first few years of life without the family she loved. Most of all, though, it’s about Jeong Kwan’s cooking and about an approach to food that appears, on face value at least, so different from the one so many of us are used to. Jeong Kwan steps gracefully in time with the rise and fall of the seasons; fermenting kimchi, ageing soy sauce and growing vegetables in the sprawling gardens of the hermitage. She eschews onions and garlic, which arouse the senses (and, allegedly, the libido). “I make food as a meditation,” she says.
The episode is clearly meant to show us what we’re missing out on in our hectic, modern lives. We are frantic, Jeong Kwan is calm; we tumble through traffic, she breezes on down to the water. And I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t work: I found myself yearning to be a speck in the velvety green landscape of rural Korea. By the end of the show, I wanted to do things like growing apples in my garden and taking a single one and slicing it thinly and savouring every bite. I didn’t want to buy a five-pack of Cox’s in Tesco anymore, and let them soften and wrinkle in the fruit bowl. I wanted to be a mindful eater.
I asked people for the simple food moments that they found joy in, whether that was the waft of vinegar from a bag of steaming chips or the snap of fridge-cold chocolate
But there’s a false binary in all of this thinking: a polarising that pulls our understanding of good food, and good living, into two artificially distinct strands. It sets up a narrative of us (read: Western, white, modern) versus them (read: Eastern, non-white, mystical). It positions Buddhism in opposition to staid, “methodical”, secular ways of life. Crucially, it relies on a juxtaposition of society and nature that does not, and cannot, exist: Jeong Kwan lives within the social and temporal context that established the teachings of Buddhism, just as she lives in nature. Similarly, no matter how modern our busy lives are, there remains something natural, fleshy, messy and organic in all of us. We’re both at once. That’s what makes us human.
When the calendar slid inevitably into the new year some weeks ago, I made a promise to myself. I wanted to learn to eat well, without changing a single thing that I ate. I wanted to nourish myself more deeply, without consuming anything different. The idea was that I could find more goodness in food, if only I could learn to appreciate it; if I could give more of my time, attention and open-mindedness to food, it’d give more to me in return.
Keen for support, I started a thread on Twitter. I asked people for the simple food moments that they found joy in, whether that was the waft of vinegar from a bag of steaming chips or the snap of fridge-cold chocolate. I listed my ideas to set the wheels in motion: “putting a candle in fondant icing, the sweet dregs of cereal milk, the inevitable bit of melty cheese stuck to the wrapper of yr cheeseburger, pie gravy making the underside of the pastry all soggy, butter dripping thru the lil crumpet holes”. Half-expecting nobody to reply and for me to be left alone with my own hungry thoughts, I returned to the grey New Year’s Day sofa slump.
But people were ravenous. My Twitter mentions were flooded with replies from people keen to share the meals, foods, smells and serendipitous culinary moments that brightened their days. I heard about biting the heads off jelly babies, cracking a spoon on a crème brûlée and the little “nipple” of chocolate mousse that gets stick to the underneath of the lid. Dozens of people wrote paeans to the crispy bits on the top of the lasagne, or around the sides of a pasta bake. Some rejoiced in the smell of citrus spray from an orange as you peel it, others took a more extravagant path, revelling in the finer details of ice-cream cones, pizza slices and gravy-laden Yorkshires. The all-chocolate, no-wafer KitKat of legend made an appearance more than once.
In each of these mundane things was an opportunity for joy. Pieces of butter-slathered toast may punctuate your mornings with a wearing regularity, but take a closer look at the shimmer of molten gold on bread and you might find something new worth seeing. The shifting steam spectres that rise above even the bitterest cup of filter coffee are beautiful. Good food means eating raspberries, not off the plate, but plucking them with eager lips off the ends of your fingers. The same beauty that Jeong Kwan saw in slices of pickled lotus root might be found in that first corner bite of pizza, or the smell of M&S Percy Pigs.
Eating well is about seeking out moments of pleasure and holding them tight. When you can see the good stuff right in front of you – and I mean really see it, and taste it, and feel it – you realise that you don’t need to cast off your old life and start afresh in monastic isolation in order to know true joy. You just have to be mindful. And that mindfulness can start right now. Walk into a supermarket, be grateful for the scent of warm, fresh bread being pumped through the store. Rejoice in the million colours and flavours tessellated across the shelves, all jostling with slogans and symbols and promises. Can you believe that a whole world of food is here under one roof? Eat a fat white grape without paying for it. There’s so much here to take in. This is an orchestra.
Eat Up! Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want by Ruby Tandoh (Serpent’s Tail) is out now.