A few days ago I cooked cauliflower leaves for the first time. I wanted to make cauliflower muffins for dinner, and there were only cauliflowers with a lot of leaves on the rack. A few months ago I had baked a whole cauliflower for the first time and had most of the leaves on. They had been soaked in olive oil and were a bit charred and I had felt guilty about throwing them away. So I had tasted them and found them delicious. This time I bought the cauliflower with a lot of leaves and cooked them as a side dish in a marinade of olive oil, honeyed vinegar, chilis and a few spices. They were exquisite, strong crunchy stems and crispy leaves full of flavor.
I would have probably never thought of cooking cauliflower leaves. In fact, I had always thrown the leaves away before. But the episode of Jeong Kwan on Netflix's show Chef’s Table opened my eyes to what eating responsibly really means.
Jeong Kwan is a nun who happens to cook amazing food. Renowned chefs all over the world want to taste her food and learn from her skills. And she teaches everyone who comes to her. She is driven by a selfless desire to help: „I teach because I want the world to be united through healthy food and to thrive together.“ Her way of cooking is one of gratitude toward nature, of sharing and communicating. It’s respecting the ingredients, and also a constant exercise in mindfulness and awareness.
When I was sixteen, I had to start cooking for my family, as my mother was away recovering from an illness. I struggled a lot with the task at the beginning, as I hadn’t had any cooking experience before. But soon I realized how rewarding working with food was. I found joy in touching and handling the ingredients and becoming aware of their colors, textures and shapes. Of their countless flavors and scents. Of the endless possibilities hidden in one carrot, potato or beetroot. And their combinations.
As I watched Jeong Kwan walking through her marvelous wild garden and talking about sharing the fruits of the earth with insects and animals, I remembered how we also used everything we could from the gifts of our own garden. From the green walnuts that fall down from the tree during a stormy summer evening we made sweets for the winter, conserving them in a sugar syrup. We dried the apricots stones in the sun, cracked them open and used the seeds inside in deserts as an almond substitute. We made salad out of dandelion leaves picked on the meadows around our home town. I had forgotten how precious and versatile all these foods were. And how creative we were in preparing them, out of need, of course, but also because we didn't have to show off our wealth and caviar and champagne on the table.
This lesson is probably the most important one that I learned from Jeong Kwan, although it is also the most difficult one to apply. Comparison to others and jealousy seem to be more present than ever. But I find myself the most creative when I manage to let go of the desire to impress others, and instead of comparing I concentrate on learning. My ego takes over now and again. I feel anger or frustration at other people’s or my own criticism, and sometimes I feel complacent at my achievements. But then I think of Jeong Kwan, and that “there is no ego to speak of”.