Monday, December 2, 2013

Meeting with King Jeongjo: Part 5 - Eating like a monk

Two weekends ago I went on a cultural trip to Suwon, put on by the Korean Culture and Information Service.  I've already written about these parts of the trip:

After touring the temple grounds, we enter a building for dinner.  We take off our shoes and everyone sits down cross-legged on the floor behind a set of dishes.  There room is set up for four lines of people, with each of the two lines facing each other:

In the middle of each pair of lines were eight big metal pots/jugs, their contents a mystery.  Soon the lady monk came in -- we all stood up and did a bow sequence to greet her.  She (with the interpreter's help) instructed us on how to untie our dishes and set them up correctly.

That blue cloth (above) was just a long cloth whose only purpose was to tie everything together.  We had to set the white napkin on our right knee and unfold the placemat.  Turns out the bowl was actually four bowls of varying sizes that all fit inside each other.  Without making any noise, we took them apart and set them in the correct place on the mat, following the monk's directions.  There were also wooden chopsticks and a spoon wrapped up in there:

I'm getting a bit uncomfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor, and we haven't even gotten to the food yet.  I swear, Korean bodies must have some physical difference that makes it easier (or comfortable) for them to sit on the floor / squat.

But I remain still and the monk now asks for four volunteers from each line, who will each be in charge of one of the big pots.  I can just see myself being clumsy and spilling all over someone, so my hand does not go up.  Also to be honest, the monk brought out a bit of nervous fear in me too.

When the four volunteers were established, the monk called out number one. The two from our side went up, did a half-bow to each other, then turned and did a half-bow to the monk.  This first person poured some water into everyone's large bowl - about halfway full.

Since we weren't supposed to speak during the meal, we turned our bowl to signal that we had enough water and the pourer could stop pouring.

We used this water to rinse out our big bowl, then poured it into the next biggest bowl. We continued to do this until all of the water was in the smallest bowl.

And then the number two volunteers were called up.  They brought around rice for everyone to put in the largest bowl.  We were forewarned that we would have to finish every drop of whatever food we took - so don't take more than you can eat.  The third volunteer went around with soup for our second largest bowl, and there was kimchi and other small vegetable side dishes to put in our third bowl.

The monk also told all of us to put a yellow radish in our rice bowl, but not to eat it until she said so.  I put mine right on top of the rice, but later one of the volunteers came around and moved the radish to the side of the bowl, not directly on top of the rice.

She then told us that when we eat, we are to make no sound at all.  She demonstrated how to eat, which involved bringing the bowl up to cover your mouth, and tilting it towards yourself so that the bowl hid your mouth while you took bites.  Then we said the pre-meal chant together before eating.

Korean Buddhist temple pre-meal chant

It was a little stressful - the opposite of what I think they were going for.  Thoughts in my head during dinner:

Oh no, this is more rice than I thought it was.  

How far along is everyone else?  What if I'm the last to finish eating?  

Are we supposed to keep the bowl over our mouths the entire time we chew, or just when we're putting food into our mouths?  

Is it proper to put the soup bowl to our lips to finish the last of the soup, or is that a big no-no? ...because it's taking forever with this flat spoon.  

Man I really need to move my legs, this is so uncomfortable.  

Some people are really loud with their utensils, are they even trying not to make any noise? 

 Okay, I'm going for it. Going to finish off the soup by drinking from my bowl.

And then I had eaten everything, all but that yellow radish from my rice bowl.  I glance around, most others are finished eating too, looking around unsure of what's next.

As my eyes make their way to my left side, I'm shocked when I see that the bowls in front of the guy on my left are completely empty - even the rice bowl!  Oh no, were we supposed to have eaten the yellow radish?  How did I confuse that?

I didn't want to have food left in my bowls if they were supposed to be completely empty.  So I break my silence and whisper to the guy on my left, pointing, "Were we supposed to eat the radish?"

"Yeah," he whispers back, "That was the first thing".

I gasp and without a second thought I pick up my rice bowl and chopsticks and throw that sucker into my mouth.

And then the monk starts to address the group.

I take my first quiet bite into the radish as the monk begins, "Now you should all have a yellow radish in your bowl."

No way.  No freaking way.

Four seconds after I put the radish in my mouth she says this.  It was so freshly put in my mouth that for a split second I actually consider taking the radish back out into the bowl.  But I don't.

Instead my head turns to the left to look at the guy who had told me it was okay to eat the radish.  He says "Oops, sorry."

Grrrr.  "Anybody not have a radish?" the interpreter is translating.  Embarrassed, my hand goes up - along with the guy on my left's - in this room of 50 plus the monk and volunteers.

A volunteer comes over and gives us each another one; she and the others are obviously confused as to why we couldn't follow directions and not eat it.  Little does she know I have my original yellow radish half-chewed in my mouth at this exact moment!

The monk calls number four now, and those volunteers go around pouring some water into everyone's rice bowl.  We are instructed to use our chopsticks to rub the yellow radish around the bowl in order to clean it.  Aha, so that's the purpose of the yellow radish!  Had I known that from the beginning, there would have been no mistake in eating it early.

We pour the water into the second bowl and clean with the radish, and then into the third bowl.  Then we have to drink the leftover water with any hints of food floating around in there, though I think some dumped it into the fourth bowl.  I was really panicked as to if we should now eat the radish or not.

She really didn't explicitly tell us to this time, but the bowls needed to be empty.  So I hesitated, and then ate it.  (It was okay this time!)

Then remember the water from the beginning that's still sitting in our smallest bowl?  We poured it into the largest bowl and cleaned it once again, this time with our fingers. Then you pour it into the second bowl, wash with fingers, third bowl, wash with fingers, fourth bowl, wash with fingers.  Then the temple volunteers came around with a big bucket that we were to silently dump that water into (Note: It's hard to silently pour water into a tub of water.)

If there were any food chunks in the water waste, you could not pour them into the bucket.  You poured mostly all of the water into the bucket, and then stopped and drank the last bit that had food particles in it.  Some people missed that memo and dumped stuff they weren't supposed to into the jug.  The temple volunteers were not pleased when this happened, but it was irreversible.

So afterwards, the monk took a look at all four buckets from each of the lines.  She had a girl stand up to look in all four and to say which was the dirtiest.  "Line 3" the girl answered.

Okay, then line 3 must drink that entire bucket of water, the monk announced.  There were audible whispers of horror from line 3 when she said this.

She talked a bit more about how the monks reuse water from those buckets for many meals.  The monk also gave a short shpeal about the importance of not wasting food, and that monks always finish all of their food each meal.  Somehow through the course of this talk, and the fact that line 3 was so horrified to have to drink the water, in the end they weren't held to it.

We then all had to take our bowls downstairs and wash them again with soap (and cold water) so they would actually be clean for the next group.  When we brought our clean bowls back up, the temple volunteers helped us package them up again so they could be put back on the shelf:

It was quite an experience, the temple stay dinner.  I will never forget the yellow radish incident, I can tell you that.  But I wasn't bummed when they told us that breakfast the following morning would be eaten downstairs in the cafeteria (with tables and chairs).  Phew!
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  1. haha your experience sounds a lot more stressful than mine! A lot of people didn't even eat all of their food at the templestay I attended. I It was definitely super interesting but I'm glad I don't have to eat meals like that on a regular basis haha.

    1. Yeah, I can't say I was relaxed -- but at least they warned us to only take what we could eat. One meal like that was enough for me too!