Wednesday 8 March 2017


There is a nun in South Korea
who walked up the side of a mountain
to Baekyangsa temple, when she was
seventeen, and her mother had just died.

You have come here to live,
said the nun who opened the door,
not asking a question; just telling
a truth that had yet to manifest.

Jeong Kwan unpins her freshly
laundered robes and whispers them
around her shoulders. How old is she?
Only the mountain knows.

But the taengja tree outside her window
is 500 years old. Hardy orange, it still
bears fruit, and Kwan uses the sour juice
in her cooking.

She pickles lotus root three different ways,
then checks on jars of kimchi. She never
uses garlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks.
Too distracting for a monk.

But soy?
Soy excites her.

Sometimes I agree with the world
that to be a mother is everything. Is the key
and the lock. Jeong Kwan vowed at seventeen
to not burden children with the pain of her death.

There is something in that,
for me.

We can't all choose to opt out
or the world would stop spinning
around humans. Bees might take over. Or
rats. Or better still, dust motes of light. Or dark.

Jeong Kwan unfurls petal after petal
of the lotus flower, soaking the skirt
in water. Later, she will pour the water
into a pot and you will want to gulp the tea

as though you are parched. You are parched
and this is the tea of enlightenment. The tea
that rings the bell of truth. Life can be this
way. An art. A craft. A discipline. A dance.

Three slices of lotus root, pickled
in an heirloom of soy sauce.

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2017

Jeong Kwan is considered one of the finest chefs of this world by the finest chefs of this world, who are almost exclusively male. Life can be this way. Women can be this way. Happy Women's Day today and every day to all my friends and sisters, my mentors and teachers and heroes. We can be anything. We can do everything. Certainly, we can.

(Poem linked to Dverse Poets for Open Link Night) 


Jill said...


scotthastiepoet said...

Wow! Dazzling work Shaista - I couldn't wait to read the next line. Fine, perfectly weighted sensibilities here throughout..

Frank Hubeny said...

I enjoyed the story of this chef. These lines stand out for me as the heart of the poem: "Jeong Kwan vowed at seventeen
To not burden her children with the pain of her death."

Gayle Walters Rose said...

What an inspiring story and it's told in such a feeling of great reverence and the tea ceremony that is so precise that you end up with tea that can enlighten you. Ah, soy sauce excites me too! I bow in recognition to this great chef and appreciate her story as told by a wonderfully gifted writer.
Gayle ~

Grace said...

A delightful read tonight ~ I love the details of the food, steeped with history ~

Sanaa Rizvi said...

This is an absolutely awe-inspiring write Shaista!❤️

brudberg said...

This is absolutely wonderful.. the food the taste the sense of spice.

Anonymous said...

I love the story telling element with all of the added flavors -- a tasty tale! ~peace, Jason

Bekkie Sanchez said...

I have a good friend who lives in the country in Japan and lives a life not many in Japan do anymore. She is very traditional and I love her posts on Google she walks, takes pictures and writes Tanka about them. This reminded me of her.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

How did I miss this? I come to it with my mind calmed like the widest sea.......the lotus tea of enlightenment........her choice not to burden her children with her death. One of my favourites of yours, my friend, and each one of yours is always my new favourite. A belated happy women's day to you, who are one of my heroes.............I will email you as I have moved and have much to tell.

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