Articles about tea published in the Korea Times in 1999
Some of these texts repeat what can be found on my main tea pages. Sorry.
Tea Cultures Vary From Nation to Nation
If you go into a tea house in Insa-dong and look at the menu, you will find a great number of words that even your Korean friends may not be able to explain: Nokch'a (green tea) will be OK, but then come malch'a, Uchon, Sejak, Chungjak, oryongch'a, boich'a. . . . When whatever you order arrives, the complex array of pots and cups may make you long for the simple tea-bag in a cup of hot water you get in the big hotels.
In Korea, as in China and Japan, tea-drinking has a long history. The British are probably the only people in Europe with a comparably intense interest in tea. They are certainly the only western practitioners of a Tea Ceremony; they call it ¡°Tea Time¡± at home and ¡°Tea Break¡± in the workplace. Tea time is usually around four o'clock, but the same ritual of tea-drinking can occur at any hour, after the ceremonial invocation:¡±Shall I make a cup of tea?¡±
Yet although Korea has many Tea Rooms (translating tabang literally), it is quite impossible to find here the kind of drink that the English call ¡°tea¡±: a large pot full of a pungent dark brown fluid made with boiling water, left to stand on the leaves for nearly five minutes, mixed with milk and often sweetened with sugar. This may prove a problem if English soccer fans get as far as Korea for the next World Cup. Riots may occur, unless they can be convinced that Korea's green tea is also `tea.'
That may prove difficult, even if we can get beyond the confusion caused by the use of the word `tea' to describe almost any kind of hot drink: Ginseng Tea, Citrus Tea, Jujube Tea. Such teas are not `tea.' At the same time, most people find it almost impossible to believe that the dark hot liquid known in England as `tea' and the pale green tepid fluid sipped here in `tea houses' have any connection. They often refuse to believe that they are in fact made from the same plant.
It all started in China. Knowledge of tea first came to Europe through the Middle East; for centuries, `bricks' of tea from China traveled along the Silk Road as far as India and Turkey, carrying the Chinese name ch'a. Then in the later 16th century, as Portugal developed trading relations with China, tea began to appear among the goods they brought back to Europe from Macao.
The first known reference to tea by an Englishman dates from 1615, when a certain Richard Wickham wrote to Macao asking for `a pot of the best sort of chaw.' One old name for tea recorded in China seems to have been kia, the pronunciation ch'a came later. In one or two southern Chinese dialects a `t' took the place of the initial `ch' and we find the variant pronunciations ta or tai. In Korea today we find both pronunciations, ch'a and ta, just as in England from the beginning people spoke of both cha and tay or tee.
The first detailed study of tea published in Europe was written by Dr. Wilhelm ten Rhyne (1649-1700), a celebrated Dutch physician and botanist who also wrote the first account of acupuncture. He lived in the Dutch `factory' (trading post) on the artificial island of Deshima in the harbor at Nagasaki from 1674 to 1676.
Some years later, in 1683, the German scholar Engelbert Kaempfer wrote his own account of Japanese tea. Kaempfer's work in making Japan, especially its botany, known in Europe, was hailed by the great botanist Linnaeus. The first edition of Linnaeus's Species Plantarum published in 1753 suggested calling the tea plant Thea sinensis, taking the Latin name for tea from Kaempfer. In the early 19th century the English decided to break China's monopoly by growing tea in India. Then it was found that in fact tea trees already grew wild, unrecognized, in the hills of Assam. A fierce debate raged as to whether these were identical with the Chinese variety, and whether Thea was a separate genus or part of the genus Camellia. It was finally settled in 1905 that the tea tree's correct botanical name, no matter where it grows, is Camellia sinensis (L.) O. Kuntze.
If there is only one tea tree, how are we to account for the great differences in taste between the English cup of tea and the Korean? How is Korean tea made and how should it be drunk? Those are topics that will be explored in the following articles of this series.
Approaches to Tea Reflect Cultural Differences
In the 14th century, when the Yi family took power, Korea had thousands of Buddhist temples of great beauty and immense wealth. Tea had been an integral part of Buddhist culture since its arrival in Korea from China many centuries before. The new rulers decided to break the power of the Buddhist monks, so they closed and demolished most of the temples, and replaced Buddhist traditions with Confucian ones. The ceremonial drinking of tea vanished almost completely. Some scholars continued to drink tea in their homes, and to write poems about it, as the Chinese had always done, but on the whole, Korea lost the old Way of Tea.
In the last 20 years, Korea has begun to rediscover its lost tea traditions, and everyone knows that around Seoul's Insa-dong, especially, there are many 'traditional tea rooms.' Sometimes groups of women dressed in elegant Hanbok perform 'Korean tea ceremonies' for special visitors. Yet on the whole, there is no firmly established traditional Korean tea ceremony, and still most Koreans do not even know how to make and serve a cup of green tea.
People who have seen the Japanese tea ceremony are familiar with the kind of tea drunk there. There is no tea-pot; finely powdered green tea is blended with hot water in a large tea-bowl by whipping with a delicate bamboo whisk, until the surface is covered with a firm froth. When visitors see this form of tea being served in modern Korea, under the name of malch'a, or karuch'a, they often assume that Korea is simply imitating Japan. The truth is more interesting and more complex.
In the early centuries of the present era, when tea first began to be drunk in China and in Korea, the leaves were baked into bricks, scrapings of which were boiled into a kind of bitter soup flavored with salt. This is the kind of tea described in the Chinese Classic of Tea written by Lu Yu in 780. With the transition to the Sung dynasty (960-1279), Chinese culture reached a new summit of refinement. Tea now began to be drunk among the higher classes in the form preserved in the Japanese tea ceremony, finely powdered and whisked in a bowl. Koryo dynasty Korea learned this new refinement from China, as did Japan. Chinese tea culture reached its height under the emperor Kiasung (1101-1126) who was untiring in his search for new varieties of tea and qualities of taste.
Then came the Mongols. Genghis Khan conquered Beijing in 1215, his grandson Kublai Khan overthrew the Southern Sung in 1279. The Mongols liked to put cream in old- fashioned brick tea, which they treated as the soup in a meal. Kublai Khan founded the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and it was at this time that Marco Polo visited China, returned to Italy, and wrote Europe's first report about China, without ever mentioning tea. Meanwhile, Koreans and Japanese continued to drink whisked tea.
The Ming dynasty (1368-1643) that followed, in reaction to the Tartar invasion, tried to restore former Chinese ways. It was only during the Ming dynasty that the method of making the tea that is mostly drunk in Korea today, loose-leaved green tea, became popular, and the method of allowing the tea leaves to soak (steep) in hot water in a pot for a time before drinking. So when you are faced with the choice between malch'a in a bowl and green tea in a pot, you are really choosing between the Chinese Sung and Ming ways of drinking tea.
In modern Korea, the finely powdered tea needed for malch'a has recently become more easily available and many tea houses serve it, sometimes mixed with powdered ginseng. We are still far from the Japanese model, though. I recall a grove of giant bamboos among the old temples at Kamakura, just outside Tokyo, where visitors can enjoy a large bowl of delicately flavored malch'a while listening to the sound of the sea breezes rustling in the leaves. The modern Korean equivalent seems to be a can of beer and a grilled dry squid, which may indeed offer a more cordial experience. Very few Koreans indeed, even lovers of tea, ever think of preparing green tea during a picnic or as part of the enjoyment of a beautiful landscape.
The Japanese aesthetic, all refinement and delicately sophisticated nuances, reflects the somewhat ethereal approach to tea developed in the Chinese Sung court. Koreans have a more direct, down-to-earth approach to life and the best of their tea culture is correspondingly natural and relaxed, but it tends to be limited to an indoors setting.
Why Drink Tea?
Why, you may ask, should anyone drink expensive green tea? Preparing it seems so complicated, compared to a spoonful of instant coffee, or a tea bag. The most common answer is, not surprisingly, ¡°because it is good for you.¡± A Japanese professor has set up a Web page that begins with the following claims:
Green tea enhances health
Green tea prevents cancer
Green tea restricts the increase of blood cholesterol
Green tea controls high blood pressure
Green tea lowers the blood sugar level
Green tea suppresses aging
Green tea refreshes the body
Green tea deters food poisoning
Green tea stops cavities
Green tea fights virus
Green tea acts as a functional food
In order to justify these claims, he offers a list of the main components of green tea, together with a list of the healthy effects of each. His great heroes are the Catechins, the main component in tea, it seems, which thanks to them offers the following advantages: tea reduces the incidence of cancer, reduces tumors, reduces mutations, reduces oxidation by active oxygen, lowers blood cholesterol, inhibits increase of blood pressure, inhibits increase of blood sugar, kills bacteria, kills influenza virus, fights cariogenic bacteria, prevents halitosis. Another hero is caffeine which, as we all know, stimulates wakefulness and also acts as a diuretic. In other words, too much green tea late in the evening is likely to keep you awake.
Other powerful components in a cup of tea include vitamins C, B and E, to say nothing of flavonoids that strengthen the blood vessel walls, polysaccharides that lower blood sugar, and fluorides that prevent dental cavities. Theanine (a kind of amino acid) closes the list and it comes as rather a surprise to read that it simply ¡°gives green tea its delicious taste.¡± After all, medicine surely ought not to have a delicious taste?
These claims are not in themselves new. The same professor tells us that ¡°in the Kamakura era (1191-1333), the monk Eisa-i stressed the beneficial effects of tea in his book Maintaining Health by Drinking Tea (1211): `Tea is a miraculous medicine for the maintenance of health. Tea has an extraordinary power to prolong life. Anywhere a person cultivates tea, long life will follow. In ancient and modern times, tea is the elixir that creates the mountain-dwelling immortal.¡±' He might also have quoted the words of Lu Yu near the beginning of the classic of tea: ¡°If one is generally moderate but is feeling hot or warm, given to melancholia, suffering from aching of the brain, smarting of the eyes, troubled in the four limbs or afflicted in the hundred joints, he may take tea four or five time. Its liquor is like the sweetest dew of Heaven.¡± That is not so far from the modern slogan: ¡°The Cup that Cheers¡± and certainly many British housewives would echo that bit about the aching joints.
This preoccupation with the physical benefits derived from what we eat and drink is a familiar one in China as well as Korea. It certainly appeals to many modern concerns. Yet this hardly offers a full explanation of how we should approach tea. Generally speaking, in East and West, the main category for evaluating food and drink remains gustatory pleasure and the criteria are basically aesthetic. ¡°It's good for you¡± is something we tell children when we want them to eat food that they do not enjoy. Tea-drinking has an aesthetic side to it that, like wine-tasting, demands training and sophistication.
A fruit drink often served hot in Korean tea rooms is called ¡°omija.¡± Omi of omija means ¡°five tastes.¡± Five? Sweet, salty, bitter, tart, sharp are the traditional five, and they are discerned in every kind of food and drink, as well as in people's characters; yet oddly enough the list omits the flavor most commonly associated with Korean food and certain personalities: peppery hot. So in drinking really good tea, our tongues need to be trained to the interplay of all six flavors. Since many people come to green tea with taste-buds numbed by years of coffee-drinking, it takes time for this to happen, and quite a bit of patience.
Yet in the end, much of what is said about tea by some of its Korean adepts suggests an even more sublime level, not just health or pleasure. The Way of Tea is presented as nothing less than a spiritual, religious activity leading to higher levels of inner awakening, if not total enlightenment. More of that later.
More About the History of Tea
The raw leaves of the tea tree were surely used as food from very early times by the native populations of the regions where they grew. In Chinese legend, or myth, the qualities of tea are said to have been first discovered by the ¡°Second Emperor,¡± Shen Nung (Divine Healer) (reputed to have reigned 2737- 2697 B.C.), who is also said to have discovered millet and medicinal herbs, and invented the plough. His predecessor, Fu-hsi, the First Emperor, had given humanity knowledge of fire, cooking, and music, while the Third Emperor completed the Promethean task of human happiness by revealing the secrets of the vine and astronomy.
There is apparently an early mention of tea being prepared by servants in a Chinese text of 50 B.C.. Certainly tea was being cultivated in Szechwan by the third century A.D.. The first detailed description of tea-drinking is found in an ancient Chinese dictionary, noted by Kuo Po in A.D. 350. At this time the fresh green leaves were picked, then pressed into cakes, that were roasted to a reddish hue. These were crumbled into water and boiled with the addition of onion, ginger, mint, jujube and orange peel to give a kind of herbal soup that must have been very bitter but was considered to be good as a remedy for stomach problems, bad eyesight, and many other diseases. In his Cha Ching (780), Lu Yu declared that ¡°drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches. Still, alas, it is a common practice to make tea that way."
In A.D. 519 the great Indian master Bodhidharma, the traditional founder of the Zen school of Buddhism, came to China. Some scholars claim that he brought tea with him from India, which seems unlikely since there is no native tradition of tea drinking there; another story says that when he found himself growing weary after staying awake for seven years, he plucked off his eyelids. He threw them to the ground and two tea trees sprang up that had the power to keep him awake and alert. There is certainly an ancient Buddhist tradition of drinking tea before an image of Bodhidharma, still alive in Japan. However, the same story is also told about the origins of opium!
A major turning-point in the history of tea came in the 8th century, with the composition of the Cha Ching, the Classic of Tea by Lu Yu in 780, which summarizes everything known at that time about every aspect of tea growing and preparation. This seems to have been commissioned by the tea farmers and merchants of the time to give a new impetus to the consumption of tea in the upper classes. It certainly succeeded.
We saw in an earlier article how the form of the tea being prepared by cognoscenti of tea changed from brick tea to powdered green tea and then, in the Chinese Ming Dynasty, to loose leaves of either green or¡±urong¡± tea. Powdered green tea is something special, only drunk occasionally, and needing only a small quantity of tea leaves. Some scholars suggest that the Ming emperors wished to help the tea-producing areas by encouraging a method of tea-drinking that would lead to an increase in production. That too succeeded, thanks above all to the invention of the tea pot, although still today, most Chinese drink their tea directly from a cup with the leaves in it.
In Korea, the drinking of tea seems to have been introduced in the sixth or seventh centuries, probably by Buddhist monks returning from China, where the many schools of Buddhism attracted some of Korea's finest scholars. There are reports in the early chronicle-histories known as Samkuk-yusa and Samkuk-sagi that Queen Sondok of Silla (ruled 632-47) drank tea and that King Munmu in 661 ordered tea to be used during ceremonial offerings. Later, King Hungdok is reported to have obtained tea seeds from Tang China for planting in 828, but of course these may not have been the first. A few years after that, King Sinmun advocated the use of tea in order to purify the mind.
During the Koryo Kingdom (in the 10th-13th centuries) tea was made the subject of some of Korea's oldest recorded poems. Tea was long offered in the ancestral ceremonies, which are still known as ¡°charye¡± although tea has not been offered in them for centuries. Likewise there were regular ceremonies known as Honcha in which cups of green tea were offered before the statues of the Buddha in the temples.
Korean Tea Is (almost always) Green, Chinese Tea Is (usually) Not
In most traditional Korean tea houses, the menu offers a choice between a variety of Korean green teas and Chinese Oolong tea. The green teas are often listed under various poetic names, the most commonly used being Chaksolcha which, you may be told, means `sparrow tongues' to indicate that it is made with the smallest leaves. More complications arise from various subdivisions but the first question must be why Korean tea is always described as `green' and what is the difference between green tea and Oolong?
We already saw that while they ruled China, the Mongols did nothing to encourage elegant tea-drinking. When the Chinese once again began to cultivate the drinking of tea as a refined activity among the higher classes, with the advent of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643), they did not go back to the Sung taste for powdered brick-tea. Instead they promoted the more natural form of loose-leaf tea that simple people in the southern regions had probably been enjoying for centuries.
The freshly sprouting leaves were gathered in the early springtime and dried rapidly by being heated in an iron pot over a fire. Without being allowed to burn, the leaves were stirred and turned until they were completely dried, either retaining their original form or rubbed and rolled until they were tightly curled on themselves. This is the form known most commonly as Green Tea. The younger the leaves, the finer the taste.
Soon a variety of methods were discovered by which the delicacy of the taste could be accentuated. The most important of these depended on the amazing change that occurs if the leaves are allowed to wilt during a slower drying process. The complex oils contained in the fresh leaves are highly sensitive to exposure to the air. If the leaves are first lightly bruised and softened, the oils begin to oxidize. The sophisticated Chinese tea-makers soon learned that the taste of the tea varied enormously, depending on the degree of oxidizing allowed before the final drying process. The result was the great range of teas known collectively as Oolong (black dragon) in Chinese, Oryong in Korean..
The color of the tea made from the dried leaves varies, as well as the taste. The young leaves dried at once without being allowed to wilt (green tea) produce a green liquid. The Oloong teas yield a variety of shades of yellow. At the far end of the spectrum, the most fully oxidized leaves produce a strongly-flavored red-tinted brew that the Chinese and Koreans call hongcha (red tea) and the English often term`black tea.' This kind is the source of England's national beverage, since it is the only kind of tea produced in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya.
As for the modern history of tea in Korea, after centuries of neglect, early in the 19th century, the great Confucian scholar Tasan (Chong Yag-yong) was exiled for many years to his mother's home at Kangjin in South Cholla Province. There he seems to have learned the old ways of preparing tea leaves and drinking tea from the monks in a nearby temple.
For several months he gave hospitality to a young Buddhist monk, Cho Ui, who later established a hermitage known as Ilchi-am in the hills above Taehung-sa temple near Haenam. Cho Ui cultivated the Way of Tea and in about 1836 he wrote a famous poem, Dongdasong, in praise of tea.
That hermitage rotted away after Cho Ui died in 1866 but in the late 1970s it was rebuilt as a result of a new revival of interest in Korean tea, inspired largely by the Venerable Hyo Dang, Choi Pom-sul. He might be considered to be the Cho Ui of the 20th century, for in 1975 he produced the first full length book about the Way of Tea to be published in modern Korea. He played a major role in the Korean Independence Movement, and founded several schools and a university after 1945, as well as being the teacher of virtually all the leading figures in the modern Korean tea revival.
The teaching of the Venerable Hyo Dang can be summed up in one phrase: Chadomumun (The Way of Tea has no doors). He liked to stress that tea-drinking should not be seen as an arcane mystery reserved for Buddhist monks and initiated experts; he wanted tea to be restored to all Koreans as part of their authentic national heritage, for he was convinced that the Way of Tea could bring wisdom and insight to people of every social background.
A Tragic Poet With Tea And a Tea-Room
So far, I have only talked about green tea. The word `tea' is applied to a lot of other beverages, of course, and today I want to introduce two special kinds of fruit tea, and a very special tea-room.
Mogwa is the Korean name for a variety of quince. Large, green, hard, irregular in shape, and quite inedible, it gives off a very pungent perfume. A couple of them can often be seen in a basket on the rear window-ledge of cars, in place of a chemical perfume.
Yuja are like small oranges, but hard and, again, they cannot be eaten raw. They, too, have a very pleasant smell. Today I want to introduce you to mogwa-cha and yuja-cha, quince tea and citron tea, and to a very special tea-room where you can enjoy them.
The first time I entered the tiny tea-room named ¡°Kwichon (02-734 2828)¡± in Seoul's Insa-dong, no loud cry invited me to `Come on in, there's room, there's room.' No one was sitting in the corner seat where the wallpaper had been rubbed away from the wall. It was late in May 1993 and I did not know then what that silence meant, or what that empty place signified.
The poet Chon Sang-pyong had died, had gone `back to heaven' (that is what ¡°Kwichon¡± means; it is the title of his most famous poem) a few weeks before on April 28 and I would never be able to meet him there, sitting in his accustomed corner seat.
¡°Kwichon¡± was opened by Mok Sun-ok, his wife, in 1985. Ever since she had taken responsibility for the poet by marrying him in 1972, she had been faced with the need to earn a living. They were terribly poor. After being tortured in 1968, the poet had been unable to lead a normal working life; in 1971 he had disappeared completely for several months and had been found in the municipal asylum, suffering from amnesia.
With the help of friends, Mok Sun-ok opened ¡°Kwichon¡± as a tea-room serving two special kinds of tea: her own varieties of quince tea and citron tea. They have become quite famous. It must be said that the poet called ¡°Kwichon¡± ¡°the smallest tea-room in the world¡± for a very good reason: it almost certainly is. It has four tables, and can hold twenty customers. Or twenty-one thin ones. It is very often full, although the furnishings are very simple.
Every year Mok Sun-ok is obliged to scour the country for enough of both kinds of fruit, which are not popular enough to be grown commercially in orchards like apples or pears. In 1980, Mok and Chon went to live with her mother in a very simple house in the fields near Uijongbu. The neighborhood women have learned to make the tea.
First they peel the quinces, and slice them very thinly. The yuja, too, are sliced. Then brown sugar is boiled with water to make a thick syrup, which is poured over the sliced fruit as it is packed into plastic containers. These are then left outdoors during the winter months and so the flavor matures. In fact, the quince tea gives its best perfume a full year after being prepared.
In ¡°Kwichon," a generous spoonful of the sliced fruit in its syrup is put into a large pottery mug and topped up with water, hot in winter but iced in summer. Needless to say, both kinds of tea are ¡°good for your health¡± and delicious as well.
For countless people like me, who never had a chance to meet him, Chon Sang-pyong remains utterly alive. His voice rises as brightly as ever from the pages of the thousands of copies of his books that have been bought and read since he left us.
Every year on the Sunday before April 28, a crowd of us go to pay him a visit in his final resting-place outside Uijongbu, and enjoy a simple lunch on the grass. Then a bus brings us back to Insa-dong, for another cup of mogwa-cha or yuja-cha, as we recall the last lines of the poem ¡°Kwichon¡± (Back to Heaven): ¡°At the end of my outing to this beautiful world, I'll go back and say: It was beautiful!¡±
The Better the Tea, the Cooler the Water
If you pick up the menu in one of Korea's traditional tea houses, and look for Korean green tea, once you get past the dreaded tea-bags you may be confronted with a list of names grouped under mysterious headings: Ujon, Sejak, Chungjak. How are they to be explained? Not every Korean can tell you, although those who know about tea will have no problem.
They will explain that green tea can only be made using the fresh tips, the scarcely opened buds that start to grow in early April. Once a leaf is fully developed, it is soon too coarse for use. After late May the bushes may continue to produce further fresh shoots but in Korea these no longer have the intense flavor needed for good tea. Therefore all the green tea needed for the year has to be plucked and made in less than two months. In China tea is made in autumn and winter as well, but not here.
The Korean lunar calendar includes twenty-four seasonal dates that are based on the movement of the sun, to compensate for the great variations in the lunar calendar's dates from year to year. These seasonal dates and their names originated in China; the day known as Kok-u normally falls on April 20. The tea gathered before this date is known as Ujon and commands the highest price. The next seasonal date Ipha falls on May 6, and tea gathered between those two dates is known as Sejak. Tea gathered after Ipha is known as Chungjak. These are the names (also of Chinese origin) of the various categories of tea that often figure on the menus in tea-rooms.
It should be added, though, that the Korean weather is colder than that in southern China, where the dates and names originated, with the result that many Korean tea-makers, although they pay lip-service to the traditional dates, actually go on making `Ujon' from the first growth of shoots well beyond April 20, when very often there are almost no new shoots on the tea bushes. The very earliest leaves have the finest flavor, and are the most difficult to collect. The tea known as Ujon is therefore expensive, and the first handfuls produced in April and brought at once to Seoul command quite unbelievable prices.
A lot more important than the date the leaves were picked is the skill and care with which they were turned into tea. In actual tea-room practice, and in the shops where green tea is sold, the most important thing you need to know is that Ujon is the most expensive but not necessarily the only choice. A good Sejak can be a better buy than an Ujon, especially in the later months of the year or in the new year, because the very delicate flavor of the earliest leaves does not always last more than a few months, even when the tea is packed in airtight bags.
Generally speaking, then, but not inevitably, the earlier the tea, the more delicate the taste. Certainly, the better the tea, the cooler the water should be in making it. Many authorities recommend that the water for Ujon should be cooled down to 50 degrees Celsius. A lot depends on the quality of the leaves, so experimentation is needed. The only absolute rule is that green tea must never be made using boiling or nearly boiling water, which will bring out the bitter elements and completely kill the more delicate perfumes. Needless to say, if the water is not very hot, it has to stay much longer on the leaves in order to bring out any flavor. On the other hand, I have sometimes been offered Ujon that absolutely refused to respond to cool water, no matter how long I waited, and gave delicious tea with water at 80-90 degrees!
On the other hand, I will be writing in later articles about Panyaro tea, which can send you into raptures when the leaves are steeped for nearly 10 minutes in water at barely 30 degrees. All the rich fragrance comes out, and you begin to understand why great tea masters talk about the six separate tastes they can discern in green tea. With a very good tea like that, it is possible to explore a variety of tastes by making the first serving of tea with cool water, and the second or third with much warmer water left for a much shorter time on the leaves. It is even possible to make tea with completely cold water by leaving it to stand overnight.
May Is Tea Harvest Season in Korea
Springtime! As May begins, Korean tea-lovers look forward to the moment when they will be able to enjoy the sweetness of the year's new tea. The stores in Insa-dong that specialize in tea put up little signs announcing its arrival, rather as certain hotels announce the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau in November. Even happier, though, are those who are able to travel down to Mt. Chiri in May and drink tea that has only just emerged from the drying process. They have the added advantage of being able to enjoy meals with freshly-gathered plants from the hillsides around as well. True paradise!
After the loss of Korea's tea culture in the 14th century, tea trees continued to grow wild in the southern regions, especially on the lower slopes of Mt. Chiri. These self-propagated bushes provided the leaves used by those few people still aware of their value. In recent years additional bushes have been planted on the slopes of Chiri-san, and other southern hills, but without the creation of large artificial tea plantations. The finest tea is that grown in complete harmony with nature and with very little or no use of fertilizers, it is known as yasaeng cha (wild tea).
The tea is gathered by hand, leaf by leaf. The gathering of leaves requires skill and speed. It is done mostly by the women of the region, and even they can only collect a few pounds of leaves in the course of a day. The drying of the leaves into tea for drinking must be done within a few hours of picking, before the juices in them start to oxidize.
There are two main methods in use for making green tea. The tea known as Pucho cha is more common; the fresh leaves are first softened by being tossed in an iron cauldron over a wood fire, being stirred constantly to prevent burning. Next, the leaves are removed from the heat to be rubbed and rolled so that they curl tightly on themselves. They are then returned to the fire and the process is repeated a number of times, nine times being the prescribed ideal.
I have a special affection for the tea known as ¡°panyaro,¡± which is made by the great tea master Chae Won-hwa following the tradition transmitted to her by the Venerable Hyodang. This is a tea prepared by the method known as Chung cha. Here the fresh leaves are plunged for a moment into nearly boiling water, then allowed to drain for a couple of hours, before being placed over the fire.
With Chung cha the drying and rolling are done concurrently, the leaves are not removed from the heat until they are completely dried, after about two hours. During this time, the leaves are constantly turned, rubbed, and pressed to the bottom of the cauldron. The drying has to be completely regular and at the same time no leaf must burn. An intense fragrance emerges from the leaves as the drying advances.
This means that the women stirring and rubbing the leaves between their gloved hands to roll them are obliged to be very robust, since they sit directly over the cauldron on its fire. Not surprisingly, this tea, which has by far the finest fragrance, is very expensive. It takes many years of experience to know just when to stop the drying; tea which is removed from the fire too quickly still contains moisture that can cause it to go mildew after a few months. Only a skilled tea master can say just when the time has come to take the tea from the fire.
Chae Won-hwa sees her tea as belonging to the deepest traditions of Buddhist thought. The name ¡°panyaro¡± means ¡°The Dew of Enlightening Wisdom¡± and she prays devoutly over each batch of tea as it comes from the fire. On the festival of Buddha's birth each year, she takes the best of her production to a nearby temple, solemnly prepares tea in the main hall in the most formal manner, pours out a single cup which she places on a stand, and offers it to the Buddha on the altar before the main statue. At such moments, the deep roots of Korea's tea culture can be sensed very clearly.
Tea in its Own Place: Mt. Chiri in May
A couple of weeks ago I went to visit friends making tea in the southern valleys of Mt. Chiri. Here are some impressions.
The sounds! Especially that of water flowing. Recent rain had swollen the stream that flows down the valley leading from Ssanggye to Chilbul temples and everywhere we went there were little streamlets trickling down the sides of the valley to join the main torrent that was pounding its way down over the boulders and rocks below; the valley at times is almost a miniature gorge.
At night, our room was full of the stream's murmur, with only the thickness of the paper in the sliding doors to reduce it. We stood on a little bridge that seemed to be vibrating to the roar, as the water foamed and steamed in the early morning air.
The smells! The fragrant smell in our room comes from the mugwort (ssuk) and pine needles drying on the hot floors of neighboring rooms. Our host has many talents. She makes the finest mugwort and pine-needle flour, completely pure and unadulterated, unlike the mixtures sold under those names along the roadsides. Our room is ornamented with a tribe of wooden elephants she has carved, and we have been enjoying cups of the fine green tea she prepares. And there is no word to describe the meals she serves, bowls of fresh mountain herbs, simple things one can only delight in.
Picking tea is not really our job, luckily, but after breakfast we are allowed to try our hand. Across the stream, there are tea bushes growing haphazardly up the slopes beneath the taller trees. These are true `wild tea (yasaeng cha)' even if they were deliberately planted, and it is hard work scrambling over rocks and up inclines slippery with last year's dead leaves in search of bushes where new leaves have just opened at the tips of the branches.
We nip the first leaf and opening bud between finger and thumb-nail, trying not to include any stem or older leaf, and collect our harvest in little plastic bags. We remember that in China, the finest tea used to be culled using silver scissors, although on the slippery slope we also recall the legendary Chinese tea-trees reputed to grow on cliffs so steep that monkeys are trained to pick the leaves and throw them to the people below.
We bring our meager harvest back. Luckily women from the region, more accomplished than we are, have brought in several pounds of leaves for the day's drying. Some of the previous afternoon's leaves, having rested overnight, have been plunged for a moment into hot water and are draining on thick straw mats.
Now we experience another unforgettable smell: that of the drying tea, as we watch Chae Won-hwa and her helpers stir the leaves selected for her panyaro tea in the great iron cauldron over its wood fire. First, the wood smoke drifting around the garden in which we are standing; then the intense perfume from the leaves as the women stir and turn and rub them to prevent them from burning and to help them curl tight.
Part of the smell recalls damp English lawns being mown, but there is a deeper, more aromatic dimension that takes the mind toward incense and temples. They need two hours to completely dry each batch; the perfume seems most intense in the earlier stages, when there is more moisture evaporating, but to the very end the breeze brings snatches of extraordinary fragrance to where we are sitting.
The smells of nature are all around us, too. The sancho tree grows around Seoul as well, and even in our garden, but there it has none of the lemony perfume of those you can find in Mt. Chiri. I never tire of pinching the leaves and letting them recall mixtures of thyme, rosemary, and lemon- balm.
The crowning moment! Sitting on a balcony looking out over the valley, with Panya Peak just visible in the sunlight far above us, we watch as Won- hwa Posallim brings out fresh tea from her store-room and prepares the first cups of the day. She allows the water to cool in the cups for quite a long time then, when it has stopped steaming, slowly pours it into the pot. We know she has put far more tea than we would ever do; she holds the pot lovingly, we talk, and the minutes pass.
At last she fills the cups, little by little, sharing out the tea. We greet the tea with joined hands, in Buddhist style, recognizing its special quality as the ¡°Dew of Enlightening Wisdom¡± and savor it. Words fail us, silence falls...
Green Tea is Made Through Quick Drying
The last article described the `wild tea' growing freely below other trees on the slopes of the valleys. Just below Ssangye-sa temple we explored a more organized tea field. Here the bushes have been planted in orderly rows and are kept trimmed mechanically so that those picking the tea need only stretch out a hand and the tips seem to come leaping up of their own accord. Far more efficient, though less excitingly wild! Until a few years ago, as in most such plantations, artificial fertilizers were used but now everyone knows that, while they may increase the bulk of the yield, they do nothing for its quality, on the contrary. This plantation has not been fertilized with chemicals for a number of years now.
Here we find our friend Park Hee-chun with a young team experimenting with ways of making `red tea,' which is the tea most English people know. The main difference between green and red tea is the time that elapses before the leaves are fully dried. Green tea is dried quickly, without interruption. Red tea (often called `black tea' in English) must be allowed time to `ferment' while it is drying. The oils that give the taste change dramatically if they are exposed to the oxygen in the air. The leaves are therefore allowed to wilt for a time after an initial bruising and heating; sometimes they may be kept warm but not allowed to dry too quickly, and slowly the green color changes into brownish red. If the fermentation is stopped by drying the leaves after only a short period, the result will be the kind of tea known in China as `oolong' tea.
In a newly-built tea room with walls and floor of red clay, we taste the red tea. Strongly perfumed, sweet to the taste, much closer to English breakfast tea than to green tea, it is decidedly different and very pleasing. In the room, incense is burning and we recall that these are the same people who delight in introducing Korean incense to the throngs in Insa-dong on Sundays. Their incense is made entirely of natural products, the barks and resins of trees mainly, and there is no conflict between the scented air and the scented tea. On the contrary they combine perfectly.
People tend to assume that incense is essentially religious but in old Korea the elegant gentlemen-scholars used to perfume their studies with it, believing that it would lend fragrance to their thoughts and purify their minds. Quite right too. The combination of tea and incense, fresh pure air and all the perfumes of early summer mean that we float lightly down the track toward our car.
Our next stop is several miles away, high up at the end of the road in the temple of the seven Buddhas, Chilbul-sa temple. We are very fortunate, the head monk is waiting for us and after drinking tea and talking for a while, he decides to do us a rare honor. Opening a locked gate, he leads us up a secret path to a level area above the main temple where there is a single large hall. Here monks are sitting in meditation, it is the temple's sonbang (àÉ Û®).
We do not, of course, go inside but are intensely aware of the close presence of those silent figures who sit facing the walls from morning to night for months, even years, on end, as we gaze out over the panorama before us. Our silence mirrors that inside the hall; even the birds seem hushed.
Returning to the temple, the head monk takes us into an old building just beside the main halls. It is the temple's original sonbang, and the room is in the shape of the `a' character, like a cross. Here many of the great figures of Korean Buddhism in centuries past came to sit. We recall with special affection the memory of the monk Choui (õ®ëý) who, in the first half of the 19th century, did much to restore and encourage the Way of Tea from his hermitage at Taehung-sa temple, rebuilt today and known as Ilchi-am. He came to sit in this very room.
Monks may, if they wish, still apply to sit here but because of the noise from the temple's many visitors it seems that few do. One special rule applies, we learn: monks sitting in this hall may not lie down, they must even sleep in a sitting position. We sit there for a few minutes, communing as it were with so many great men who have been here before us. Then we go for another cup of tea.
Serving A Cup of Green Tea
This series has been appearing for several months now, and some readers have made kind comments. But I suddenly have a dreadful feeling that I have failed to write one fundamental article. I seem to have carefully avoided telling readers how to make and serve a cup of Korean green tea. So here goes.
The water used should be pure spring water. Seoul's tap water can spoil the taste of any tea! Traditionally the water should be boiled on a small charcoal stove; there are many poems about the various levels of sound as the water sings on the fire, slowly reaching the point where it sounds like wind rustling in bamboos or pines. Today most people use electric pots, which are less poetic but much simpler.
In order to prepare green tea in the Korean way, we use a tea set (chagi) usually consisting of three or five cups (chat chan), although the Venerable Hyo Dang used to say that drinking tea alone was the best of all. There is a tea pot (chakwan or chat chonja), smaller than the English variety but larger than the little Chinese ones. In addition there is a large bowl into which the water used for warming the pot and cups can be discarded (kaesu kurut), and a somewhat smaller bowl for cooling the water and the tea, with a lip for pouring (mulshikim sabal or kwittae kurut).
A stack of wooden saucers (patchim) stands ready to receive the cups after they have been filled. Today there is often a small stand on which the lid of the tea pot is placed while filling the pot, but this is not traditional. In theory, the tea should be in an ornamental tea caddy (chaho) but in Korea it is usually taken directly from the box or packet in which it is sold, using a spoon or scoop, often made of bamboo (chasi).
When tea is being drunk, one person presides over the ceremony, preparing and serving. A first measure of hot water is poured into the lipped bowl, from where it is poured into the empty tea-pot. This water warms the pot, and is then poured into the cups to warm them, before being discarded. All the gestures should be gentle, not too self-conscious and never abrupt. Except in a very formal presentation, everything should be simple, relaxed and spontaneous.
A second measure of hot water is allowed to cool in the lipped bowl while a scoopful of tea leaves is placed in the pot. The quantity used varies very much with the quality of the tea and the number of people drinking. When the water is cool enough, it is gently poured into the pot. The water used to warm the cups is discarded while the tea is allowed to draw in the pot for two or three minutes, and a new measure of hot water is placed in the lipped bowl to cool for the second serving. The precise temperature for the water and the time needed for the best brew has to be discovered by experiment. As already noted, the better the tea, the cooler the water is the usual rule.
The first serving is poured directly into the cups, a little at a time, back and forward, in order to spread equally the stronger tea that emerges from the bottom of the teapot. No water must remain in the pot, or it would develop the bitter taste that is so undesirable. The filled cups are put on the saucers and these are then placed in front of the drinkers. Cups should not be passed from hand to hand: only one person touching the cup at a time is the rule.
Korean tea is usually drunk holding the cup in both hands, but this is not always necessary. The first step is to view the color of the tea, the second to inhale its fragrance, the third to taste it on the tongue, the fourth to follow its taste in the throat, and finally there is the lingering aftertaste in the mouth to be enjoyed. Tea is reckoned to combine six tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, tart, peppery, in varying proportions.
The water for the second and following cups can be a little hotter than that used for the first. The leaves having softened, the water needs to stand on them for only a short time, then the tea is poured into the lipped bowl, which is passed around, people refilling their own cups directly. This avoids passing cups back and forward. Ordinary green tea will usually have lost most of its flavor after being brewed three times, but very good tea may be used to make four or five rounds. The used tea leaves can be employed in a variety of ways: in cooking, in bath water or as a hair-rinse, or to remove the smell from a refrigerator.