(IMAGE: Assorted implements for making Korean green tea… plus a Korean celadon water dripper for enjoyment)
Dear beloved blog readers,
I love Korean tea. Those close to me know this well. Those even closer know that I will go to great lengths to find this too-often-rare tea.
Today, I find myself sitting in the north-west facing room of my New York apartment enjoying a 2016 semi-wild jakseol Korean green tea (nokkcha) grown in Jirisan. The tea is a gift from a dear friend, a tea house proprietor in Seoul who, after many years of not seeing one another, had sent me the tea as a token of our long-distance friendship. As I sit and sip, I am left to remember those early days when I was first exposed to Korean tea.
Somewhere around 2008-2010, I began to travel to South Korea. Arriving there first in the dead of winter, the bitter cold of Seoul literally almost killed me (succumbing to high fevers that kept me bed-ridden for a solid week). Once out of my illness-induced stupor, I began to wander the streets of Seoul’s renowned (albeit rather touristy) tea market district of Insadong. Escaping the neighborhood’s flashy veneer down its rambling alleyways, I happened upon a few reputable sources of Korean ceramics and tea.
(IMAGE: A grey-blue drip-glaze Korean tea set atop a wooden Korean tea tray)
Having already been captivated by the beauty of Korean ceramics long ago, I soon began to recognize the qualities inherent in Korean tea. Much like the celebrated tea ware used to enjoy it with, Korean tea seemed at first simple, rough, and lacking refinement. However, in the aesthetics of Korean tea, this roughness is merely the result of the appreciation of a “natural” approach to things. Whole leaves are often left closer to their natural state when compared to their Chinese and Japanese counterparts. Likewise, there seems to be an emphasis on retaining the “wildness” of some teas, especially those coming from the ancient tea farms of Jirisan in Hadong County. The flavors present, whether the tea is green, partially oxidized, black, compressed, or event ground (as is in the case of malcha), tend to have a pronounced minerality to them, which is both refreshing and unique to Korean teas.
Happening into the Sam Hwa Ryung tea house (which was and still is my favorite tea house in Seoul), I was given unrivaled access to excellent Korean teas (they also have amazing ceramics there as well). The proprietor, quickly recognizing my love of tea and interest in Korean tea, began to serve me the various varieties of tea produced in Jirisan, as well as introduce me to noted tea scholars within Seoul. Upon my second trip to South Korea, she began to connect me with tea farmers, sending me down to visit their farms nestled within the lush Hwagae Valley. Needless to say, this was an experience of a lifetime (which I may end up describing in more detail within a later blog post).
(IMAGE: View of 2016 semi-wild jakseol tealeaves and assorted implements for making tea)
Today drinking the tea she sent me instantly takes me back to that time and place. The tea, as mentioned, is a 2016 semi-wild jakseol (“Sparrow’s Tongue”) from the farms in Jirisan. Like many wild and semi-wild teas, there are qualities within this tea that do not exist within the more-cultivated teas of Korea (mostly coming out of the Boseong and and Jeju-do growing regions). The leaves are more irregular (albeit, they are quite small, being an early spring-picked jakseol) and produce a bright, clean flavor. Unlike the intensely vegetal or umami Japanese green teas, or the more floral Chinese green teas, this tea is balanced with flavors ranging from limestone to (as I’ve heard others describe) egg white, with only the slightest grassy note. Unlike its Chinese or Japanese counterparts, this tea (and most Korea green teas) seems to perform well at higher temperatures.
While I often don’t wax poetic while drinking tea, I am always reminded of a stanza from the 1830 Dashinjeon (“The Story of the Tea God”) by the Seon Buddhist monk Cho’ui. In it he said:
“When drinking tea, fewer guests in attendance are better. With more guests, it becomes noisy, and loses the right ambience. Drinking tea by oneself is feeling the wonders of god; drinking tea with two is sharing the ultimate joy; drinking tea with three or four is fine and comforting; drinking tea with five or six is nothing more than plain; drinking with seven or eight is just doing a favor for others.”
There is something true to what Cho’ui said. Enjoying tea alone seems to allow the tea to speak to you more clearly. In the case of this particular tea, it speaks volumes.
(IMAGE: A look at the pale liqueur of the 2016 semi-wild jakseol Korean green tea)
NOTE: Quote from Dashinjeon was taken from the excellent book The Book of Korea Tea: A Guide to the History, Culture and Philosophy of Korean Tea and the Tea Ceremony” by Yang-Seok Yoo, 2007.