Tea is technically made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis tree, but around the world the designation ‘tea’ often encompasses so much more. In Korea the word for tea, ‘cha’ can mean an infusion of almost anything, including the leaves of the camellia sinensis. There are Korean teas made from roots, fruits, leaves, grains, pollen, tree bark, honey, nuts, and even dried fungus. Korean tea can be served hot or cold, or even somewhere in between.
Green tea has been drunk in Korea for centuries, with the first written record of its use during religious rites being from 661 AD. Most people agree that tea drinking probably originated in China where it was first used, mixed with other ingredients, as a medicinal drink. The drinking of tea in this manner may date back over 3,000 years, although it was a long time before it became a stand alone drink. Han Dynasty emperors were said to have drunk tea and the first definitive written account is from the 3rd century AD. One of the earlier methods of making tea was by steaming the leaves, others ways included roasting the leaves and then crumbling them, pan frying then rolling and drying them, and by letting the leaves ferment over time before pressing the tea into molds. Black, green, and fermented tea could all be pressed into molds to become solid ‘bricks’ which were easier to transport and store than tea leaves. These bricks of tea were sometimes used as currency. By the 14th century loose leaf tea became popular.
With the close geographic proximity and the intertwining of Korea’s history with that of China, it seems probable that the Korean elite had earlier access to tea than the common people. Whether it was a drink that was drunk frequently, or whether it was reserved solely for medicinal use and ancestral rites is open to debate. It seems that the drinking of green tea had periods of popularity followed by times of little usage. This may be because although Korea does have a kind of native tea known as Paeksan-cha, and green tea farms existed on a small scale, most tea was imported up until the 1960’s when the first commercial production of green tea began. Nowadays the three main tea producing areas in Korea are Bosung County, Hadong County, and Jeju Province.
O’sulloc is probably the most famous and popular green tea available in Korea. It is grown on Jeju Island, where conditions are perfect for the growing of tea. Other tea farms on Jeju also welcome visitors and we enjoyed a pleasant visit to Green Tea Maze Park, where we sat out a sudden squall in a tea house overlooking the tea plantation. We not only drank some lovely tea, but also had the most amazing green tea waffles and ice cream.
Numerous companies, and individuals are trying to restore and revive Korea’s traditional tea history and culture, which had almost faded completely away. Korea’s ceremonial tea culture deserves to be preserved, even in the face of most modern Koreans preference for coffee.
Non camellia sinensis teas, which might perhaps be called tisanes and infusions by non Koreans, have always held a special place in Korean culture and many people still drink these forms of tea. They are often said to have health benefits and some are drunk for specific illnesses or just as pick me up tonics to increase energy and wellbeing.
Teas made from roots include Insam cha (ginseng), Saenggang cha (ginger), and Chik cha (kudzu). While fruit teas include Yujacha (citron), and Daechucha (jejubes). Teas such as Taengja cha and Maeshil cha are made from fermented fruit whilst Bori cha (roasted barley), and Hyeonmi cha (roasted rice) are made from seeds or grains. Cha can also be made from leaves, dried fungus, pollen, tree bark and other things that over the centuries the Korean people have discovered to be safe and beneficial to drink. Many of these teas are really unique and are worth trying if you get the opportunity.
Let me know your favorite Korean tea and have a great day everyone.
You may also enjoy Green Tea Waffles.
Photo credits me and Elle Marzec. Please do not copy without permission and accreditation.