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A window into my Seoul: a taste for Korean tea

January 27, 2009

When I ask a Seoulite about coffee, I’m usually given a blank face of disinterest, a love for all things Starbucks, or a talk how much their daily coffee intake is and why they like it insipid.

Ask a Seoulite, in fact a Korean, about tea particularly Korean, and the conversation changes. Tea houses, brews, healing properties all form part of the passionate chatter before you. In four words: Koreans love their tea. I have talked about green tea in earlier posts and possibly tantalised you with a brief introduction to Korean tea, but this time I’m bringing you a taste of Korean tea. Many of these are fruit based and will challenge everything you thought you knew about fruit infusions.

Tea houses of Insadong

Seoulite’s will eagerly point you towards the famous tea houses of Samcheong dong or Insdadong. Both districts lie next to each other and are steeped in history: palaces, temples, traditional homes and maze-like alleyways, rustic tea houses.

One tea house I literally stumbled on in Insadong – “Tea Time” – serves delicious Korean tea, within a cosy environment, above the bustle of the crowd below.

by Cate

by Cate

Jujube and cinnamon tea, a tea with a  spicy sweet aroma wafting through the air, reminding you of home-baked cinnamon rolls. You are patiently waiting for the chance, the first chance, to taste it. And when you do your buds are unexpectedly stimulated from its unique combination in flavours. Perfect for a cold winters day.

Ingredients

Exotic berries, spices and flowers are some of the popular ingredients used. A new winter favourite of mine is the combination of  jujube berry and cinnamon. Its dark colour at first sight can be a little off putting, but worth enduring.

Rustic charm

Sipping tea in one of Insadong’s tea houses is just a small part of the experience. Sitting in rustic charm is another.These places are never similar, always different from each other, sometimes with a form of quirkiness just to keep you on your toes.

by Cate

by Cate

Add a rice cake to your tea experience. Complimentary and worth sampling even if you don’t know what they are.

by Cate

by Cate

I was told this is a type of dried persimmon rice cake.

Price: most Korean teas are prepared from scratch so you need to allow extra time when ordering. Prices range from 5000 to 7000 won ($4 -$5), depending on where you go. Usually the tourist areas are more expensive and busy during the weekend.

Where: tea houses like Tea Time are scattered everywhere through Insadong. Wander around Insadong street, look down its small lanes and up for places above shops. No matter where you choose to go, your experience will be special.

Health note: some of these teas are naturally sweet and others have sweetener added. The jujube cinnamon tea I had gave me a sugar buzz for the next two hours.

Location: to get to Insadong take subway 5 to Jongno, exit 5, walk down to the main road and turn right. It’s a 5 minute walk.

Without a doubt Korean teas are some of the most  flavourful teas around in Asia. It’s a market worth introducing to the rest of the world, that is, parts of the world unaware of whats on offer here.

Caffeinated Traveller

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11 Comments
  1. Jas permalink
    January 27, 2009 5:26 pm

    Curious as to whether you use Korean or English when communicating with the staff? As you know, the Japanese do not often make an effort to speak English or accommodate questions (ingredients, special requests, etc.). Could a foreign tourist, such as myself, easily navigate one of these tea houses?

    I agree that the ambiance is equally important. And I can a get a good sense of that aforementioned rustic charm from your photos. Nobue and I are planning a small trip to Seoul in the near future and will definitely want to make a stop here. With all of the theme/chain shops that are proliferating across Asia, it’s nice to see that some traditions haven’t been tainted. Thanks for the chance to look through your window.

  2. Bear permalink
    January 27, 2009 7:34 pm

    Korean tea is another dimension for a person like me who is accustomed to Twinings teas — which are also good, but different from what you’ve just decribed. How interesting to have this variety.

  3. Zowie permalink
    January 27, 2009 7:42 pm

    The teas sound delicious!!! do they use leaves or is it just the actual fruit that they infuse? Is it the tea you can make at home or only in a tea house? Its kind of strange but I grew up thinking that the best tea came from India and that you brewed it in a nice ceramic teapot. Thank God those days are over!! A tea care package is always nice.

  4. January 28, 2009 3:32 am

    Jas – very good question. With english speaking wait staff it’s pretty much hit and miss. Some of them will speak basic english but can easily become shy if you ask too many questions. Those that are comfortable speaking english will often greet you or speak something to you in English and you can get a sense of their ability. The bigger places around Insadong usually employ students who know some english. But the problem is often with knowing specialised words like translating herbs and flowers into english. A dictionary is very helpful. A translator is even better. I’m lucky because I often drag one of my Korean friends to these places, or I will find a picture and ask one of my co -workers. You can navigate yourself around tea houses it depends on whether you are an adventurer or prefer the safety of chain cafes. Menus are usually with english. If not be brave and point. Diabetics need to be more aware, for these I would stick with green tea and perhaps learn the korean for “I don’t like sweet tea”.

    Zowie – I’m onto it! Actually it has been at the back of my mind for sometime. Nice to see your comment here :). These teas are usually in liquid for or powder. Liquid is better. Some flower teas are leaves.

    Bear – variety is the spice of life as the saying goes. I need to make the most of this opporunity before I leave these shores 🙂

    Thanks for you comments.

  5. January 28, 2009 3:45 pm

    That tea is just what I need today. We’re completely snow-covered here in Ohio.
    -Lovely photos and a very interesting post!

  6. January 29, 2009 5:31 am

    Great, now I have an insatiable tea craving. And I can’t make anything like this!

  7. Cate permalink
    January 29, 2009 7:02 am

    Heather – yes this brew is perfect for winter. Snow always sounds good until you have to put up with it every single day. You have my sympathy. Thanks for your warm words.

    Wanderingjustin – if you have a craving then my post worked. It was meant to give you a craving. I can’t make anything like this either, but luckily for me I can go to a teahouse. Sorry you can’t.I will keep bringing more good tea posts for you to enjoy. I’m off to Malayia soon to see whats on offer there.

  8. January 30, 2009 4:02 am

    My Japanese language teacher would go to Seoul frequently to see her husband, and she often brought me treats back. Including salty sesame flavored crispy seaweed (YUM) and teas! Thank for reminding me of that wonderful memory….great post!

    • January 30, 2009 11:09 am

      You were lucky to have such a kind teacher,mine was very scary. Yes the tea here is good even more so than Japan. I can do mercy packages for a price 🙂

  9. February 1, 2009 3:04 pm

    Your experience looks delicious, and the rice cakes look fruitfully desirable from here. I am a fond tea lover, especially where fruit and spices are concerned. (I don’t drink caffeine tea or coffee) That Jujube and cinnamon tea feels divine, from here. These authentic tea experiences, are always a joy to encounter. 🙂

    • February 3, 2009 12:21 am

      Hi Ana it’s nice to see your comment. Korean teas are delicious if not addicted. I hope to do more posts on these throughout my stay. I am always pleasantly surprised how popular these posts are with readers. I would recommend the jujube cinnamon tea, it is good if not a little sweet.

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