Last weekend I went to the Tea World Festival at the CEOX in Seoul. I’m always on the look out for teapots and good tea and I’ve been down to Boseong in the south of Korea a couple of times to get some of their famous green tea. But the tea festival in Seoul was interesting not so much for what was on sale, but more for who was there…
I don’t think tea is hugely popular here. Coffee? Yes. Tea? Not so much. And when I say ‘tea’ l mean tea from the tea plant. At my local Lotte supermarket there is a range of teas on sale but apart from some hyeonmi-nokcha brown rice and green tea (which is similar to Japanese genmaicha) and chakseol-cha the traditional form of Korean green tea, most of the teas on sale are infusions made by roasting kernels or rice or they are made with fruit.
There’s oksusu corn tea, bori-cha barley tea, or maemil-cha buckwheat tea. Then there’s maeshil-cha green Korean plum tea, and yuja-cha yuzu tea with preserved slices of fruit that’s often taken as a cold remedy, or daechu-cha made with dried jujube berries. All the teas have medicinal purposes but the leader in the gang has to be Insam-cha ginseng tea. My mother-in-law dries twaeji pig potatoes and burdock and makes tea with them and my parents-in-law drink these infusions every day. But I doubt that they have any green tea in the house.
Tea enthusiasts in Korea, I have discovered, belong to a small but devoted circle often with an arty, alternative appearance involving natural dyes and natural fabrics. And they tend to be older. I barely saw anyone under the age of 40 amongst the stall holders or visitors. I have also never seen so many monks in one place outside a temple. Or men with long hair and facial hair. Most men I see on the street are clean-cut. No beards or moustaches. Hair short.
Mr Kim might grow some stubble if he has a few days off but he’ll shave before he goes back to work. I keep suggesting he grow his hair longer and possibly even a goatee. But he looks at me in horror and reminds me that he has a job to go to! AND HOW IS ANYONE GOING TO TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY WITH HAIR ON HIS FACE? Calm down, I say. In artistic circles facial hair is encouraged, perhaps even required.
In anticipation of the type of visitor coming to the event there were many booths selling outfits to accommodate their taste. I think we can say that there’s a rustic feel to the style. The geryang modernised hanbok and other fashion made with natural fibres and dyes is a popular outfit in the tea drinking circle.
In the past, tea drinking in Korea was an aristocratic pastime. In the Goryeo period (918-1392) when Buddhism was the state religion, sitting and discussing poetry or Buddhist philosophy over tea was the genteel thing to do. Tea drinking was an important part of the culture and there was even a government office in charge of tea. Artistic pursuits such as writing poetry, calligraphy and painting went hand in hand with tea drinking. So there were booths at the festival where calligraphers displayed their work and even painted portraits of visitors in black calligraphy ink.
The fact that tea drinking was so closely associated to Buddhism became a problem during the Joseon period when Confucianism became the state ideology. Buddhism was repressed because the Joseon government blamed the fall of the Goryeo dynasty on the decadence and corruption of Buddhist monks who had become politically powerful during that time. Rice wine became the preferred drink of the nobleman as we can often see in sageuk dramas set in the Joseon era. Even today it seems that green tea is still associated with Buddhism and there were lots of monks at the tea festival. Here a monk takes part in the makcha tea ceremony at a Japanese booth.
Although tea drinking became less popular during the Joseon era, it was still appreciated by aristocrats and monks. And that sense of refinement attached to drinking green tea lingers on today. In modern Korean dramas when characters want to be portrayed as sophisticated or educated they may be seen drinking tea.
The rich boys in the drama Boys Before Flowers (KBS 2009) never have to do part time jobs or worry about money. And as the rich chaebol families are like modern day yangban, they are depicted sitting around drinking tea. Or what about the character of the alien Min Jun in the drama My Love from the Star who has lived on earth for 400 years since the Joseon period and he brews his tea in a small pot as he contemplates life showing him as more educated and refined than the modern day people around him. Here a visitor at the festival is dressed in traditional Joseon Yangban dress.
Usually ordinary people in drama drink soju or beer followed by one of those caffeine energy drinks or hangover drinks. Or we might see a couple on a date in a coffee shop (one from the franchise sponsoring the drama). But probably never in a tea shop. Here two ladies in hanbok prepare to carry out the Korean tea ceremony.
Black tea is not popular at all here which is unfortunate because I love back tea. With milk of course. 😉 Recently the Taiwanese-style tea shop Gongcha which specialises in bubble tea has been gaining popularity and I see more shops in the chain popping up around the city. Gongcha sells a fabulous milk tea with pearls which I buy almost every day through the summer. But black tea is not sold in my local supermarket and I usually have to fill my suitcase with packets of tea when I’m home in England.
Puer tea from China (above) was one of the most popular teas for sale at the festival. And there was a lot of tea making equipment for sale too. But I’m not into tea ceremonies and I don’t have any of the equipment for making Japanese matcha for example and so there was a range of equipment on sale that I really wouldn’t know what to do with. Some looked more like tools you might find in a shop selling art equipment.
But I do like my teapots and tea sets. Tea always tastes better when it’s brewed in the right kind of pot. I have three kinds of teapot in my cupboard. One is a Japanese style teapot with the handle on the side for green tea. I bought a tea set for brewing Oolong tea from a teashop in Taiwan. And I have a large teapot for making black tea – aka English tea! And I have a range of tea cups and mugs, tea caddies, bamboo tea scoops and a tea cosy for my big teapot. But that’s it. None of the teapots at the festival spoke to me though. Not this time.
As well as being on the lookout for another teapot I was also in search of black tea. One booth had a range of black loose leaf teas and tea bags and I lingered here taking in the aroma of a selection of Ceylon, Darjeeling, and Assam black teas. As I dithered over which one to get, Mr Kim stood in the background rolling his eyes and looking at his watch. He’s not a tea enthusiast.
I was asked if I wanted to try the readymade ‘milk tea’ so I did. It was extremely sweet. And instant. And it was sold in individual ‘3 in 1’ packets of instant tea powder, powdered milk, and sugar. You just empty the packet into a cup and add boiling water. This was not my cup of tea at all 😉
But I thought it was interesting that out of all the teas they had on sale they chose to use instant tea as a sample. Were they anticipating that customers to their booth are busy people who don’t have the time or inclination to wait for a pot of tea to brew? It seemed such a contrast to other booths were hanbok clad pony-tailed artistes were performing their tea ceremonial rituals. The people at this booth were wearing jeans and T-shirts though. So perhaps I should have known. I bought several packets of tea (not instant) and then I hurried out after Mr Kim who was off to find a place for lunch. Somewhere that sold beer! So unrefined. 😉
There are several places to enjoy tea in Korea. There are tea shops around the back streets of Insadong such as The Beautiful Tea museum. And for events relating to tea there’s the Boseong Green Tea Festival held every year in May as well as the Mungyeung Tea Cup Festival.