A Hymn To Korean Tea
I drank a cup of tea and watched the flowing and stillness.
Quietly and naturally I seemed to forget the return of time.
The Korean monk Choui Uisun wrote this in 1837 in one of his set of poems called The Hymns To Korean Tea. This and his Tea Spirit Message created seven years earlier encouraged a tea revival in Korea, a country where the first historical records documenting the use of tea date date back many centuries to 661 AD.
Since that time, Korea has created tea from different sorts of materials including fruits, leaves, grains, and roots – the latter of which I encountered in the guise of ginseng tea when I lived in the country for several years during the 1990s.
Ginseng Root Under Glass
My experience began when I first spotted the largest piece of ginseng that I ever saw was under glass. It occupied a place of honor in my good friend Hye-Won’s parents’ living room in Seoul, South Korea, a lovely home that was not that far from my own little place in the city.
Even as my brain was involuntarily picking up the delicious scent of homemade vegetable soup that was wafting through the air from the kitchen, the gnarled ginseng root stared back at me like some weird science experiment featured in a Grade B movie.
Naturally I asked Hye-Won about the object, to which she responded by telling me in serious and almost reverential tones about all of the health benefits of this amazing plant tuber.
However, it was not then but rather some time later when I visited my American friend MariAnne who lived in the ancient city of Gyeongju that I tasted delicious ginseng tea.
MariAnne knew a Korean professor who almost lived on the stuff, she said, and she emphasized what a culturally significant drink it is in the country.
Nothing I had tasted at home in the USA matched the woodsy, dark, earthy, slightly smoky taste that ginseng tea had – particularly that first time that I tasted it.
Enchanting, Ancient Gyeongju
Ginseng tea and Gyeongju suit one another, I thought, since the traditional city looked very exotic to me: The capital of the regal Silla Kingdom which ruled most of the peninsula of Korea between the 7th and 9th centuries, Gyeongju has many stunning ancient sites including fabulous temples, palaces, pagodas, and other cultural artifacts.
No doubt this is why the Gyeongju Historic Areas of South Korea was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the year 2000.
What an enchanting city it is! A coastal city in the far southeastern corner of the North Gyeongsang province, it’s about 230 miles (370 km) from Seoul and worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the country’s capital where I was living.
Cherry Blossoms Amidst The Tea Cups
What I remember most about this faraway place are its gorgeous temples with flying rooftops. I especially liked the temple sites that were situated up winding country paths.
Then there is the interesting layout of housing on unpaved streets in the residential areas where the modest, simple homes had similar flying rooftops. Indeed, MariAnne lived in such a home to which she kindly invited me to stay, and its ceilings were so low that I had difficulty walking upright in the house even though I’m of average height.
Next to consider are the enormous, pendulous bells, each hanging individually in its own sturdy, wooden frame. The local monks would strike them with a long stick-like instrument at certain times of the day. The combined effect is wonderfully peaceful, as is my recollection of the numerous soaring mountains and peaks surrounding the city which were covered with beautiful spring foliage.
And last but not least, what is highlighted in my memory are the heavily laden bowers of pale-pink cherry blossoms that festooned the cherry trees in bloom that spring.
What was most romantic and unforgettable about those cherry blossoms were the line of trees in a certain area of the city especially frequented by couples who went to coo under its fragrant buds.
Half Empty Or Half Full?
I found that when I was in Korean homes as I often was, insam cha (as ginseng tea is called in Korean) was the tea drink of choice and generally it was served about one-half to three-quarters full in dainty china tea cups.
I once asked why it was never a full cup that was served, and the family whose home I was in at the time told me it was a tradition to suggest the wish for balance in the life of the person who is being served the tea – so the water is poured in up to the middle of the cup.
The Status Of Certain Red Ginsengs
Koreans regard certain red ginseng teas as more desirable, and buying the best of this tea is a status symbol in some circles, a way that one could indirectly display one’s wealth and breeding.
A Far Eastern Legend About The Origins Of Tea
So how did tea – whether from roots like ginseng or the leaves of tea bushes and herbal and floral plants – come to be the world’s most popular drink?
There are some wonderful legends about how people discovered using leaves to create this drink. The one repeated the most is the legend about the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung.
It is said that it was he who in 2732 BC found out that boiling water made it safe to drink. One day after this discovery, as the story goes, he went on a picnic. And while he was busily boiling his water, the leaves of a nearby tree fell into that heated water.
The emperor was very interested in the scent of the brew, and he felt that the warm drink was invigorating.
Shen Nung named the brew ch’a, which is the Chinese character meaning ‘to investigate or check’. Many centuries later in 200 BC, a Han dynasty emperor commanded that when referring to tea, a special written character must be used showing wooden branches, grass, and a man within.
A Fable From India About How Tea Drinking Began
Travel southwest from South Korea across China and Nepal, and you arrive in India – where there is this wonderful legend about how tea drinking began.
It stems from Buddhist history, and goes like this: In 500 AD, a saintly man devoted seven years of his life to the contemplation of Buddha.
One day while contemplating the Buddha, he became so sleepy that he tore off his eyelids. His eyelids slid to the ground, and when they touched the earth – two tea bushes appeared. The man made some of the drink from the bushes, which quickly revived him so he could complete his holy task. And this, as the legend goes, was the beginning of ‘tea’.
Tea For Two In Darjeeling
Speaking of India, my husband David and I traveled there this past spring.
This included staying in Darjeeling, a town in West Bengal that is internationally famous for its tea industry.
So there we were one day in the genteel surroundings of a place called Glenary’s – a popular cafe and restaurant that is a hangover from the days of the British Raj, a place located on the higher slopes of the town where on a clear day you can look outside the windows and make out the white peaks of the Himalayas.
Tea is served in Glenary’s in heavy silver teapots that bear the scars of decades of being banged about with the cutlery. But they still exude quality, and the waiters serve it up with style.
Each teapot had a little green felt cover that fitted neatly over the handle – all the better to keep our fingers from being burned by the hot metal. Practical and a tad ‘upper class’, right in keeping with the Raj!
Converting An Englishman Regarding His Tea
At home, David drinks black tea with milk and has several cups during the day. He buys loose tea, not teabags, and tries to find the best quality tea he can find locally.
I am an American who has lived in England for more than 10 years now. Still, in the matters of English black teas – I have bowed to David’s more extensive bred-in-the-bone English knowledge about the beverage.
On the other hand, as a herbal tea drinker I know that most herbal teas require steeping on average for three to five minutes. Indeed, that’s the secret of great herbal tea, as I try to tell dyed-in-the-wool black tea drinkers.
Sitting there in Glenary’s, David poured the darjeeling tea and it looked very pale, ‘even’ after leaving it to brew for David’s prescription of one minute. So I suggested that we allow the darjeeling tea in Glenary’s to brew for a bit. And sure enough, after five minutes the tea was perfect.
Now that would be an end to the story, except that David wonders why the tea he buys in England makes a black and vigorous brew practically as soon as the tea leaves hit the water. So he now buys and drinks darjeeling mixed with black tea, and he takes a more relaxed and thoughtful approach to brewing tea!
Visiting A Tea Plantation In India
When in Darjeeling, it’s only natural that one’s thoughts turn to tea and the plantations there which are known as tea gardens.
For more about tea in Darjeeling and a visit to one particular tea garden in particular, check out David’s article In Search of Darjeeling Tea.
A Tea Called ‘Chai’
Now to a different sort of tea experience in India, namely drinking chai. This is the word used for a sweet, spiced milky tea made with strong black Indian tea that is either stewed or brewed. Cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, peppercorn, clove, and nutmeg are the common spices that are added to the tea.
The drink is also known in India as masala chai, or spiced tea and David has developed a taste for it. He now adds spices to his tea mix here in England.
Chai On The Trains
The trains in India are a phenomenon in their own right, with the comfort level changing radically depending on whether you travel first, second, or third class.
Once you have boarded the train and some time has passed, it is more than likely that a young man or boy will walk through the train hawking chai.
This seller carries his chai in a large container from which he pours the tea out at the top, while a small heater at the bottom of the receptacle keeps the drink toasty warm.
I found the chai on offer generally extremely sweet, however, which dominates the spices in the drink instead of it being the other way around. Still, sipping this tea out of small paper cups is a bit of a diversion from the ride at hand, we found, since we took a number of long train rides that took up to 14 hours.
Maharaja Saijan Singh’s Crystal Collection
In the romantic city of Udaipur in the colorful state of Rajasthan, we had an especially memorable tea.
Following a tour of the City Palace, we went to a crystal gallery at the nearby Fateh Prakash Palace Hotel.
The Maharaja Saijan Singh bought this crystal from England in 1877, from F&C Osler & Company. Before it arrived, however, he died – and all of the items remained packed up in boxes for decades.
After seeing this extravagant, unused collection that includes crystal sofas, crystal tables, beds, crystal chairs, and a wide array of colored vases, bottles, glasses, serving dishes, plates and the like, we followed the path down the carpeted stairs so that we could enjoy tea served in the main hall and in an area adjacent to the hall looking out on to the water.
The Grandiose Durbar Hall
From the upper gallery we could see before we descended the stairs that we were going to come out into that huge hall, and we weren’t disappointed once we got there.
Actually, we had unwittingly done what palace ladies used to do when they would use the crystal gallery to observe this grandiose hall which was built in 1909 and used for official occasions such as state banquets and official meetings.
It is regarded as one of India’s most impressive halls with its huge chandeliers, large oil portraits of maharajas, gleaming decorations and menacing-looking weapons lining the walls.
Tea A La The Raj
We were led from that room to a large side room that was equally plush.
Heavy drapes were pulled back with ornate sashes at the window where our pretty table was situated.
This turbaned, mustachioed waiter whisked us to our table with great politeness and formality.
David and I ordered tea and coffee between us, which we drank on fine china while we ate delicately thin cookies.
We felt transported back to what it must have been like for the fabulously rich during the Raj.
Although we appreciated and enjoyed the tea, this factor along with astonishing poverty that we witnessed daily in India.
The fact that most Indians would never have access to such posh settings made us also feel uncomfortable in some ways.
When we had finished our tea and exited from the building, we saw this beautiful, romantic scene whose vista is typical in Udaipur:
‘Mad Hatter Tea Party’ Territory
Consider the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland who explains to Alice that he and the March Hare are always having tea because they are both stuck at 6:00 p.m. by Time.
Although that wonderfully nutty pair are the exception with their tea party that never ends, nevertheless it’s fitting that an Englishman wrote Alice in Wonderland considering Britain’s everlasting affection for the drink in a country where tea is always at the ready.
I have seen display of this strong presence first hand as an American who has lived in England for more than 10 years now: I can safely vouch from living both in the south and north of England and from traveling a good deal otherwise throughout the UK that ‘tea rooms’ (as they are known) of all shapes and sizes appear to dot every (well, almost every, it seems!) city, town, and village.
In fact, tea and tea rooms are so prevalent in the country that if I ever arrived in a place that did not have a tea room – I would probably feel that I had mistakenly exited the country!
Along with Carrroll’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the drink pops up regularly in English dramas too as the perfect soother and comforter no matter how trying the situation and in titles too, with Tea and Sympathy and Tea With Mussolini springing to mind.
Tea Comes To England
In his beautifully illustrated and well-researched book entitled My Cup of Tea, Sam Twining – the ninth generation of the famous Twinings label tea family – points out that the earliest reference to tea by an English person was in a letter.
Written in 1615, the letter traveled between two agents of the East India Company. However, it wouldn’t be until several decades later that tea started to be sold in England.
Linguistics At Play, From ‘Cha’ To ‘Chai’ To ‘Tea’
The text for the first recorded advertisement for tea ran during the first week of September 1658 in The Gazette and it read as follows:
That Excellent, and by all Physitians approved, China Drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other Nations Tay, alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness-head, a Cophee-House, in Sweetings Rents by the Royal Exchange, London.
Coffee Houses To The Rescue
Two years after that first announcement appeared in 1658 in The Gazette, Garraway’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley, London, sold tea in leaf form.
In fact, we have the London coffee houses at the time to thank for putting tea on their menu even as tea competed with coffee, chocolate, and alcohol already on offer in such establishments.
Tea Gains Royal Status
In Portugal, the great navigators who were the first Europeans to reach China also brought tea back to their country.
By 1662, tea gained status when it received the royal approval of the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza.
She is believed to have included tea in her dowry when she arrived in England in 1662 to marry Charles II.
And it was she as queen consort to Charles II of England, Scotland, and Ireland who made tea fashionable in the London Court.
Tea For Everybody Who Could Afford It
Nevertheless, it was not until 1669 that the East India Company imported tea into England for the first time – 143 and 1/2 pounds of it, to be precise, but by nine years later that amount had risen to 4,713 pounds.
Tea Seen As Sinful
But it was not a smooth path at all for tea to be accepted as a drink in England, despite the fact that royalty enjoyed it.
Clergy were against it because they said it was from a heathen country and a sinful drink.
Doctors said it was bad for you.
And brewers lobbied the government to complain that tea would replace ale at breakfast.
The brewers’ protest gave government a wonderful excuse to gain extra revenue, and so duties started being imposed on tea from 1698 onwards. However, earlier taxes on the coffee houses in particular were dropped.
This was because there were more than 2000 coffee houses in London alone, and therefore it was too expensive for the government to collect the taxes.
The Rich Fancy Many Cups Of Tea
By 1721, imports of tea reached one million pounds in weight.
How did this come about?
First of all, the wealthy ladies of that period loved the Chinese white porcelain bowls, saucers and teapots along with the red pottery that was shipped to Britain on the same ships as the tea. So they paid for the heavily taxed tea.
Secondly, tea needed to be kept hot and silver is a good conductor of heat. Silver was a status symbol at that time, but it was not acceptable for tea bowls because it is too hot to handle.
Ah, but it could be used for silver teapots, hot water jugs and kettles – thus keeping the rich content as they could display their wealth and status in this way.
Tea Caddy, aka The Malaysian ‘Catty’
Tea was so expensive that it was kept in a lady’s boudoir or drawing room in a Chinese jar or bottle. Later this jar or bottle was called a ‘catty’ or ‘teapoy’, and in time this led to the word caddy – all of which is derived from a Malayan weight of approximately 21 ounces (just under 600 grams) that is called a catty.
Buying Tea Like Proper Ladies
The fly in the ointment with tea for the upper-class women who enjoyed it so much was that no respectable lady would be seen in a coffee house.
Thomas Twining, the great entrepreneur who founded the famous tea company of the same name, was very aware of this so he provided a special service to the ladies who would wait outside in their sedan chairs or carriages while their footmen went inside Thomas’ establishment to buy the tea.
His trade grew, at which point he opened a dry tea and coffee shop which he called the Golden Lyon. There he sold a wide range of high-quality teas and coffees, making it the first such shop in the Western world where ladies could enter unchaparoned without risking their reputation.
Twinings also sold his tea to coffee houses, apothecaries, inns, and milliners.
The Lure Of Tea Gardens
At the same time that Twinings was building his establishment, ladies were trying to crack down on coffee houses in favor of tea gardens which they considered more civilized.
Coffee houses disappeared or morphed into men’s clubs, some of which still remain today in London’s Pall Mall or the area of St. James’s.
Tea gardens ranged from small, peaceful places to famous, large venues including Vauxhall Gardens on the Thames which began serving tea by 1730, where evenings of dancing and watching fireworks would be completed with serving tea.
Soon tea gardens opened all over Britain, where afternoons of entertainment and dancing would be punctuated by the serving of tea.
Tea Rooms Take Off In Great Britain
This ever-present British establishment can actually be traced to one person: The woman ‘manageress’ of the Aerated Bread Company who began the custom of serving gratis tea and snacks to her customers in 1864.
Then she obtained permission to have a commercial public tearoom on the premises – and the rest is history. Soon, tea rooms (or ‘tea shops’ as they are also called) spread to every nook and cranny of the country.
The tea rooms were important for another reason: They provided one of the first places where women of the Victorian era could have a meal without a male escort, and without risk to their reputations.
Since then, having a spot of tea with some food or a dessert in a tea room/shop ranging from simple to posh surroundings has grown to the point where it is deeply woven into the very fabric of the English culture.
Now for some more clarification about what each of these traditionally offers, starting with cream tea.
Cream tea is generally available in the afternoons, though there seems to be no hard and fast rule because you can often get it throughout the day in many places. It consists of tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam.
If you are not familiar with them, scones are small unsweetened or lightly sweetened biscuit-shaped cake made from flour, fat, and milk.
Butter should not be offered if it’s a true cream tea, and traditionally strawberry (and often raspberry) jam is used.
The true meaning of high tea is often misunderstood. Although it sounds posh to most people, high tea (or ‘meat tea’) is dinner.
So this kind of tea in England tends to be on the heavier side, although American hotels and tea rooms connected with them misunderstand this so they often offer fancy cakes and pastries served on delicate china and mistakenly call it this.
Traditionally high tea was served later in the day at around six o’clock in the evening, and it was a full meal (a dinner) for the average person in the street and not for the upper class. Tea was still served with the meal, but there would also be meats, fish, cheese, eggs, bread and butter, and cake on the menu.
The essential thing to remember is that traditionally high tea was more of a man’s meal, and not an upper-class social occasion.
Afternoon or ‘Low’ Tea
Afternoon tea (traditionally called this because it usually was eaten in the late afternoon) is also called low tea because in the nineteenth century when it began, it was served in a type of sitting room where a low table similar to the modern-day coffee table was used.
This tea which began in the mid-1800s has an interesting history. In that era, lunch was served at noon but dinner was eaten late at about eight or even nine o’clock in the evening. However, a titled woman, the Duchess of Bedford, got hungry before her dinner so she started having a tray of tea with bread and butter served to her in the middle of the afternoon.
Soon she started having this tea all the time, and then she began to invite other high-society ladies to join her. Having this kind of afternoon tea became the fashionable thing for upper-class women to attend.
Along with tea, the servants would make dainty sandwiches, small pastries with clotted cream or jam, and scones for these privileged women to enjoy.
The Three Types of Afternoon (or ‘Low’) Tea
There are three basic types of Afternoon (or ‘Low’) Tea:
Cream Tea – tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam
Light Tea – tea, scones, and sweets
Full Tea – tea, savories, scones, sweets, and dessert
In England, the traditional time for tea was four or five o’clock running until about seven at the latest. These days most tea rooms serve afternoon tea from three to five o’clock.
The menu is also served specifically in this order:
Savories – dainty, small sandwiches or appetizers
Scones – served with clotted cream and jam
Pastries – cakes, cookies, shortbread, and sweets
To serve in the strict traditional fashion, these items are placed on a three-tiered stand starting on the lowest rung with the savories, with the scones in the middle, and the pastries at the top.
The City Of Bath And Tea At The Pump Room
‘Taking tea’, as the English say, is something one can do all over the country, as I have mentioned before. However, some places stay in my memory more than others for the teas I have enjoyed there.
One of those teas was an afternoon tea that David and I had when we visited Bath last summer.
Bath is in the southwest part of the country, and with its history of natural hot springs, stunning Georgian architecture, and idyllic countryside, it is considered one of the prettiest cities in Britain.
The Pump Room is housed in an elegant Georgian building in a gleaming white, spacious, large room with extra high ceilings, a crystal chandelier, deep wine-colored drapes, and circular wooden tables and chairs.
It provides the type of posh setting that would most likely quicken the pulse of those society ladies in previous centuries who loved to take their tea in similar sumptuous surroundings.
No doubt they would have enjoyed hearing the music we heard that afternoon as well.
Tea Up North In The Spa Town Of Harrogate
Devon and Bath are in the southern part of England, so now I’ll recount going for tea at Bettys, a popular tea room in several locations in the northern part of the country including in the spa town of Harrogate.
Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms (written without a possessive apostrophe in Bettys, by the way) are known for their swanky settings which is especially nice for special occasions, but equally fun at any time.
These tea rooms were founded by a Swiss man named Frederick Belmont who spent his teens in apprenticeships for a number of bakers and confectioners across Europe. He traveled through London to Bradford in the north and later to nearby Harrogate whose beautiful countryside and clear air reminded him of his native Switzerland, which is why he decided to open up the first of his cafes there in 1919.
Like the Twinings family label, Bettys also has a range of high-quality teas and coffees that it produces under the Taylors of Harrogate label that was established in 1886.
Observing Across Cultures
Living in England for ten years or so means that I do know the culture to a good degree. But I’m not a native, so I am always on the outside looking in to some extent.
Obviously, being married to a native Englishman has opened so much of the culture to me that I believe I would not have fully comprehended otherwise. So with this added to the mix, I have an especially interesting time observing what’s going on at Bettys when we go there.
I feel that the essential difference between England and ‘the Colonies’ (aka the United States, where I am from) can be traced to the fact that the country is a constitutional monarchy – which means that a king or queen is always officially at the helm, and there are royals and titled people scattered throughout the country.
Although I have been told by David and other people that the class differences are less acute than they were decades ago, status and class still seem to register and influence many people in England quite profoundly.
Naturally, the reactions to the constraints of this come in all shapes and sizes. Suffice it to say that I would bet it is at least somewhere in the subconscious of those people who can afford to ‘take tea’ at Bettys, and I believe this influences the ambience of the place.
I think David as the native Englishman summed up best the overall ambience with this observation: “Nobody wants to do what is out of place because everything is so ‘in’ place.”
How is everything so ‘in place’ to my mind? I imagine it’s the perpetually posh surroundings, the hushed tones (people enjoy themselves but everyone seems on their toes to behave ‘appropriately’) the gleaming teapots (put through a burnisher once a week to keep them at their gleaming best), and the fastidiousness with which all the food, tea, and desserts are served with fine china and silver cutlery.
It’s the waiters and waitresses dressed in uniform black and white, the women with full-length aprons over long black skirts, the men with black vest and long white aprons, and the managers with reserved black suits.
It’s the marble tops on the tables, the big fireplace in the corner, the large bay windows looking out on the green with big, beautiful trees lining the sides, the pianist who plays discreetly on one side, the candles with their soft lights that soften everything all the more romantically when darkness arrives.
The carpeting joins the cause, keeps the noise level down while the waiters and waitresses hover over the lit computers that are the only obvious clue that the year is 2010.
Beside the waitresses are the trolleys with desserts under glass domes, and every time I see them I think of those starving urchins in Charles Dickens’ novels on the outside looking into the bastions of the privileged who dined on sweets while they were deprived of even the most basic nutrition.
There are the afternoon teas on several tables, their three tiers carefully piled up with sandwiches, savories, and sweets. There are the cream teas with the scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. There are the steaming pots of tea, the elegant carafes of coffee, and the tiny silver pots for milk.
And everything is also ‘just so’ on the outside:
What Tea Does For Us
Returning to the Far Eastern perspective, consider what T’ien Yiheng said in China circa 1570 about tea:
Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.
And from the Western perspective, the English statesman William Gladstone said the following about tea almost three centuries later in 1865:
If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated, it will cool you.
If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you.
As for me, what do I think?
I agree with both of these perspectives, diehard tea fan that I am!
And in a world where too many things cannot be agreed upon, it’s comforting to realize that people from different sides of the world agree about the merits of tea drinking – in all its permutations, from the simple cup to an ornate cultural offering.