Koreans are a healthy bunch. The national health conscious mindset stems from old Confucian ideology which dictates that food is much more than a means to attain energy. In Confucianism, food is said to be medicine. Certain foods have healing properties. They can be eaten to cure illnesses or ailments and used to strengthen the body or ward off diseases. Today, these traditional theories have been carried forward. Many foods in Korea are popular because they are ‘good-for-health’. And nothing shouts “HEALTHY” quite like tea!
A Brief History of Tea
In Korea, the routine of drinking tea evolved at the dawn of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) when Confucianism became the national philosophy. Before that, people drank tea during times of worship. The tea ceremony was a large part of Buddhist practice which was the dominant religion prior to Confucianism. When Confucianism was instated, worship with tea was no longer practiced and Koreans started to drink tea for health purposes, “Along with Confucianist principles such as respecting one’s elders, the concept “food is medicine” became firmly ensconced in the minds of the Korean people, and medicinal teas became a staple.” (Gongfu Girl) Korea’s ideological foundation also shows a main difference between the significance of tea in other Asia cultures and Korean tea culture. Tea is still heavily linked to spirituality in China and Japan, but not in Korea.
Korea has created hundreds of different styles of tea ranging from the simple ones made from barely or corn to complicated ones made from mixtures of fruits, nuts, grains and berries. Sujangwha, sikhye and yulmu cha are three Korean teas that are known for their healthy elements, traditional roots, and delicious taste.
Sujangwha, which translates to ‘fruits in water’, is a sweet dessert tea made from boiled cinnamon and ginger. Sunjangwha is good for the liver, indigestion, overall intestinal health and it helps blood coagulation.
To make the tea cinnamon and ginger are boiled whole is separate pots, and then strained. The remaining liquid is combined and then boiled once more with honey or brown sugar. The tea is also known as Korean persimmon punch because it is garnished with dried persimmons and pine nuts. The drink is usually enjoyed in the winter although it is served cold.
Around 1849, the drink was mentioned in some historic book. The Donggugsyeshigi (동국세시기), a book by scholar Hong Seokmo (홍석모) about festivals and folk tales, discussed Sujangwha as a sweet tea made by boiling water and persimmons. The text, Yeonhoesang (연회상) from 1868 called a drink made by adding honey to water with pine nuts Sujunggwa. In the book, it says that Sujunggwa was served at the King’s luncheon in Chosun Dynasty. The tea was made fom pomegranate, citron, ginger, persimmon, red cherry, and berries. The Gyugonyoram, another old text, at Yonsei University contains information that people put dried persimmon in hot water and added pine nuts.
Sujangwha can be made at home or purchased in a can from any convenience store or grocery mart. Tea houses all over Korea serve it as well.
Sujangwha is right up my alley of tastiness. It has a slight spiciness from the ginger and cinnamon, but it does not leave a strong bitter taste in the mouth like ginger sometimes can. It is quite sweet and the flavors and sweetness vary depending on the recipe. I tried the canned Sujangwha today and found it to be sweeter than other versions I have had in tea houses. It reminds me of holiday punch or hot spiced apple cider from back home in Canada. It would make a perfect addition to any Christmas menu, so this is a great season to do some Sujangwha sampling!
Shikhye is a popular traditional rice tea. It too is served after dinner and is known to aid in digestion and blood circulation. Shikhye like many foods in Korea is fermented, which is why it helps with digestion and stomach health. Furthermore, shikye is important for a person’s body composition. In Korea people believe that humans have 4 distinct body types, sasanghoehak (사생의학). A person must eat according to his/her type and avoid certain foods at that can negatively affect his/her health based on his/her type. Shikhye can cool down a warm body and warm up a cold body. The first writing mentioning Shikhye is “Sumunsasul’ in 1940, although is it thought that sikhye has existed for much longer.
The process to make shikhye is long. First barely must be boiled and the liquid clarified to make barely water. It is left to ferment for at least 1 one day before it is added to uncooked rice. Together the rice and barely water is cooked slowly, again the mixture ferments as the water warms. Sugar is boiled into the new mixture. The liquid is strained and chilled. It is served cold and garnished with cooked rice pieces from the original cooking process.
A good place to try Shikhye is at a traditional Korean restaurant serving hanjeonshik (한정식), an elaborate old Korean meal once made for Kings, or any tea house. It can be made at home. However due to the long cooking procedure it may not be worth the effort. It is also sold in cans in grocery stores.
Shikhye is refreshing when it is particularly cold. Shikye is very sweet without any other strong flavor. It is hard to notice the taste of the barely or rice. Shikhye is often too sweet and thick for my liking. During my taste test today, I much preferred the canned Sujangwha that has distinct fruit and spice notes.
Yulmu Cha (율무차)
Yulmu (율무) is Job’s Tears in English. Job’s Tears is a grain that has a thick tear-shaped seed pod. It is commonly found in Asia and used for many recipes in Korea, tea being one of them. Yulmu Cha is used to cure colds and flus. Koreans drink it during the winter to ward off illness or when they start to feel sick. It is also good to settle the stomach and prevent nausea. It can substitute as a meal and it is commonly drunk at breakfast.
The tea has a thick, milky like texture. It is made from ground powder of Job’s Tears. It is then mixed with hot water and served immediately. Yulmu cha is often mixed with other ground grains, nuts, or dried fruits to give it more flavor. There is usually some sugar added. It is garnished with walnuts, beans or dried fruit.
Yulmu Cha can be bought easily at the grocery store. They even have family sixed boxes of the tea. The tea comes in individual packets and should be mixed with hot water. You can also make the power yourself if you have a strong blender. Yulmu Cha can be sipped at specialty tea houses and some coffee shops, like Café Bene, serve a hot cereal drink which contains yulmu.
Today I tried the packaged Yulmu that can be purchased at any mart. It is a thick tea that tastes a bit like slightly sweet warm milk. It has hints of nuts and red bean as well. The taste is not offensive and rather bland. I enjoyed it and could easily drink this for breakfast. It is much more filling than other teas.
Samcheongdong and Insadong located in central Seoul have old tea shops lining the roads. These neighborhoods are great places to relax on a winter day and learn about Korean culture. You can sample a few different teas and some traditional snacks as well.
Samcheongdong is located beside Gyeonbukgung Palace. Take the purple subway line 5 to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Go out exit 5 and walk for about 15 minutes staying to the right of the Palace. You can also take the orange subway line 3 to Anguk Station. Take exit 1 and walk down any street. The neighborhood is a maze of small streets.
To get to Insadong take the orange subway line 3 to Anguk station. Exit from number 3 and walk straight. You will see the start of the Insadong road to your left. You can also get to Insadong from the Jongro area.
Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.