Tea is a part of Korean history; here are some places to savor itHeaven must be Buddhist ― a tearoom suffused with peace, where angels sit under the flickering light of a lotus lantern, warming their hands around a teacup.
You’ll know what I mean when you visit, or should I say make a pilgrimage to, Sanjungdawon, one of the most enchanting teahouses serving traditional tea that I’ve visited in recent years.
The name of the place, which was opened in 1994 by the Buddhist monks of Jogyesa Temple, means “a teahouse amid mountains.” In fact, it is exactly that. Even though it’s tucked behind one of the busiest streets in Jongno, a visit to Sanjungdawon, (02) 736-1678, can be a nourishing mental retreat from hectic reality.
The tearoom’s simple “Zen- styled” interior is open and spacious, with blankets laid on top of a hot ondol floor. The place is traditional, from the sliding doors of the cafe entrance to the servers’ unpretentious attitudes toward the patrons, sometimes expressed in quick, apathetic nods at the counter.
Yet the sense of tradition here doesn’t seem contrived. So Sanjungdawon may be met with some surprise by those who are used to the many touristy teahouses in Insa-dong, stocked with romantic cliches and artificial decorations like plastic ducklings or glass teacups.
It’s the small, rather personal details that make Sanjungdawon so atmospheric. The beverages and snacks served here, which are prepared by female venerables of the temple to help with maintenance costs, are authentic, down to the small plates of dried ginger, which at other teahouses in Seoul have long since been replaced by factory-produced yugwa, or rice snacks.
The ginger snacks, which are typically served with dark teas like jujube or ssanghwacha, a tonic drink made from mixed roots of exotic plants, are dried to perfection, while the tea essence for most drinks has been freshly boiled down and extracted over several days in the house kitchen.
Traditionally, a teahouse in Korea was something like an art salon in 18th-century Europe. It was where dissident literati and intellectuals met to hide from the eyes of authorities, exchanging political gossip and holding poetry readings and avant-garde performances. Many of these teahouses were run by cultural elites of the time, or the families of artists or writers.
Gwicheon, (02) 734-2828, in Insa-dong, whose name, literally meaning “returning to heaven,” comes from the poem by Cheon Sang-byeong, is one such teahouse. From the tiny corridor leading to the cafe entrance, the place is unique.
The interior of Gwicheon, which resembles a small warehouse more than a cafe, is an homage to the late poet in itself. A wooden cabinet that takes up an entire wall is filled with poetry books, old LPs and paintings that Cheon bought or received as gifts while he was alive. The signature on each piece of art is of a recognizable name; they have been the shop’s patrons since it opened in 1985.
The room seats fewer than 15, at four wooden benches and tables. The place gets packed with artist customers on weekend evenings, and one has to be pretty lucky to find a seat.
Just about all the teas at Gwicheon are excellent. Fruit teas, Chinese quince and sliced citron marinated in honey, or yujacha, are particularly good ― prepared both hot and cold ― all homemade by Mok Sun-ok, Cheon’s widow, who now runs the establishment. Ginger tea might be little strong for beginners, but it is one of the popular items here, ideal for hangovers.
If you can memorize the name, Seoulseo Duljaero Jalhaneunjip, (02) 734-5302, which translates as “the second most delicious place in Seoul,” is a smart selection for local tea as well. You might be laughing, but the owner, Kim Eun-suk, is serious about the name ― so serious, in fact, that she has copyrighted it. Just so you’re aware, there is also a teahouse called Seoulseo Cheotjero Jaljaneunjip, “the most delicious place in Seoul.” It’s in Insa-dong, and the owner has also copyrighted its name. Now you know: It’s all about the war of naming.
Seoulseo might be the runner-up in name, but it has the best red bean porridge in town, at least among the teahouses I’ve been to. It’s also one of the few remaining teahouses that haven’t replaced dried ginger with sweet rice snacks. A promising sign! Even better, the place is in Samcheong-dong, a pleasant neighborhood in northern Seoul which is emerging among younger Koreans as a good place for art and food.
If you happen to visit the bathroom at Seoulseo, just outside the teahouse, you might get a glimpse on your way of the baskets full of boiled red beans cooling in the backyard. It’s a pretty scene, not to be missed.
The only disappointment at Seoulseo is the portion size ― it’s a small bowl of porridge for 5,000 won ($4.25). But it tastes so good that you can’t complain; two rice balls float in the porridge, with large chunks of chestnuts sprinkled all over. Ssanghwacha is another specialty here, popular among middle-aged Koreans.
Tea has been part of Korean life since the beginning of the nation’s history. Oddly, though, the one local teahouse that sells only traditional beverages is a contemporary invention, which came about in the process of modernization.
In the ’60s the dabang, simply translated as “tearooms,” were in the style of European cafes, serving a mix of instant coffees, traditional teas and snacks like poached eggs and toast. Instant coffee, which is still prevalent throughout Korea in vending machines, first came to Korea as coffee mix, originating in American military supplies during and after the war, and sold to locals through the black market.
It was with the major tourism development in the mid-’80s that teahouses selling traditional beverages began to spring up all over Insa-dong, along with souvenir shops and traditional eateries. Interestingly, this economic trend was also fueled by the public movement to resist Western imports like hamburger chains and coffee shops.
But times change, and fashions fade. The trend didn’t last long, as Starbucks and other American mega-franchise coffeehouses landed in Korea. But there is still pride among tea admirers, if not a bit of disdain for coffee drinkers as people who have been tainted by the barbaric traditions of the West.
One way to recognize tea enthusiasts is by their rigorous pride in their knowledge of tea and its traditions. Tea admirers are often meticulous about formality ― the etiquette and attitudes surrounding the art of tea, or even the science of tea, as some like to call it.
Some tea admirers sit for hours grousing over the rolling angles of the tea leaves and the correct order for serving (usually, the tea is passed from right to left, regardless of age or status). Preparing the local tea was considered such a sacred business in the ancient days that one had to be a virgin to qualify for the job. Even now, prestigious temples that make green tea once or twice a year in the late spring will only allow select individuals to help out with the labor.
It’s difficult to find teahouses in Seoul that observe such formalities, which is why serious tea admirers make trips all the way down to the southern temples. But Chagaram, (02) 3672-5711, in Daehangno is one of the closest ones, serving only local varieties of green tea, serving with a complete tea-making set, including an individual kettle, a thermos flask, a wooden fulcrum, a cup and its holder, for as little as 4,000 won.
If you are more interested in a tasteful atmosphere than in sitting through waitresses’ instructions for pouring tea from a kettle, Suyeonsanbang, (02) 764-1736, in Seongbuk-dong might be a better alternative.
Suyeonsanbang could be thought of as living poetry, with an amazing view overlooking a tall plum tree in a garden. This hankok was once the home of Lee Tae-jun, a writer from North Korea who came to the South during the war and lived here for 14 years to hide from the public authorities. He published a number of short stories that had an immense effect on postwar literature. This house with three rooms was recently turned into a teahouse by Lee’s granddaughter. Luckily, the building has been preserved well enough by Lee’s descendants that the place was recently named a cultural heritage site by the government.
The teahouse’s name ― which means “a house in the mountains where writers and scholars gather” ― reflects the atmosphere, in the ’50s, of Seongbuk-dong, an isolated mountain range that has since turned into one of Seoul’s wealthiest neighborhoods, with major conglomerates and embassy residences settled in at every corner. The house specialty at Suyeonsanbang is pine tea, made out of boiled pinecones; it exudes rich flavor.
So when the world gets turned upside down, when comfort is intruded upon by things beyond the power of an individual to control, just throw away all your plans and drink tea.
by Park Soo-mee