The glories of greenIn Korea, April means cherry blossoms. And May?
“Right now is the best month to try Korean green tea,” says Chung In-oh, a professor of tea studies at Hanseo University.
Legend has it that Koreans have been drinking tea for more than 4,000 years ― since the Gojoseon dynasty (2333-2394 B.C.), when it was grown on sacred Mount Baekdu.
Whether that’s true or not, what’s known as “tea culture” has existed on the Korean Peninsula at least since the Silla dynasty in the 7th century, according to Jung Young-sun, a tea master who teaches at the nonprofit Yeda Hakdang (roughly, “tea culture institute”) in southern Seoul.
Introduced first to the upper class, from aristocrats to high-ranking Buddhist monks, tea was served to esteemed guests and gods alike (the gods received theirs in religious ceremonies).
The “art of tea” thrived here until Japanese imperialism repressed the tradition, along with much else in Korean culture. Because of this disruption, Ms. Jung says, Korea’s tea culture is less developed than that of China or Japan.
But over the past decade or so, it has been seeing a revival. “The world is at last beginning to understand the nature of tea,” Ms. Jung says.
There are said to be about 3,000 different kinds of tea, varying according to where it’s grown, its genetic pedigree, how it’s processed and other factors. Herbal teas aren’t tea in the truest sense, because they don’t come from the tea plant, whose official name Camellia sinesis.
True teas come in three main types: black (Koreans call it red tea), oolong and green. Black tea, made from leaves grown in tropical or subtropical areas, is the most popular worldwide; oolong tea accounts for less than 3 percent of world consumption. The rarest of all is white tea, produced from fully grown buds covered with silvery hair.
Green tea is made of freshly harvested leaves that are promptly steamed or heated to kill enzymes, then rolled and dried. Unlike black tea or oolong tea, green tea isn’t oxidized or fermented at all. And in recent years, scientists have been confirming the folk wisdom that it’s good for you.
When choosing green tea in Korea, there are some things to keep in mind. One is that its quality depends largely on when it was harvested ― not unlike the concepts of “first flush” and “second flush” in Western tea culture.
Traditionally, Korean farmers planned their year around 24 seasonal dates based on the movement of the sun. The day known as gogu, which means “rainfall for the harvest,” normally falls on April 20.
The tea harvested before this date is known as ujeon, which means “before the rain.” It’s the best tea, and generally commands the highest price. The next seasonal date important to tea farming is ipha (“beginning of summer”), which falls around May 5. Tea gathered between those two dates is known as sejak (“small leaves”).
Tea picked after ipha is called jungjak, which means “medium-sized leaves.” And leaves picked after the harvests in July and August are known as daejak (“large leaves”).
The earlier the harvest, the more delicate the taste of the tea, and the cooler the temperature at which it should be brewed. Many authorities recommend that the water for ujeoncha or secha ― that is, the tea (cha) made from younger leaves ― be a relatively cool 50 degrees celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
Here are some other terms you might see on a Korean tea package:
- Tea made from young leaves can be called jakseolcha, meaning “sparrow’s tongue tea,” because the shape of the leaf resembles the tiny bird’s tongue. Seollokcha, which means “snow green tea,” refers to tea made in the very early spring. Jukrocha, which means “bamboo dew green tea,” is made from delicate leaves grown in the bamboo forest. All of these terms indicate a fine grade of tea.
- To improve the taste of jeoncha (the “second flush” tea), the leaves are steamed to destroy enzymes, then rolled and dried. Popularly known as sencha in Japan, jeoncha yields tea with a golden tint and a smooth flavor.
- The least expensive green teas are beoncha, made from stems, dust or buds; baecha, made from low-grade tea leaves, and acha, made from leftovers from the first and second flushes.
Oknocha is made from leaves grown in shadow; the taste is smooth and delicate, but it’s less beneficial to one’s health. Malcha is powdered green tea, which is often made from young leaves grown in shadow. It is mostly used in Japanese tea ceremonies, but because of its health benefits, it’s also used for various purposes other than drinking, such as cooking and skin care.
A cup of green tea contains 10 times the carotene of a carrot, and three times as much vitamins A and C as is found in a lemon (and three times as much as in spinach). It’s also rich in vitamin E. A substance in the tea known as catechins, or polyphenols, has been identified as having antibacterial properties that can help prevent food poisoning.
More famously, studies in recent years have confirmed that green tea is a cancer fighter.
Last year, researchers at Rochester University announced findings that chemicals in green tea combat the effects of molecules known as aryl hydrocarbon receptors, which can play a role in the development of cancer. “It’s likely that the compounds in green tea act [to fight cancer] through many different pathways,” the BBC quoted researcher Thomas Gasiewicz as saying.
Korean green tea is somewhat different from that found in Japan, because teamakers here roast the leaves. This gives it a smoother, less pungent taste. It also means it can be brewed at higher temperatures. This roasted tea, or deokkeumcha, can be brewed more than 10 times.
Mr. Chung, the tea studies professor, who also serves as the director of the Federation of Korean Tea Masters Associated, suggests drinking green tea made of young leaves harvested before mid-May, and drinking black and other fermented teas made from larger, older leaves ― jungjak or daejak, if you remember your terminology ― harvested after May.
“Because of the full flavor, fermented tea tastes better with larger tea leaves,” Mr. Chung said, shortly before leaving for a tea farm in Boseong in South Jeolla province.
Thinking outside the cup
If you think you don’t like the taste of green tea, maybe it’s because you've never deep-fried it. Here are some uses that have been found for green tea beyond the obvious:
- Powered green tea can be added to pasta dough, pancake mix, salad dressing, sour cream and ice cream.
- Concentrated green tea goes well with apple cider, ginger ale and peach or apricot nectar.
- To add flavor, cook rice in green tea instead of ordinary water. Add a pinch of salt to the rice before heating.
- Leftover tea leaves can be added to green salad. Rinse the wet leaves under running water, drain and toss them into the salad.
- Tea leaves, fresh or leftover, taste great deep-fried. Rinse them and drain until almost dry; make sure they have a little moisture to help the flour-and-potato-starch batter stick. Using one beaten egg, “glue” leaves into bite-size pieces. Deep fry in salad oil until they float. Set them on a paper towel to drain off the extra oil, and serve immediately with soy sauce and vinegar.
- Used tea bags can be used to relieve tired, stressed or puffy eyes. After cooling the bags in the refrigerator, leave one on each eye for 20 minutes.
- For oily skin, apply green tea after washing your face. Let the tea dry before applying cream or makeup. For dry skin, soak cotton pads in green tea and leave them on the face for an hour or two.
- To improve the taste of soju, add two green tea bags per bottle.
Tea around town
Tuesday, May 25 is Tea Day in Korea. In Seoul, a tea ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. at National Assembly Memorial Hall in Yeouido. After the ceremony, from 2 to 5 p.m. in the park near the hall, 500 tea masters will demonstrate the art of tea for anyone who wants to join in.
In Hadong in South Gyeongsang province, Ssangyesa temple will host the Hadong Mountain Dew Tea Culture Festival from May 20 to 23, with tea ceremonies and traditional performances. For directions, see the listing in The Ticket on Page W5 of today’s J-Weekend, under the Festivals heading.
Boseong, in South Jeolla province, is home to tea fields that produce 40 percent of Korea’s green tea; the fields are a popular tourist attraction. See Page W3 of today’s J-Weekend for details.
by Ines Cho