Tea in Seoul

by Matt on August 10, 2011

We couldn’t have picked a better day to immerse ourselves in Korean tea shops than a day filled with brisk temperatures and a slight chilly rain. It made our check ins of tea houses much more cozy even though we were on a seriously ambitious mission to sip and sit in a combination of traditional and modern establishments.

We started at Miss Lee, a colorful and playful tea house washed in bright colors and natural woods. If I was looking for a quiet austere place for tea this sure wasn’t it! We arrived for an early lunch of bento boxes with a variety of teas. There’s something to know about the world of Korean tea:  it’s not necessarily always based on traditional tea plants and their leaves. It’s a world that encompasses fruits, seeds, twigs, roots and leaves, not to mention some grains and barley and rice. The flavors of a rainbow are all here, from sour and astringent to candy-like and sweet. One of my favorites was Omijacha, made from the dried berries of the Schisandra chinensis and called the Five Flavors tea because it has sweet, salty, bitter, sour and pungent notes. Served either hot or cold, Korean teas are consumed for health and vitality but to me some are just plain fun: give me a cup of Yujacha (citron) any day for dessert and I’d be a happy man.

I’m a quick learner and noticed you can’t really head out for any kind of social activity without food being involved. It reminds me so much of my childhood and my culture that this whole Korean thing makes total sense to me. With an endless “BRING IT!” attititude we ordered lunch as well as some snacks to enjoy with our tea. My favorite? A Korean-style bento box with rice, seafood, egg and sausage. It was fantastic but it was the yakgwa that rocked my lil world. A soft, semi-chewy cookie made from wheat flour and sesame oil, it’s formed into assorted shapes (often a flower) then fried before being dunked in honey. The result is chewy sticky cookie that is perfect with tea. They’ve since moved to the top of my cookie list for sure. A fried cookie? Come on now, really!

After Miss Lee we visited a few other tea houses, each markedly different. Over various glasses of iced omijacha and warm herbal tea we absorbed the environment as many others did – relaxing and catching up, laughing, exchanging stories. It was heavenly, I’m telling you!

We ended up at Old Tea Shop in Insa-Dong, a location that couldn’t be more quintessential tea shop if you tried. Walking up creaking old stairs to a dark cozy room, we took a seat at a table that nestled you in a way that made you feel as if you’re never leaving or you’ll want a nap, whichever comes first. Over cups of citron and cinnamon tea, we had a few more snacks as we listened to the shop’s birds sing in the window.

Our afternoon tea excursion had to be one of the sweetest, most relaxing afternoons I’ve spent in recent memory. It made me realize how wonderful it is to slow down, visit with friends, eat more snacks, laugh, smile, and really enjoy ones surroundings. And it helped me to brush up on Korean phrases. Practice makes perfect!

Speaking of practicing languages, later in the day we were approached by students working on an assignment. The task? Find a Westerner, interview them and complete a form in English. Being a short and brown man you’d be surprised how easy I can blend and adapt in surroundings. Try that when you’re a tall redhead with tattoos and you can see how you might stick out. Score one for the students!

I will also share this in case you are in need of a good reason to get your heart to melt: take elementary school students, put them on a field trip, stick Adam in the vicinity and see what happens. They flock to him, practicing English words and phrases like “Hello!” and “How are you?” along with tons of waves from across the street. The Big Red Head stops to practice phrases with them, smiling the entire time. Talk about Cuteness Overload.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

crotchetymama August 10, 2011 at 8:50 am

Aww! That last picture is adorable. :)

In the second set of four pics, what are the roundish orange things? Fruit of some kind? They’re beautiful.

Katherine Sacks August 10, 2011 at 9:34 am

I’m so jealous, I wish I was there with you! Looks like you are having an incredible trip!

Joanie August 10, 2011 at 9:36 am

Those photos are overwhelmingly beautiful! I am obsessed with tea right now- it’s such a natural progression for anyone wanting to learn more about their own palate. So delicate, while creating such a strong sensory memory. What a fun afternoon!

Alana D August 10, 2011 at 10:10 am

You go on some of the most awesom trips ever.Please have a giveaway soon where you’ll be giving away a trip to somewhere awesome w/urself!

Melissa Schenker August 10, 2011 at 10:12 am

Wow, I felt like I was there with you! You so eloquently captured the moment with your words and photographs. Thanks for spreading the Western goodwill!

Lisa @ Tarte du Jour August 10, 2011 at 10:43 am

What an awesome experience! Enjoy every moment. I can see why your precious Adam is a magnet to the students!

la domestique August 10, 2011 at 11:11 am

Wow- it all sounds wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing. Totally inspired by Korea now.

Murissa Maurice August 10, 2011 at 11:13 am

These tea shops are so charming! I love when they have a lot of character and visual overloads. I went to one in San Francisco and it was a great experience. I will never turn down the opportunity to check out a tea shop.
I haven’t seen tea this dark before though, looks very interesting and I am sure thick with flavours.

The Wanderfull Traveler

Averie @ Love Veggies and Yoga August 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Thanks for sharing this wonderful post, Matt! Looks like you two had an amazing time. And the tea looks pretty amazing, too!

Hillary August 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I’m so jealous! It looks like you had fun. I miss you guys!

veggie mama August 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Bento boxes, tea and laughter – my kinda day!

Andrew August 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Wow, great travelogue…I spent ages working in Korea and absolutely loved it, even in the less touristy areas. Your story reminded me of how friendly the Korean people are, how exciting Seoul can be…and how much I loved their food!!!

Damn, I wanna go back to Korea now. I will have to settle for finding myself a Bibimbap for lunch today.

Nic@diningwithastud August 10, 2011 at 4:55 pm

What a great trip!! The second last pics is awesome! Haha :)

Maria Sanchez August 10, 2011 at 5:42 pm

The cookies look amazing! I love sweets!

Kiran @ KiranTarun.com August 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm

I love that last photo – too cute :)

I have an aunt who is of Chinese origin, but have learned a lot about their humble eating and tea rituals. Very organic and traditional :)

hyekyung August 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Awesome article! I love tea. Seoul has some great options for tea drinking. I’m linking your article to one of my pages! Thanks!

G August 10, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Awesome post! Those are great little hideouts in Seoul. Your pics really capture the mood beautifully.

Otilia August 11, 2011 at 1:31 am

Hello Matt
your website, your food and pictures look wonderful! You are such a great writer as well! What an inspiration!

Catering kraków August 11, 2011 at 5:15 am

An amazing blog written by an amazing man. His style of writing draws one into the story she is re-creating. A wonderful creative talent. And the food and photographs are a delicious bonus :) Well done Matt.

Mikel August 11, 2011 at 5:47 am

God, I miss Korea. I used to drink Omija-cha like water when living there! I always had a big batch of cold omijacha in the fridge….

It´s good to know Koreans kids haven´t changed that much since I lived there… It was so common to have little kids coming up to us and wave and practice their English words with us. :)

And, of course, your photographs are perfect as always! :)

Besos,
Mikel

cindy August 11, 2011 at 6:16 am

my next trip to Seoul (I haven’t been since I was 10!), has tea houses on the must do list. When I was there last, all of the kids in my grandmothers neighborhood flocked around my brother and I, practicing their English and taking the obligatory “peace sign” photos. Loving this post!

Linette August 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm

wooow, like your things about Tea in Seoul | MattBites.com

Helen August 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I’m glad you’re enjoying Korea :)
Yujacha (유자차) is also one of my favorite teas!
It’s also the best tea to drink when you have a sore throat.

John Conrad August 12, 2011 at 12:17 am

Wow! This must have been a GREAT culinary experience! I love the photo journal! It really tells the story as it is. Hopefully I will also have the chance to go experience Korean cuisine! Looks DELICIOUS!

Rocky Mountain Woman August 12, 2011 at 7:51 am

One of my neighbors is in Korea for a year on a sabbatical from his teaching job at the University of Utah. I’m going to send him this so he can go find some lovely tea!

Fried cookies, what a concept!

Irene Lam August 12, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Wow, amazing photos, amazing stories!!

Marla August 13, 2011 at 5:41 am

I love you guys in plaid. I have a thing for mountain men…they wear plaid. Well I have a thing for cowboys too. They wear plaid, big buckles and cowboy boots.
Love that you shared these relaxing tea shop moments with us. I need to spend a day like this. Fun how you were able to enjoy the Korean culture & of course they fell in LOVE with you and Adam :)

kyleen August 13, 2011 at 9:44 pm

I wish I was on vacation now… All the photos are gorgeous and Korea looks like such an interesting place.

Chuck Mall August 14, 2011 at 7:31 am

What a great trip! You are doing all the right things tasting the plethora of good teas. Great pix of course–but I don’t need to tell you that!

Chelsey @ Chew with Your Mouth Open August 14, 2011 at 11:54 am

Wow! Fantastic photos. I would love to do some tea tasting there. Yum!

Tetrix August 16, 2011 at 5:57 am

To me – Korea was like another planet. Memories came flooding back when I was reading your wonderful blog. The social atmosphere, the sights,smells, sounds, and ofcourse – The food! WOW! The korean attention to detail is unsurpassed. What a wonderful experience! Hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I did!

Melanie@MyUnionJack August 16, 2011 at 6:07 am

What a great post! As an American expat now permanently based in London, I’ve definitely had to get my tea knowledge up to speed as it’s nearly an art form here. (If you’ve ever gone to afternoon tea at one of London’s famed tea houses, you better know what you’re doing! ;-)

This, however, looks like a very cool and laid back sensory experience! Loved your descriptions and the pics! Have a great rest of your trip.

christine [the sugar apothecary] August 16, 2011 at 6:22 am

Haha! Your “small brown man vs. tattooed redhead” observation made me giggle. This trip looks amazing. I love that you were feeling adventurous with so many teas available — I’d have been disappointed if you were only up for a cup or two! Those fried honey cookies sound AWESOME. I’m starving right now, and you’re not helping. Enjoy the rest of the trip!

Mrs D August 21, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Ahhh, I love this post! Sublime and not just because I truly love tea. You evoke equally: feeling like I am actually there and jeal that I’m not.

Thank you for sharing short and brown! xx

Frank Wilkerson September 2, 2011 at 4:03 am

Ahh, I miss Seoul- having been stationed in the ROK twice, I spent a lot of my time farther north at Camps Casey and Red Cloud- but the occasional trip to Seoul was the refresher I needed- the food, sights, sounds and people- Heaven on earth- and the occasional tucked-in-a-corner teahouse really made the trips so much more memorable.
I’m truly jealous!!!!

Theresa June 19, 2012 at 5:47 am

Sounds like you had a wonderful time over there in Seoul. Those pics looks like you had a lot of memories. The tea shopping sure seems a success. I wish I could go those places too! I am so happy for you two.

Richard Woods April 11, 2013 at 4:01 am

These are absolutely amazing photos and I’m really jealous you have had the chance to taste real tea is Seoul! Beautiful.

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