Teahouses of Seoul Maine woman finds exotic tastes in the oddest places

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There is a kind of tea in Korea that contains five flavors in a single sip – salty, sweet, sour, pungent and bitter. I first tasted it at a tiny teahouse in Seoul. Tucked away in a secret dead-end alley in Insadong (a neighborhood brimming with traditional culture), Old Tea House can be hard to find, even with the small map in the back of my Lonely Planet guide.

So, Old Tea House is a place reserved for auspicious days, when my luck brings me down the right side street and deposits me in front of the aged beige building half-hidden by overgrown bamboo.

My boyfriend and I decided we needed a change from our life in the U.S., so we chose to move abroad. Korea happened to have a teaching-English-as-a foreign-language course at the time we were looking to move, so we came to Seoul.

After the course ended, I taught for a couple of months before getting a job at a textbook-publishing company, and I’ve been working there ever since.

The teahouse is on the second floor, up an old stairway and through a door that jingles a soft bell as it opens. For such a small room, there are more seats than I expected – private alcoves with low tables and barely enough space to squeeze around them, a cluster of tables in the center of the room, far in the back a pile of pillows on the raised floor near the curtained window. The ceiling is low, low enough to make me hunch down a little as I shuffle toward an open chair.

My eyes adjust to the dimness. Songbirds with orange beaks are uncaged in the room, chirping quietly. Sometimes the sound of their wings interrupts the thin melodies of the background soundtrack. The teahouse smells like honey and heat. On the menu, I point to the five-flavored tea, omijacha.

Omija is the medicinal fruit of the Chinese magnolia vine, and it is from these small red berries that the tea derives its healing properties – the ability to soothe coughing and asthma.

The server brings a small white bowl three-quarters of the way full with a pale tea. Three teardrop pine nuts unmoving on the surface. The color is like pink glass. It reminds me of the papery flowers that used to grow in my family’s garden in Maine. Azaleas, I think. I’ve heard that sometimes azaleas are used to make omijacha.

In my hands, the bowl is smooth and cold. What is the taste of azaleas? I concentrate before taking the first sip and wonder if I’ll know the bitterness from the sourness or sweetness. At my lips and my throat, dissolving. Pepper, citrus, mineral water.

Perfume coming undone. Slowly, each sip goes down until there’s nothing left of the first time I tasted that tea.

Since then, I’ve learned the names of other teahouses. Moon Bird Thinks Only of the Moon, When Crane Builds a Nest, Swallow Coming Back with Gourd Seeds.

I think they sometimes remember me at the ones I go to most. In autumn, the tiny leaves of Japanese maples follow me in and fall on the floor.

In those faint or rare or fabulous recesses, I’ve held teas from pine buds, aloe, persimmons. Or any other thing I’ve never tasted. Now, I have their colors memorized, and I know the weight of one cup.

Cary grew up in Winterport, Maine, and went to Hampden Academy. She attended college at the University of Vermont. Her father, John Groleau, is originally from Livermore Falls.

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