The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy reposeGeorge Gissing
Although I have four cups of coffee a day and adore cafe culture in Seoul (a post for another day), I also have a lot of time for tea. In Seoul, I like trying, and buying, different teas in Insadong. It’s an interesting part of Seoul because apart from the many teahouses, there are also cafes, bars and restaurants. And shops. A terrific area to take a peek at some art, it’s well worth perusing the items on display in shops lining the main drag and in the side streets. These include pottery, traditional clothing, small art galleries and other crafts. Another aspect of Insadong is it’s accessibility to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Bukchon Hanok Village and Jogyesa temple. These are all walking distance from Insadong, and you could spend a few hours exploring each of these places, if you incorporated a teahouse, lunch and or a cafe in your sightseeing.
Whilst walking around Insadong, I’ve also sampled one of the many styles of bubble tea on offer. I found it cold, super sweet and the pearls chewy and interesting. We have also tried many styles of hot tea in the main street where samples are on offer.
Last month, my party of eight, including husband, our adult children, some of their partners and my nephew, took the subway to Insadong. Most of the group noshed on dumplings (Mandu) in a tiny restaurant then, thirsty, went across the main street for local beers and bar snacks in a cosy upstairs bar.
Meanwhile, my son’s partner and I decided to try temple food at the famous classic and exquisite tea-house, Sanchon.
Upon entry, we were offered floor seating and we readily agreed. the tables and cushions were set out amongst dark wood and in muted light and as I sank to the floor I was thrilled to find it was warm. “It’s almost a spa” I thought. The ondol floor heating would cure some body niggles that had become apparent in the cold outside and this style of seating was sure to do wonders for my posture.
We were served three different kinds of tea, including hot chrysanthemum tea, then a cold sweet tea, the colour of plum, which we poured from a porcelain, thin necked jar, and finally, a hot sweet cinnamon tea. I loved them all.
The temple food accompanying the tea, both in taste and presentation, was delicious and perfect.
Each new dish brought gasps of wonder. But that wasn’t the only reason for my gasps. As the lunch wore on my legs were quietly seizing under me. I had started, enthusiastically, and naively, sitting cross legged. I noted, frowning, that my knees were more than slightly higher than the table which was a little disappointing considering my years of yoga. Within 90 seconds, perhaps less, I had moved from that position and then had to position change every two minutes or so. Each change brought a fresh gasp of pain and sometimes I found I couldn’t move my legs at all without heaving my whole body up and leaning heavily on the table to do so. I also knocked my knees on the underside of the table often. I did this so hard once, that the food jolted alarming and our steaming tea sploshed in it’s tiny teacups and over the sides, little drops of tea marking an otherwise exemplary table setting. Several times I kicked my lunch partner. Eventually, I sat with my legs stretched straight out ahead of me under the table and my hands on the floor behind me to support my aching back. In short, I was all but lying down. How comfortable my lunch partner opposite me must be, I thought, sighing. She’s young and therefore flexible. Then I realised she too, had put her legs out straight under the table.
Tip: If I may, whilst the traditional style of sitting on the warm floor atop cushions looks undeniably romantic and serene, if you have any doubts about your ability to do so untroubled, I suggest the adjacent table and chair setup. It’s a big restaurant with plenty of seating choices. Make yours wisely, the set lunch menu is long.
After my party had enjoyed the hearty fare at Insadong and toured an art gallery or two, we managed to walk to Bukchon Hanok Village.
We indulged in some Hotteok (a hot sweet pancake) on the way and then more tea within the village, again seated on a floor, again invoking pain, only this time my husband hauled me to my feet when we left. I hobbled out and we finished the day by heading to Itaewon by subway for dinner. And this was after hiking to the peak of Ansan in the morning!
Another tip, when visiting teahouses, it is best to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Hiking boots are possibly the most difficult foot attire to remove and put back on with with any semblance of speed. Or elegance.
Without a doubt, the taste of the tea is improved when it’s prepared as it should be. I prepare green tea at home most evenings. I’m no expert but it’s a simple daily luxury to make tea using purpose specific crockery and I certainly enjoy the results.
Nonetheless, I’ve learnt imbibing tea requires patience, knowledge, and dexterity…
And that’s the tea!