“Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”
I reluctantly tore my eyes from my problem set and glanced over at my boyfriend. He was looming in the doorway of our dormitory over a cardboard shipping box that came up to his knees. “My mom sent it to me today.”
I pushed my chair back and swiveled toward him. This promised to be more interesting than debugging my seg-faulting CS50 homework. My boyfriend’s mother, whom I had met but once earlier that year in 2008 while she tore about in a whirlwind of plastic furniture and yellowed school papers helping pack up her son’s room at the end of the last semester, tended to spare no effort when it came to her care packages. She had once sent us an entire box of Korea’s famed red ginseng (홍삼/紅蔘): red ginseng jellies, ginseng hard lozenges, ginseng tea, honeyed ginseng root, red ginseng pills and powders for digestion. And some green tea. Our room had smelled like a corner pharmacy in Flushing for weeks afterward.
“Cookies. Rice cakes. Mmm, laver. Oh! Instant rice. You should try it with the laver; it’s very nice.“ He had already torn open the box and begun stacking its contents around him. “Here, open this tea.” He tossed me an expensive-looking paper box decorated with hangeul script over a delicate patterned background. I opened it to see a plastic bag of what looked like shriveled juniper berries inside.
I had been to China a few times, arguing pennies over paper bags of chrysanthemum buds and jasmine leaves from alleyway huts in Shanghai. “This isn’t tea.” My voice glowed with the authority of Real Experience. “It’s just a box of dried-up… what is it?”
Hongsuk stared at me, the freckled Midwestern suburbanite whose first sixteen years of travel experience had been limited to cheese factories in Wisconsin and Mennonite colonies in southern Indiana. I averted my eyes into the ten-pound pile of dried laver, yakgwa, and rice cookies at his feet. It was possible that he might know more about Korean food than I.
“It’s… mmm…” he thought for a moment and glanced at the label. “Oh yeah, it’s gugijacha. Like… berries.”
“Berries? You people,” I said in mock contempt, “turn everything into tea.”
“Yep,” he said happily, diving back into the goodies.
“Turning everything into tea” is hardly a characteristic special to Korean culture—South African Rooibos tea, Alaskan spruce-tip tea, Spanish garlic tea, and more all stand as testament to human ingenuity and versatility the world over—but it is hard not to get overwhelmed by the sheer variety of the teas traditionally made by Koreans. Just to give a taste (har har), here’s a brief list of some of the different delicious edibles one might find peeking out from traditional Korean tea:
- Mulberry leaf tea (뽕잎차): I drank this nearly every day for a whole summer while preparing graduate school applications and found it to be a quite worthy substitute for coffee as, when brewed strong, it has a dark, woodsy taste with an almost chocolate finish.
- Brown rice tea (현미차)
- Barley tea (보리차): Incidentally served at nearly every Korean restaurant I’ve visited in China. Strangely not as ubiquitous in Seoul.
- Corn tea (옥수수차): The corn used in this tea is roasted first, which would explain why it tastes more like barley tea than the starchy on-the-cob stuff to which many might be habituated.
- Solomon’s seal tea (둥굴레차): Dried root of Solomon’s seal, a flowering plant found across Asia. Tastes slightly less exotic than it sounds—or at least it does when brewed from the free teabags in my lab. I liken it to a somewhat more pungent brown rice tea.
- Buckwheat tea (메밀차)
- Pine needle tea (솔잎차): YES. Except… just don’t try making it from your neighbor’s discarded Christmas tree. Not speaking from experience. I swear.
- Chrysanthemum tea (국화차): Also popular in China, where it is sometimes served with rock sugar.
- Persimmon leaf tea (감잎차): I once ordered this at a teahouse in Insadong somehow expecting that because it was made with persimmon leaves it would be sweet. It was, of course, not. The person with me had somewhat more intelligently ordered a steaming cup of fragrant red date tea. Do not make my mistake.
- Goji berry tea (구기자차/枸杞子茶): Boiled goji berries, sometimes with honey or sugar.
- Job’s tears tea (율무차): More like a thick porridge than a tea; made with the grounds of the grain Job’s tears mixed with milk, honey, and sometimes other ingredients like walnuts, almonds, and pine nuts.
- Ginger tea (생각차/生薑茶): Ginger root boiled with brown sugar or honey.
- Citron tea (유자차/柚子茶): Citron peels boiled with honey. Don’t try to apply this principle to grapefruits. Citrons are not grapefruits. Citrons boiled with honey turn into delicious citron tea. Grapefruits boiled with honey turn into citrusy vomit.
- Plum tea (매실차/梅實茶): Fermented plums and lots of sugar. Not to be confused with plum wine.
- Chinese bitter orange tea (탱자차/橙子茶): Fermented trifoliate orange with sugar.
- Quince tea (모과차/木瓜茶): Fermented quinces and sugar.
- Omija tea (오미자차/五味子茶): Fermented omija (“five taste berries”) and lots of sugar. One of the most delicious tastes (or five) that will ever grace your tongue. Waiting endless months for this stuff to ferment is unadulterated anguish, but store-bought omija tea is no comparison to the homemade deal.
- Sungnyung (숭늉): After-dinner drink made by pouring boiling water over nurungji (누룽지), the crisp rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot after a meal.
- Sujeonggwa (수정과): Cinnamon, ginger, persimmons, and pine nuts served cold with sugar or honey.
For a more complete and pretty awesome list of Korean teas, see .
The above enumeration is staggering, but it doesn’t even mention the so-called medicinal teas brewed to putatively treat various ailments rather than just tickle the tastebuds. This list exhibits some overlap with the above but also includes:
- Danggui tea (당귀차/當歸茶): A ubiquitous herbal brew made from the dried root of Angelica sinensis. Contains a number of phytochemicals that have supposedly inhibited the growth and proliferation of various cancer cells in culture. I don’t know about its anti-cancer properties, but at least one of its components (decursinol) has consistently demonstrated a marked sedative effect in mice .
- Ginseng tea (인삼차/人蔘茶): Another ubiquitous herbal tea that supposedly treats a wide range of ailments from to insulin intolerance and impotence and, of course, (reportedly) slows aging and reduces cancer risk. Support for such claims by high-quality clinical trials is inconsistent  but perhaps bear further research. Can be purchased in pouches as a bitter extract or made oneself by boiling ginseng with honey or sugar. Yum.
- Mugwort tea (쑥꽃차): Limited evidence that it may stall growth and proliferation of cancer cells, at least in vitro. Has some cool effects on hippocampal slice culture electrophysiology in chronically treated rats. Tastes bitter. But as the Chinese say, 苦药利病: Bitter medicine is good for (treating) sickness. Or just making you feel less bad about the six cups of sujeonggwa you just drank.
…and more. Far, far more.
If it’s a particularly lucky day, a visitor to Korea might also get a taste of some very special tea handed out by local church ajumma attempting to entice new visitors into their services, as they tend to do at odd hours outside my apartment complex. Brewed with cinnamon, ginger, red dates, and a lot of guilt, this uniquely Korean tea, like many of the others mentioned here, is difficult to find anywhere but here.
Unless, of course, you ask a nice Korean mother to send you a care package.
Non-Linked References Swanberg, K., JY Kang, S Lee, SH Maeng. (2015). Attenuated locomotion without abnormal anxiety-like behavior, novelty preference, or memory performance following acute decursinol administration in adult male C57Bl/6 mice. 10.13140/RG.2.1.1950.8329
Image source: https://greenfactorylab.com/article/stories/8/8/
This article was originally written for The Silk Road Project, now I Dig Culture, an international media channel that explores human cultural diversity and exchange.