tea stories: Ilam tea


This image appeared on the box of Ilam tea that my friend brought me from Nepal. ཨོཾ is a common way of writing “om” as in “om mani padme hum” in Tibetan characters.

Left with the question of how I might bring the experience of Asian tea home to Lethbridge, I did what any Euro-Canadian in love with Asia would do: I fell in with a Bhutanese-Nepalese gyan yoga (“yoga of knowledge”) group and enjoyed satsang with music, day trips, Nepalese food, and most importantly, tea, every Sunday for the better part of two years.

After these two years of harmonium, tablas, yoga, sabji (curry), visiting mahatmas, spontaneous road trips, singing, dancing and mantras, at last I told the group that taking the next step of initiation into the group was further than I intended to go. The truth is: I loved the tea culture.

You’ve probably had chai at your local coffee shop. You may have even wondered why the Hindi word, चाय, or“chai” is so similar to the Mandarin word, 茶 or “cha”. These words mean nothing more than “tea”. The reason you think of Indian tea as containing milk, cloves, cardamom, fruits, milk, and other spices is that every region has a different method of preparation, and the regions of India, Nepal and Tibet have historically chosen to garnish their tea with several additives.

As Kakuzo Okakura writes in his “Book of Tea”:

“By the fourth and fifth centuries Tea became a favorite beverage among the inhabitants of the Yangtse-Kiang valley. It was about this time that modern ideograph Cha was coined, evidently a corruption of the classic Tou. The poets of the southern dynasties have left some fragments of their fervent adoration of the “froth of the liquid jade.”

Then emperors used to bestow some rare preparation of the leaves on their high ministers as a reward for eminent services. Yet the method of drinking tea at this stage was primitive in the extreme. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions! The custom obtains at the present day among the Tibetans and various Mongolian tribes, who make a curious syrup of these ingredients.”

Imagine my surprise when one of my Nepalese friends boiled a special tea, tea from the famous Ilam tea fields of Nepal, with a ton of sugar!

Here’s the story. My friend went to Mt. Everest to climb to base camp 1. He sent me a message over facebook to ask if there was anything I wanted him to bring back. I had no idea, so I asked my Nepalese friend, Robin, what I should request.

His answer was immediate and direct: Bring tea from Ilam. It’s the best.

tea nepal.jpg

I answered my friend in Nepal, “my good friend tells me Ilam tea is the best tea. How about a box of that?” Two weeks later, I receive the tea and I thank my friend profusely. The presentation is beautiful. The box comes with a greeting card adorned with a dried leaf and the Nepalese character for the syllable of “om”. I brought the tea to Robin’s workplace and we did it up.

Robin looks at the tea, and tells me he’ll take care of it. He raves about the stuff, telling me that he hasn’t had it for nine years. He throws the leaves into an electric kettle and boils them with several spoonfuls of sugar. I’m puzzled.

I drink the tea, but I can’t taste any of the flavour. He’s very happy with the result, but I’m left wondering how much of the tea you can taste through the spoonfuls of sugar. We look at the leaves. It seems they’re a blend of green and black, thrown together willy-nilly. The hectic nature of the blend and the pour are immaterial. The fact that I’m hanging out with Robin and another friend of ours makes the tea ceremony well worth the tea spread.

Of course I rush home after and make a few pots without any additives. Honestly, the tea has its own characteristic that makes it special, like any tea. The taste of the tea isn’t too terribly different from a commercial-grade pekoe. Something’s missing from these pots, some ingredient that the tea with Robin was abundant with. The ingredient wasn’t sugar.

Tea actually tastes better with friendship. Hm. I might have discovered something today.

tea stories: waygookin tea


Sometime after the tah-do tea ceremony, and tea fields, and the tea master who was now studying the practice of Taoism in and around the hermitage areas of Jeonju and beyond, Summer began to fizzle and with it erupted the new school year. Halloween was upon us and our local mentor teachers were far busier planning lessons than their native-English-speaking counterparts. For the most part, we spent our days creating presentations, researching language and culture, and investing most of our time learning how to connect with students. Our Mission: to become fun foreign teachers.


So while the local teachers did things like drawing up assessments, responding to parent concerns, designing performance tasks and the like, we made Halloween costumes and terrorized the locals by pretending to be zombies and asking for brains in Korean (두뇌, or “dun-way”). There had to be a better way to immerse our waygookin (Korean for “foreigner”) group in Korean culture.

Enter: Tea.

If there’s anything you can count on finding in a typical Korean school, it’s a cupboard overflowing with tea and coffee. Korean Teachers would go out for hot beverages quite frequently, and invite along foreign English teachers for conversation clubs, incorporating lively chit-chat, conversations about books, and usually a dessert of cake, tarts or pat-bin-soo (frozen red bean).

After Halloween, I invited some friends over to join in the wonderful tea culture I had discovered. It seemed like a fleeting pastime, until the connections I made turned out to be a group of artists, philosophers, writers and travelers. The crowd were not your typical bar-going tourists. These were foreign teachers who had already seen much of the world, written about their experiences, and loved starting new projects.

We wrote, traveled, enjoyed festivals, took photographs, and had several cups of tea together. The group was ever-expanding, with our core of three-to-five regular tea-drinkers inviting more and more foreign English teachers to my little apartment in Sekyoung Tower.

Sitting in my Canadian prairie home, looking out at the freshly-fallen snow, I recollect those tea parties fondly, and wonder if there’s a home for such a vibrant tea-culture here…

tea stories: Goh Tae-Yun

Professor Goh Tae-yun is the husband of Hong Sun-yi, a teacher at the school where I worked. Sun-yi was astonished to hear my stories about tea. She had no idea a foreigner would be into tea.

So she arranged for me to meet her husband, whose job it was to profile Buddhism and Taoism for his research in religious studies. He used his position to travel throughout Asia studying his secret fetish: Tea.

The evening stunk of haste, for I had planned to get together with non-Koreans after work and had not expected this invitation. Nonetheless, my meetings with Korean teachers always took the front seat to any involvement I had with the foreign community, and most people knew this. I was the Waygook-Hanguk Saram.

Professor Goh picked me up from the elementary school where I worked and stopped off quickly to his University for a package. “So you like the Fwer tea?” he mused.

“Uh, fwer?”
“Nae, Boicha, Boicha!1
“Ah~ Boicha! Nae, boicha joayo!”

So he learned that I had discovered pu-erh in Insadong, and enjoyed the tah-do tea ceremony in Gunsan. He was happy to be among such company, an english speaker who also had a taste for tea.

At his home, he practiced tah-do. He even donned traditional Korean clothing for the occasion. It was a shaky tah-do, though, meant more for function than form. Soon I’d had several full cups of tea, pu-erh varieties and more. He even served a special Black from China and presented me with a red pouch of it, which I humbly accepted. I was not worthy of such a jewel, one that he’d gleaned from his extensive travels through the world’s largest landmass. He had a story about gifting tea.

“You know, US President Nixon.”

“He went to China to meet with the Chairman Mao Se-Tung. now you know there is a tree for tea at a certain elevation, the only one capable of making this kind of tea. Only one thousand grams can be yielded in a year, and it is China’s most precious tea.

“The Chairman Mao arranged for five hundred grams to be gifted to the President Nixon. Upon the presentation of this special gift, Nixon raised a hand to balk at the offer. ‘I am the President of the United States,’ he proudly announced, ‘and you offer me this gift, a little bag of tea?’

“The Chairman calmly replied, ‘You should not be so indignant. I have offered you half of China.'”

Professor Goh’s eyes and mouth curled skyward together, a silent laugh and smile expressed gracefully in a glance.

My coat pocket was buzzing with calls from foreigners wondering where I was. The rushed invitation to this tea gathering prohibited me from letting my foreign friends know about my whereabouts. Later, I would choose to spend time with foreign friends to battle loneliness, rather than learning the Korean language and studying the peoples’ customs. I would pick and choose, weekend by weekend, rather than prioritizing the one I preferred. Either group would accept me, and I wanted to please everybody. Truly, there was a choice to be made, of which culture I would embrace, and I made the decision to choose neither by trying haplessly to accommodate both.

I slyly turned my cell phone in pocket off.

“You need to get that?”
“No, Professor Goh, it’s okay.”

We talked late into the night. I excused myself once to relieve myself of some tea and quickly message the foreigners, “Be there soon!” even though there was nowhere else I wanted to be but in this livingroom.

Wisely, Professor Goh ended the evening by telling me about the Buddhist concept of “In-hyun.”

“It means, it is fated that you will meet the right people at the right time, whether just for a few hours, or for your whole life. But no moment is more special than another, and if you never see someone again, it does not mean they were unimportant.”

He gifted me a white porcelain tea set, which I treasure to this day. I have gotten much use out of it, brewed many pots of Pu-erh. But I never saw the Professor again.

Later, Sun-yi would arrange for me to stay at a Buddhist temple, Geumsan-Sa, where Goh Tae-yun was writing his book about Taoism. As soon as I got there, he was gone. The day I left the temple, Sun-yi brought me and her daughter out to the countryside of Jeonju, Jeollanamdo to visit a tea shop that grew its own green tea in a field below its gorgeous structure, the description of which is a novel, not a humble article. Perhaps that’s for another Tea Story.

The sun beat down in the tea field as we strolled about, smelling the fresh August post-pluvial aroma, as if the whole field were a pot of tea we’d been steeped in. Professor Goh did not join us for tea. He didn’t need to. He is still in my mind years later as I sip green tea from a glass jar, an ocean, a culture, a language, two seasons and a nationality away, yet still: In-hyun!

1“Boicha” is Puh-erh tea. The consonant “프” is always “puh” but it transliterates “fuh”. In order to correct the transliteration error, Professor Goh pronounced “pu-erh” as “fwer” although he didn’t need to.

tea stories: Insadong and the tea underground

In Seoul you can find just about anything that Korea has to offer within a limited radius. The good stuff can only be found in the rural areas. The exception, of course, is tea. You can find the highest quality teas from Korea and all around Asia on one little street called Insadong.

Insadong is a tourist-friendly shopping street in Seoul close to Korea’s premiere historical palace, Gyeong-buk Gung. There you can eat traditional Korean food such as hae-mool pah-john seafood pancake with makgeoli rice wine, samgyeopsal grilled pork with soju alcohol shots, grilled eel with bokbunja black raspberry wine, bulgogi fried meat or bibimbop, bokeumbop and booribop- all different rice dishes served with kimchi and kongnamul beansprouts.

The food, however, isn’t the main attraction. You can experience these delights and more outside of Seoul, in the country regions, where traditional food is more conservatively- and cheaply- offered.

Also you can see the masks of Ha-wae Talchum here, from the traditional mask-dance of Korea, in particular the maks of Yang-ban, the aristocrat. You can visit Korean calligraphy shops, or find trinkets from Korean religious influences ranging from Taoism and Shamanism to Buddhism and Christianity. Korean musical instruments can be found here too, and there are several chances to view past, modern and innovative art and design.

But the real reason to go to Insadong is the tea.

The most prominent tea house is the O’Sulloc Tea Shop where demonstrations of their light roasting methods are held daily, and visitors are warmly welcomed to come in and sample their blends and infusions, or just catch a whiff of the aromatic tins stacked neatly in every corner of the room.

Sure, when I take someone else there, I take them to O’Sulloc. They love the fragrant fruit teas and exotic blends. There isn’t much, after all, you can do with green tea, except sell the costly ujeong jaksul, “sparrow’s tongue,” a tea picked as soon as it’s ready in the spring, by far the subtlest and finest flavour of nok-cha (from hangul: nok: “green” and cha: “tea”).

No, my discovery in Insadong was the Chinese “pu-erh” tea, the first tea that opened my tastebuds to a nice, small cup of tea with no sugar or cream.

I had previously preferred flavoured teas. I liked Seattle’s Market Spice, and bought big bags of it whenever I had the chance. I enjoyed the bergamot-flavoured Earl Grey, but shied away from Orange Pekoe and English Breakfast blends. To me those were too ordinary, too Tetley, too English. I could never get into green tea. It’s the diva of teas: if your water is too hot, your steeping period too long or your ratio too heavy, you end up with a bitter cup.

But pu-erh tea is a gem. Its long steeping period and 5-6 re-uses makes it a good tea to brew strongly without inviting much bitterness. Let me tell you about my first experience with this precious cup.

Like a tourist, I was bumbling around the street, looking for nothing in particular. I plunged my face into a dusty window to check out some old tea-pots I’d seen inside. Tea-ambivalent as I was, I traipsed into the dusty old shop only to see a gaunt man with dark chin-whiskers pouring himself a cup of tea from the world’s smallest teapot. He had a bright look in his eyes, as though he were either very enthusiastic about life, or he’d had too much tea.

Probably the latter.

He invited me to have a seat and he proudly danced about, telling me everything I needed to know about the preparation, consumption and presentation of pu-erh. His shaky hands dropped the golden liquid into a tiny cup and zoomed right into my bubble, lifted his eyes, grinned and chirped, “whattiya think?”

I didn’t know what to say. It didn’t taste like much. It reminded me of carrots when I first tasted it. It tasted nothing like carrots, that was just the immediate association I made. I sputtered out the obvious. “wow, it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted!”

He jumped to his counter, “Of course it isn’t. I think you should try. Hmmm, wellll. I don’t know.”

He was hunched over a small rectangular block of deep, dark tea that looked like black plastic. It had been moulded tightly and imprinted with a scene of a man with an oxcart atop an agrarian pastoral scene.

“Okay,” he gave, “you’ll try this, and I’ll have some too in the special small pot.” He unearthed a tiny pot and crumbled a bit of the black block into it. After pouring the brew, he divided the tea three times, a little into each cup, when a gentleman dressed in traditional garb calmly strode into the room and sat across from me at the table. Formalities were exchanged, and this new guest was invited to try the pu-erh, which I learned was a hundred years old.

The tea changed the consistency of the water. That was strange. The water became lighter. And somehow… wetter. Yes, this tea was wetter than water. The whole experience confused me.

I bought a round  of the first pu-erh he gave me. It was a generous amount, probably good for a hundred pots, and it only ran me 50,000 won. I inquired about the century-old brew.

“Well, maybe, I can give it to you for 200,000 won.” A small black tablet for two hundred bucks? Yes, it was a great experience, but two hundred?

“Tell you what,” I cajoled,” “how about I grab a pot’s worth as a sample, and I’ll return.”

This required some humming and hawing. The notion was ridiculous. I didn’t have the special pot. I could not have replicated the experience. But I’d become so used to bargaining for things in Korean street markets that I felt compelled to make an offer.

I returned to the mad hatter’s shop a few times, but it was never the same as the first time. I began trading tea with other teachers. I found out that there was a Tea Underground in Korean schools. There were Korean teachers who used their summers, or knew others who did, to travel and pick up tea from all parts of the world. This led to many sittings for tea, and I began to get a taste for what “tea” actually is.

Tea is an event loosely based on the “tah-do” tea ceremony, but incorporating a certain frame of mind, a style of conversation, and a manner of etiquette. Topics discussed during tea include travel, art, philosophy, current events and things of interest to the thought-stimulated, caffeinated mind. Just like people talk about sports over beer, or discuss their personal problems over hard alcohol, tea is a beverage that pairs well with quick minds and lofty topics.

I wanted very badly to bring this ritual to my foreign friends. But first, I had to see what a real tea ceremony was like.

tea stories: tah-do

The EPIK program is responsible for ensuring foreign English teachers in Korea have a smooth sail, and in turn, that the local schools get all they want out of the foreign teachers. To this end, EPIK coordinators often arrange outings for guest teachers. Thus we attended a traditional tea ceremony, tah-do.

Tah-do is a Chinese word for tea ceremony, but in Korea it’s practiced with a style unique to the peninsula. Hanboks were worn by two young women during the demonstration. A tea mother presided over the event.

Helpers came to each table and instructed us on how to perform the ceremony: the various turns of the pot, the hand with which to hold the cloth napkin, the number of times to pour considering the number of guests, and the order of guests to be served based on seniority. The level of complexity associated with the ritual filled me with giddy energy. Or perhaps it was the caffeine.

After tea we had soft, sweet rice cakes as helpers approached foreign teachers at the tables to volunteer for a demonstration with the tea mother. Every foreign teacher declined until a helper came to our table.

The helper approached the teacher next to me.
“Ma’am, you’d like to make tea with tea mother?”
“Oh dear Lord, I could tell you were going to ask me. No.”

Just before the helper, looking quite dejected at the moment, sauntered off to find another table, I called out, “Wait, wait, uh… 잠깐만! (Hold on!)”

The helper turned slowly. “네? (yes?)”

“Uh, I..다도 좋아합니다 (I like tah-do)
His eyes narrowed. “네?” (yes?)
“May I?”
He smiled. “Yes, of course!”

I approached the stage where tea mother sat calmly. She didn’t look at me. She smiled and waited for her helper to translate.

“아니요,” (No,) replied the helper. “이거 외국인 한국어 말할 수있다.” (This foreigner speaks Korean)
Tea mother looked confused. “정말?” (Really?)
She turned to me. “당신은 한국어 알 수 있습니까?” (Do you speak Korean?)
I nodded. “네, 조금. 한국 이년 에서 왔어요.” (Yes, a little. I’ve been here a couple years.)
“알겠습니다,” (I understand,) she replied.

We had lovely conversation as I spat out every Korean phrase I could think of, asking her about her favourite foods and rehearsing terribly constructed sentences about my time so far in Korea.

I poured her tea, albeit with a few accidents involving my puerile habit of confusing left and right, and made it through the demonstration without any major mishaps. We parted, very happy to have met each other.

As the group was leaving, I was intercepted slyly by the event coordinator. “Mr. Nordholm,” he whispered, “why don’t you come here after dinner?”
“Uh, sure.”

I returned to the tea hall after a few forkfuls of the fish and noodle dinner. There the coordinator waited with tea mother. She told me how much she appreciated our demonstration together and gifted me a box of one of the finest teas I had ever tasted, 황차, or golden tea.

We said our goodbyes and I left. I was sad because I thought I would never see tea mother again. What I would do, however, was introduce tah-do to our community of foreign English teachers.

As one of my favorite photographs boldly proclaims, if tea can’t fix it, it’s a serious problem.