As a kid, I lived two lives. One was a “normal” one in which the major beverage decision was whether I should go left for chocolate milk or right for regular milk in the cafeteria. The other was a life in which I regularly drank strange-tasting medicinal Korean brews with equally bizarre ingredients like Job’s tears and Solomon’s seal.
Unlike a more traditional French or British view of tea as solely the leaves from Camellia sinesis leaves, Koreans attach their word for tea, -cha, to anything and everything they can assault with the power of hot water, which means not just herbal tisanes, but also syrups, roots, grains and nuts. These teas are therefore sometimes as much food as drink.
Here are a few strange and wonderful Korean teas you’ve probably never tasted.
Daechu-cha (jujube tea)
Daechu are intriguing little Korean dates that are small and have a white, firm flesh like an apple when they are raw. My mother has four of these trees in her backyard, so she is constantly inventing new recipes for the bucketloads she brings in, but she usually follows the traditional preparation of drying them (in the sun, but you can use the oven) and then boiling them in water on low (in a slow cooker is easiest) for a full day until the liquid becomes sweet and almost syrupy. You can do this with most fruits to make fruit tea.
Maemil-cha (buckwheat tea)
Many of the same ingredients you find in Korean food, you’ll also find in Korean teas. The same buckwheat in Korea’s famous cold summertime noodles, naengmyun, is the only ingredient in this tea. Buckwheat kernels are roasted and then boiled, but modern teabags feature crushed kernels. I love the savory, roasted flavor, which makes me feel like I’m eating an entree rather than drinking a tea. Though there is something musty and funky in the scent, I enjoy it. This tea has long been a favorite in China, Korea and Japan for its antioxidant and blood circulation benefits. There are also a variety of other similar roasted teas (bori-cha, roasted barley tea, being one many Koreans grow up drinking).
Maeshil-cha (plum tea)
This is a green Korean plum tea that is so much sharper and tarter in flavor than the traditional western plum you’d find in an American grocery store. When I was studying at Yonsei University, I consumed this tea by the tiny paper cupful from a lobby vending machine, but I could never get enough. I had grown up drinking maeshil-cha, and its sweet, tart plumminess reminded me, oddly enough, of home. You can still brew this tea from actual dried plums that you can purchase by the bagful in Korea and set in a jar with sugar to make a sweet liquid. If you like Japanese plum wine, you may like this tea (I believe in Japan they call it an apricot). You can find cold bottles of maeshil-cha at Korean convenience stores, and glass containers of plum tea jelly with honey (similar to the quince tea) or plum syrup.
Insam-cha (ginseng tea)
As a child, I remember sitting under the kitchen table while a group of my mother’s Korean friends sang, gossiped, told stories and joked about making ginseng wine for their husbands. Men in Korea consume ginseng wine for its supposed potency and vitality properties (if you get my drift!). Though ginseng tea probably won’t give you the same kick as the extract or the wine, I do find it gives me energy and I like to add some honey to it. You’ll most often find it in a powdered form in foil packets, and like cilantro, the taste is divisive. I love it, but there is indeed a strong taste and smell that some people find medicinal, which you may have tasted in various energy drinks.
Yulmu-cha (Job’s Tears tea)
Thick and soupy, yulmu-cha is a powdered combination of Job’s Tears, a grain plant, and nuts, often walnuts, and sometimes black beans. High in protein, this is a vending machine favorite in Korea that you can sip between classes to fill you up and scrape you off the academic ground.
Doonggul-rae-cha (Solomon’s Seal tea)
This herbal tea is a Korean favorite that you’ll find everywhere in Korea and at every Korean grocery store, but with its unattractive American name, I’m not sure it’ll ever be a hit here. Light, nutty, and slightly sweet, it doesn’t brew a heavy, strong tea no matter how long you leave it in. In Asian medicine, it is reputed to cool and moisturize the body.
Ssanghwa-cha (root tea)
This strange, mysterious tea is beloved by Korean men seeking vitality. Using traditional Asian herbs such as Japanese Peony, Rehmanniae radix, Angelica gigas, Cnidium officinale, and Glycyrrhiza uralensis, along with cinnamon, the smell is vaguely ginseng-like and the taste is slightly bitter and medicinal, but add a bit of honey or mix it with other teas such as daechu-cha (jujube tea) and you may find it goes down easy. I like the bitter taste, but you can buy it in packets that are already sweetened with jujube and sugar added.
Chunma-cha (tall gastrodia and cornflake tea)
Tall gastrodia is a tuber from the Orchidae family. It’s supposedly sweet and mild, though I have never tasted it in its raw form. Tall gastrodia is used in Chinese medicine to prevent dementia. Chunma-cha is one of those Korean teas that is equal parts food and drink. With its carby consistency that mimics oatmeal powder, you can mix this tea powder with hot water and drink it to prevent hunger, or as a light breakfast. Often, blends include brown rice powder or other grains. To me, chunma-cha tastes a bit like a simple, mild, warm breakfast cereal that should come in a Chex-sized box instead of a tea packet, but it is convenient to carry around.
Yuja-cha (yuzu tea)
This marmalade-like yuzu jelly is something I remember my mom brewing for me every time I had a nasty cold. Honey plays an important nutritional and cultural role in Korean history (it was once reserved only for the upper classes, and royal jelly is highly prized as a nutritional supplement), and many Korean tea ingredients are preserved in honey. This tea in often sold packaged in a large jar, the preserved fruit and its rind mixed with honey and vitamin C. The jar of yuzu jelly can be left out on the counter rather than put in the fridge because the yuzu is preserved in honey and will not easily spoil. Though it’s a bit thick, you could also spread it on some toast or top ice cream with it.
Gugija-cha (goji berry tea)
The goji berry is now a known superfood in the west, but when combined with dates and ginger, it has a bit more of an even, sweet flavor. Goji berries are of course renowned as a superfood for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. You can buy dried goji berries at Korean grocery stores and brew this tea yourself, even adding cinnamon sticks to the slow cooker. The tea will be a warm orange-brown-pink color.
Dakota Kim is a food writer, gardener, mushroom hunter and burlesque producer living in Brooklyn. She likes to brew strange Korean medicinal teas and bake vegan desserts. She is currently working on a cookbook featuring burlesque performers called Bombshell Bakers. Tweet her @dakotakim1.
Photo by LWYang CC BY