Finding your Moment of Zen in Seoul


Neung Hyun serves tea

Seated on a platform behind a curved wooden table, Neung Hyun, a Korean Buddhist monk, welcomes me with a steaming pot of green tea.

Her shaved head framed with black-rimmed glasses, she smiles as I take off my shoes and sit cross-legged on a cushion for a tea ceremony at Seoul's Templestay Information Center
"Appreciating tea takes practice," she tells me, encouraging me to lift a small ceramic cup to my nose, breathe in, take a sip, and feel how the liquid warms my throat, and finally, my whole being.  

For Buddhist monks who first introduced tea to Korea after returning from studies in Japan and China, drinking it is a form of meditation, intended to rejuvenate the mind as well as the body.  "Every glass of tea is different," she says. "Just like life."

South Koreans love coffee, but it's tea they turn to when they want to smooth the stomach, relieve stress or cure a cold. As important as the teas - not just green and black teas brewed from loose leaves, but drinks made with bouquets of boiled dates, ginger, pine needles, herbs and flowers  - are the intimate teahouses in which to enjoy them.

Decorated with low tables, heated floors and windows looking out onto flowering gardens, these hideaways offer an escape in a busy city where peace and solitude can be hard to find. Whether you're wandering the back alleys of older neighborhoods such as Insadong, or exploring the shopping malls in trendy Gangnam, there's a teahouse designed to help you find your moment of zen. While some have English menus, English is not widely spoken, so it helps to ask a Korean companion to join you. I enlisted friends of friends, a volunteer from the Seoul Greeter program, and local culinary expert Veronica Kang, owner of Gastro Tour Seoul

Here are few worth a stop:

Cha-teul

Where: Bukchon Village, a traditional neighborhood of low-slung hanoks (traditional Korean houses first built in the 14th century), boutiques and art galleries.  Cha-teul is a family-owned teahouse on a tree-lined street where visiting Koreans sometimes go to have their pictures taken in traditional costumes called hanboks.


Women modeling hanboks in Bukchon Village 


After a visit to Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of Korea's Joseon dynasty, this is the spot to take in mountain views while relaxing in the garden or on floor cushions in a century-old hanok. Signs in English apologizing for a possible wait, English-speaking waiters and English menus make Cha-teul one of Seoul's most tourist-friendly teahouses. Classical music plays in the backround, setting the mood for quiet conversation. No on his tapping on a laptop or talking on a cell phone. 

What to order: A menu lists the health benefits of more than 40 teas served hot or iced. There's jujube tea, a thick, hot brew made by boiling Korean-grown red dates, said to stimulate the appetite; a refreshing  "Five Taste" tea (spicy, sweet, salty, bitter and sour), made with dried omija berries believed to help with headaches and hangovers; and a house-made Ssangwha, an herbal tonic, brewed overnight for 14-15 hours. 


Tea and pumpkin cake at Cha-teul

Like most teahouses, Cha-teul serves snacks and desserts, artfully-arranged  in tiny bowls and on small plates. Its signature treat is a dense and chewy steamed pumpkin cake, shaped into a mound, topped with pumpkin seeds, and served with flat wooden spoons for sharing.

Osulloc

Where: Multiple locations with a flagship store and teahouse in Insadong, one of Seoul's oldest neighborhoods and a popular tourist destination filled with hanoks housing cafes, art galleries and antique shops. Ask a Korean under 30 to recommend a tea house, and chances are he or she will point you to a chic and modern café run by Osulloc, a major exporter of organically-grown green tea started by Seo Seong-hwan, the founder of the Korean cosmetics company, AmorePacific.   


Osulloc in Insadong


What to order: Anything made with Osulloc's premium green tea grown on the Korean island of Jeju. Lines forms on the sidewalk for samples served next to a cooper roaster.  Attractively-packaged teas line the shelves of a busy retail store, while tea and snacks are served upstairs in a modern, two-level tea salon.


Osculloc is popular among young Koreans for its green tea riffs on traditional coffee drinks and desserts. There's a fresh citron tea slushie topped with citrus sherbet; a green tea caramel latte, and a  a tangerine milk tea made with Jeju tangerines. 

Tteuran

Where: Ikseondong, a community of historical hanoks, slowly gentrifying, but not yet as touristed as neighborhing Insadong.

Shops selling mung bean pancakes, perfume and roasted coffee beans draw visitors into Ikseondong's narrow alleyways, but when Kim, Aeran opened her teahouse in 2009 in a former noodle shop, hers was one of the few businesses in a mostly-residential neighborhood. Tteuran is popular with Japanese visitors who remember it as the location of the Korean-Japanese film Café Seoul.  Owner Kim Aeran makes all the traditional snacks and teas herself.  


Kim Aeran

Customers sit at tables and chairs, or on a heated floor overlooking her flower and herb garden. Tea arrives in bowls set on wooden saucers along with house-made sweets such dried persimmon rolls filled with walnuts.

What to order: Tteuran organizes its teas into categories - fermented teas, wild leaf teas, medicinal herbal blends and flower teas - with photos and descriptions on the health benefits of each. I sipped a mild brew made from the roasted leaves of the aromatic mugwort plant, believed to boost the immune system. 


Homemade tea snacks at Tteuran

Crunchy mugwort rice cakes turned up in a bowl of Kim's homemade sweet red bean porridge, a thick pudding found on most teahouse menus in cooler weather. In warmer months, she adds bingsu, a favorite Korean shaved ice dessert.


Shin Old Teahouse

Where:  Insadong, near Osulloc, but tucked in an alleyway off the main street. Housed in a hanok furnished with antiques and polished wooden tables, Shin Old Teahouse this is one Seoul's oldest teahouses, run by the same family for several generations. Guest remove their shoes in a garden with chirping parakeets, then step up onto  heated floors covered with colorful silk cushions. This is the place to go to escape the crowds and noise just a few steps from the neighborhood’s busiest shopping street


 Shin Old Teahouse

What to order: Refreshing in warmer months are the cold punches - pear, cinnamon and ginger; quince, citron; and mulberry. A small snack menu includes rice cakes, red bean and pumpkin porridge in cool weather and green tea and jujube bingsu in summer.


Tea Therapy

Where: Tea Therapy has locations in Insadong and Gangnam. Gangnam is modern, while the Insadong shop is tucked away in a historic hanok with a foot bath outside where customers can relax by soaking their feet and drinking tea at the same time.


Tea Therapy's foot baths

What to order: Consult a paper "road map"  that assesses your state of mind and overall health with statements such as "I worry about getting things gone," and "I have cold hands and feet." Then pick a recommended tea. My choice after a long day of tea-tasting was one called "stress free," aimed reviving tired eyes and tight shoulders. 

The Lounge, Park Hyatt Hotel

Where: Gangnam, Seoul's upscale financial and business district made famous by the music video Gangnam Style. The Lounge at the Park Hyatt is a modern Korean teahouse on the 24th floor, with panoramic views of the city lights at night.  


Tea and snacks at the Park Hyatt

What to order: Soft jazz and comfortable couches invite relaxing with a pot of the Hyatt's signature green tea, flavored with bergamot, and blended by well-known Korea tea master Su Yeon Kim. A menu of traditional sweets includes a black rice cake waffle topped with purple sweet potato ice cream, and a Gangnam-style bingsu  - an overflowing bowl of shaved milk ice, topped with honeycomb, Chantilly cream, a roasted apple puree and pecans. 


If you go:

Spring is cherry blossom season, a good time to take part in festivals with music, street food and see Koreans dressed in traditional costumes.

Koreans attach health benefits to what they eat and drink. Most tea houses and many restaurants offer English menus with explanations for the reasons you might choose one drink or snack over another. 

The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism offers cultural programs for visitors including the opportunity to have tea with a monk. Contact or visit the Templestay Information Center, 56, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu. 


Veronica Kang leads food-related walking tours around Seoul and culinary tours in other parts of Korea through her company, Gastro Tour Seoul. 

English-speaking Seoul residents volunteer as guides for traveling foreigners. Request a guide through the Seoul Greeter program. City of Seoul volunteers also lead free group walking tours in various neighborhoods.

A version of this story appeared in the November, 2018 issue of Virtuoso Life magazine 


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