Koreans have a long tradition of drinking teas and tisanes for health, enjoyment and rituals. Even today, drinking tea is something many Koreans do every day, whether at home or at one of the country’s many elegant teahouses.
Tea was first introduced to the Korean peninsula during sixth or seventh centuries, and was probably brought to Korea by Buddhist monks. Written records show that kings and queens during the Silla period used tea as part of their religious and ceremonial offerings.
By the Goryeo dynasty, tea had become very important in Korea and was strongly connected with Buddhism. Monks cultivated tea plants at their temples, and drank tea to help concentrate during their mediations. It was also an important part of many rituals, and even the charye ceremony many Koreans perform nowadays on Chuseok and Seollal was originally an offering of tea instead of food and alcohol. During this period, tea was so important that people wrote poems and books about it, and much of the Goryeo period’s celebrated pottery was intended as tea vessels.
During the Joseon period, tea culture began to decline in Korea, partially because of the official suppression of Buddhism. Still, many scholars, like the great Dasan (Jeong Yak-yeong), were interested in tea and studied how to make and drink it. The Joseon court had its own tea rituals, as well, both for daily tea drinking and special occasions.
Korean tea culture experienced a revival during the 20th century, and is once again an important part of people’s daily lives. There are several active tea plantations around the country, with some of the most famous being in Boseong in Jeolla Province, Halla Mountain on Jeju Island, and the areas around Jiri Mountain. There are also some people who gather wild tea leaves for an exceptionally delicate and delicious tea.
In addition to true teas, which come from the leaves of the tea plant, Koreans also drink a wide variety of tisanes. These brews are made with other medicinal herbs, roots and berries for delicious and healthy drinks. Some of the most popular are made from quince, ginger, green plums, jujubes, citron or ginseng. In addition to tea leaves, other plants also popular for brewing, such as mugwort, lotus, bamboo and persimmon leaves. Other popular traditional “teas” are complex brews made with different combinations of medicinal herbs for strong and bracing brews with an edge of bitterness, which have an excellent reputation for helping people feel stronger and more alert or even help relieve the symptoms of the common cold.
During the summers, many Koreans also turn to chilled traditional drinks to take the edge of the summer heat. Sikhye is made from rice and has a delicate, sweet flavor that is exceptionally refreshing, while sujeonggwa has a rich sweet and spicy taste that comes from dried persimmons, cinnamon and ginger. Another popular trend is to make iced versions of popular drinks that are usually served hot. Adding a little ice to a glass of citron, or yuja, tea is a great way to cool off, and even traditional green teas take on a modern edge when served chilled.