Monday, October 28, 2013
Handmade Jung-jak cha, from Cheong Seok Gol
It's about time I add a bit about preparing Korean green tea, taking a look at the tea we made back in May. For a bunch of first-time tea makers, our efforts were a success, aside from from a few leaves being greener than the desired bluish-jade and a few strands of cotton I've had to pick out from the gloves we were wearing.
Korean tea ware is much heavier and more rustic and bulky than its elegantly simple Yixing counterpart, but there's a humble charm I've always appreciated about Korea's rustic aesthetic. The most recognizable feature of a Korean teapot is the long side handle, perpendicular to the spout. I chose this set because it was traditionally fired in a wood kiln with a beautifully textured and coloured glaze. In the tea shop, I mentioned Japanese "raku" firing, asking if it were the same. This was back in 2007, before I knew better, and if looks could kill, from the other-wise lovely clerk, I wouldn't have lived to see 2008, or even taken another breath, for that matter... You see, during the Japanese invasion of 1592, Korea's best potters were forcibly taken to Japan, entire villages of them in some cases, leaving Korea to relearn what was lost with the sudden absence of its masters. It happened 422 years ago, but anything related to Japan remains a touchy issue!
Korean tea sets often serve 3-5 people, though if you were to substitute Chinese cups, you could nearly double the servings. Some traditional Korean techniques focus on three servings, but I can't help but approach any tea with a gongfu method. An important piece in the Korean set is the "suku"(숙우), a spouted bowl for cooling the boiled water, since Korean green tea requires the water to be cooled to a very low temperature. The first infusion can be steeped at as low as 50ºC/122ºF (which requires a longer steep than usual). Since green tea is unique in that the brewing temperature is much higher as the steeps progress, the suku is convenient for cooling small amounts of water, while the rest may remain heated in the kettle. There's a saying in Korea not to be too greedy during the first infusion. If the first cup is too delicious, the rest of the session won't be as good. I don't see it as choosing quantity over quality, but finding a pleasant balance between the two.
The pot and cups are heated, as the Chinese do, but unlike Chinese style, there is little to no overspill. There is also a smaller leaf to water ratio than gongfu style, but that's often the case with any green tea. Once the set is heated, a single pot's worth of water is poured into the suku. While waiting for the water to cool, the heated pot has some time to heat the leaves and awakens them with a rich, sweet aroma.
There's no need to rinse the leaves. Once the water is cooled, gently pour it over the leaves in a circular motion. With the water between 70-80ºC, steep the leaves for 20 seconds, then you may either pour directly into the cups or back into the suku. I look for a light jade color in the cup. If find a strong or slightly yellow colour is too bitter for my liking and loses its delicate sweetness. The second steep should be 15 seconds and the third 20 seconds again. After the third steep start increasing the time by 10-15 seconds. While steeping, rotate your wrist to gently rock the pot in a circular motion. It always gives me a little thrill to see how bright green the leaves become after steeping them, almost as they were off the bush.
Green tea is one of the trickiest to steep well. It took me lot of practice before I was able to steep more than three cups and still extract any flavour. As delicate as Korean green tea is, even if done with skill, after the sixth steep, the brew is very light, especially with Ujeon or Sejak.