One of my favourite Korean cookery books lists recipes for a few traditional herbal teas, made from yuzu, quince and ginger but the recipes for the first two piqued my interest in that they were made more like jam to be diluted in water, than in a way I otherwise recognised as a tea. Then while reading about the yuzu fruit in more detail, I found that yuzu tea from Korea was sold commercially in jars in its marmalade-like form and many people have tried to incorporate this into desserts or ice creams (myself included), as a cheaper alternative to expensive yuzu juice or powdered zest. When I was able to get hold of them, I thought to the other options that were available: ginger and jujube flavour teas as well. Of course, they aren’t true teas (they don’t have any part of the tea plant in them) but tisanes and form part of a distinctly Korean culture of such herbal teas.
While green tea is often associated with Asian and Buddhist cultures, tea drinking in Korea is not as widely practised compared to its neighbours, Japan and China and the reasons are largely historical. During the end of Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392CE), green tea was subject to high taxes and many growers, either in protest or for economic reasons, reduced the size of their tea forests and plantations. In the following Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897CE), Buddhist practices like the drinking of green tea were stigmatised by the new Confucian leaders and agricultural reforms meant that much of the tea growing areas of the Korean Peninsula were redeveloped to instead grow more useful crops.
While the drinking of green tea became confined to the ruling classes and growers themselves, hot drinks proliferated that were made from fruits, roots and grains that were drunk for medicinal reasons and as a means of boiling and sterilising water. In the case of fruits, the method of simmering fruit pieces in honey or sugar syrup also allowed them to be preserved out of the season. These teas have remained popular both for their traditional medicinal properties and their flavour and popular varieties include yuzu, quince, ginger, jujube, omija and Asian plums or maesil. Now they are made simply by adding a spoonful of the flavoured honey or syrup to a cup of hot water. While all are thought to have medicinal properties in traditional Korean medicine, none of it is proven to my knowledge so any real effect may simply be limited by the enjoyment of a hot, sweet drink.
Now, with the history all out of the way, what do the teas taste like?
Ginger tea: With pieces of ginger root swimming in a thick syrup, in the jar this tea has the appearance of stem ginger. The freshness and pepperiness of raw ginger is retained however, rather than the sweeter and more earthy spiciness of ground or stem ginger used in baking. Though I’ve yet to experiment with baking with Korean ginger tea, I can’t imagine any problems except perhaps the rawness of the ginger. Dry ginger teabags are common in shops (and quite cheap), but this tea packs much more flavour and has a nice balance of sweetness and spiciness. It has a cloudy appearance and includes some small pieces of ginger root that can be eaten when the tea is drunk should you wish – though not as nice as sweet pieces of candied or stem ginger. Although it comes with a higher price tag than most other ginger teas available, it certainly is worth it for the taste.
In traditional Korean medicine, ginger tea is used to raise body temperature, aid digestion and treat diarrhoea, as well as prevent colds.
Jujube tea: This was my least favourite out of the three teas I tried. It has the mildest flavour, sweet and honey-like from the dates but with little else. Conversely, it is also the most attractive of the three, as the drink is crystal clear, a golden colour and with flecks of vibrant red from the skin of the date pieces. Unfortunately, the date pieces have a powdery texture and not much flavour so I’m not a huge fan. While certainly not unpleasant to drink, it is a little bit dull compared to the bright flavours of the yuzu and ginger teas that it was up against.
Jujube and the tea itself is rich in vitamins and minerals, and is supposed to be best drunk when recovering from an illness.
Yuzu tea: My personal favourite of the three as I’m a big fan of all things yuzu. It has a bright and zesty flavour, far more complex than simply lemon or another citrus fruit alone. Again, there is a nice balance of sweetness with the tart yuzu. The drink is cloudier than even the ginger tea due the pieces of yuzu flesh in the tea, as well as the skin that sinks to the bottom; they’re much more flavoursome and good to eat compared to the ginger and jujube as well.
Inside the jar, the tea has the appearance of marmalade and is a much more pleasing consistency than the other two that are slightly gelatinous. Judging from the ingredients, it has been much more naturally set by the pectin in the fruit and is the only of the three teas that is traditionally made into a thick flavoured jam or syrup and so requires fewer additives to produce the same product.
Rich in vitamin C, yuzu tea is traditionally used in medicine like our own hot toddy: to fight colds and other illnesses associated with the winter months.
I am in no doubt that this Korean style of fruit and herbal tea make for much better drinking than the dry teabags that are available in most shops but sadly they take a little bit more hunting down as I’ve yet to see them stocked in any physical Asian supermarket, only online. All are the Nonghyup brand so I can’t compare directly with others, but there are quite a few out there. I’ve not been able to find any other flavours such as quince and plum so far and am particularly keen to try the omija for its supposed five flavours (o means five in Korean) of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and pungent. If you’re a fan of fruit teas or are looking for a good hot drink to help cut down on caffeine then I’d definitely recommend giving these a try.