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Experiencing 떡차, Korean Tteok-cha

August 14, 2012

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tteok-cha in cupLast Friday I had the opportunity to experience a very special caked, aged tea that is seldom seen outside of Korea. My friend Eric Glass, of The Fragrant Cup, arranged ahead of time to bring the tea to Phoenix Tea, generously wanting to share the experience with me and Brett Boynton. Eric provided the tea and olive pit charcoal, and we had all of the other tools and supplies on hand that would be needed in the four+ hour process: a Chou Zhou stove (we could have used a Japanese Ryoro, but decided that the coal pit was too deep), chopsticks, a portable burner for lighting the coals, a glass kettle, an electric hob (cook-top), a sookwoo (cooling and serving vessel), and Korean tea cups with saucers.

The tea is called 떡차, which is Anglicised in a number of ways, including Tteok-cha, Ddok-cha, and Ttok-cha. For consistency I am going to use the spelling used by Steven D. Owyoung, Tteok-cha in his article on Tsiosophy, “Report on the 2012 Korean Tea Exhibition: Tteok-cha.”

Tteok-cha most commonly comes in two different types of cakes: hand formed, which are smaller and less precisely shaped, and coin-shaped, which are pressed into molds and have a hole in the center which is used to string the individual pieces together. The rare tea that Eric brought was made approximately ten years ago by Master Kim Song Tae, and was a small, thin very dense but lightweight cake. It was acquired through Korean ceramicist Cho-Hak (Arthur Park), of Morning Crane Tea.

Tteok-cha was originally developed for use medicinally, and is brewed by decoction rather than by infusion. Preparation of the tea has two basic stages: roasting the tea over a charcoal fire, and then simmering it over heat for more than three hours.

tteok-cha raw

Tteok-cha, before roasting

tteok-cha roasted

Tteok-cha, after roasting

The roasting process is straightforward, particularly if one is familiar with working with a small tea stove. I had never had the opportunity to use olive pit charcoal before, and although there were some slight issues with the grating in the stove being large enough to allow a couple of the pits to fall through, it was clear that this charcoal is vastly superior to the hardwood charcoal I’ve been using, which tends to spark quite a lot during lighting. (Unfortunately, olive pit charcoal is a very elusive commodity in the US currently. Eric brought his back from Chou Zhou.)

tteok-cha roastingRoasting the tea was a straightforward procedure of holding the tea over the coals with chopsticks for about 10-15 minutes, until the disc became more pliable and would retain a fingernail imprint.

We had already set the kettle filled with spring water to warming, so by the time the tea roasting was done the water was close to boiling. We dropped the little sliver of tea into the water and started the long wait (which consisted, naturally, of drinking other teas).

We kept the heat at a level that was as close to a steady low simmer as we could manage, and throughout the 3.5 hours of brewing very little water evaporated. One remarkable thing about the tea was that even after several hours the tea did not break up at all, remaining one solid piece throughout.

For the sake of comparison and to test its progress, we tasted the tea after one hour of brewing, and it was interesting, but clearly nowhere near what it was going to eventually yield. It was also pretty pale in color. When we tasted it again after three hours, Eric determined that the dark red liquor was close, but still needed an additional 20-30 minutes over the heat.

Finally, after the full 3.5 hours we removed it from the heat and poured into the sookwoo, and then into our individual cups. The rich, brothy tea had a flavor unlike any tea I’ve ever tasted. While it was complex and very delicious, it did have a somewhat medicinal quality to it, though not at all unpleasant. This special tea was very enjoyable to drink, and it was great to have the opportunity to experience this unique type of tea. Thank you Eric, for making it possible for us to experience this tea with you.

For more background on this fascinating tea, read “A Primer on Ddok Cha,” by Steven D. Owyoung.

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