There is a kind of tea in Korea that contains five flavors in a single sip – salty, sweet, sour, pungent, and bitter. I first tasted it at a tiny teahouse in Seoul. Tucked away in a secret dead-end alley in Insadong (a neighborhood brimming with traditional culture), Old Tea House can be hard to find, even with the small map in the back of my Lonely Planet. So Old Tea House is a place reserved for auspicious days, when my luck brings me down the right side street..
The teahouse is on the second floor, up an old stairway and through a door that jingles a soft bell as it opens. For such a small room, there are more seats than I expected – private alcoves with low tables and barely enough space to squeeze around them, a cluster of tables in the center of the room, far in the back a pile of pillows on the raised floor near the curtained window. The ceiling is low, low enough to make me hunch down a little as I shuffle toward an open chair. My eyes adjust to the dimness. Songbirds with orange beaks are uncaged in the room, chirping quietly. Sometimes the sound of their wings interrupts the thin melodies of the background soundtrack. The teahouse smells like honey and heat. On the menu, I point to the five-flavored tea, omijacha.
Omija is the medicinal fruit of the Chinese magnolia vine. It is from these small red berries that the tea derives its healing properties – the ability to soothe coughing and asthma. The server brings a small white bowl, three-quarters full, with a pale tea, three teardrop pine nuts unmoving on the surface. The color is like pink glass. It reminds me of the papery flowers that used to grow in my family's garden in Maine – azaleas, I think. I've heard that sometimes azaleas are used to make omijacha.
In my hands, the bowl is smooth and cold. What is the taste of azaleas? I concentrate before taking the first sip and wonder if I'll know the bitterness from the sourness or sweetness. At my lips and my throat, flavor dissolves – pepper, citrus, mineral water, like perfume coming undone. Slowly, each sip goes down until there's nothing left of the first time I tasted that tea.
Since then, I've learned the names of other teahouses – Moon Bird Thinks Only of the Moon, When Crane Builds a Nest, Swallow Coming Back with Gourd Seeds. I think they sometimes remember me at the ones I go to the most. In autumn, the tiny leaves of Japanese maples follow me in and fail on the floor. In those faint, rare and fabulous recesses, I've held teas from pine buds, aloe, persimmons. Now, I have their colors memorized, and I know the weight of one cup.