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Green tea is more than a way of life in South Korea
Seasonal changes are subtle in Los Angeles. Having lived here most of my life, I appreciate the delicate, small signs that signal a new season. Spring rains bring fluffy white clouds that gather above our surrounding mountains. Large bunches of basil make their way into our farmers markets in the summer. The autumn brings cooler nights. And the Southern California winter yields fragrant lemons and tangerines, ripe for the picking.
Although I love the mild climate of my adopted Southland, the cool breezes and early morning fog this time of year sometimes find me reaching for a cup of green tea and longing for the verdant hills of my birth country, South Korea.
In early spring, the first leaves from the tea plant poke their heads into the sunshine of Boseong, a tiny town in the southern part of the country known for its tea fields. The leaves are harvested from early April through the first part of September, but these earliest leaves are the most prized. Handpicked by the local women who live in the South Jeolla Province, they're sold for exorbitant prices at fancy tea shops throughout the country.
Tea drinking has been part of Korean culture since at least the 7th century. There are historical documents that describe Emperor Suro (he founded the Gaya Kingdom, during Korea's Three Kingdom Period) and Queen Seondeok (the first female ruler of the neighboring Silla Kingdom) enjoying cups of green tea. The seeds most likely traveled to the peninsula in the luggage of monks from China's Yunnan province, who imported Buddhism along with the precious plants.
The fields of Boseong have a less peaceful history. During their occupation of Korea in the 1930s, the Japanese noticed that Boseong had the perfect combination of temperature, humidity and soil for growing green tea. Having conquered the country, the Japanese established the first commercial tea plantation there to grow the coveted leaves and ship them back to Japan. But when the Japanese were defeated and forced to leave Korea in 1945, production came to a standstill. The fields became overgrown with weeds and lay fallow for years.
In 1957, Jang Young-seob, a visionary entrepreneur, bought the land and established the Daehan Tea Plantation (Daehan Dawon), the largest in the area, restoring green tea production in Jeolla-do. Now Boseong, famous for growing quality tea leaves, produces over a third of South Korea's green tea.
The Boseong region is to green tea what the Napa Valley is to wine. There are hundreds of tiny producers in the area. Visiting the plantations, I was struck by the pungent aroma of the leaves even before I caught sight of the fields. But it was the view that took my breath away. The soft rolling rows of tea plants stretching up along the hillside stood majestically in the morning fog.
Tea plants grow like shrubs; they're cultivated to grow only waist high for easier harvesting. If left to grow in the wild, the plants mature into tall trees.
Even with the plants at a comfortable height, green tea harvesting (like any farm work) is drudgery. I watched rural women, their hair tied up with scarves, their skin tanned a golden brown from hours under the sun, picking each leaf by hand, one by one, placing them in their plastic baskets.
Since higher-quality tea plants grow in higher elevations (the slower growth makes for a better flavor), the plants climb up the steep slopes of Boseong's hillsides. The lower rows were the most popular, while only the hard-working few climbed to pluck from the highest-growing leaves.
Tea's many uses
Even the busload of tourists from Seoul didn't want to climb to the top of the tea plantation. They oohed and aahed from below, pointing up at the green fields. I huffed and puffed my way to the top and turned around to find myself alone. By the time I had climbed up, it was break time for the female workers. They were squatting on the lower part of the hill eating their cream-filled buns and drinking cans of chilled green tea. I ran my hand over the tiny green leaves and took a deep breath of the crisp, tea-filled air before making my way back down the incline.
All kinds of tea -- green, black, white, oolong -- come from the same plant. The type of tea the leaves become is determined by fermentation and oxidation processes. Green tea comes from leaves that are wilted but left unoxidized (so the leaves retain their green color), unlike black tea leaves that are oxidized at the same time they are dried (causing their color to become darker, as tannins are released).
Green tea is the most popular in Korea, and the people in the Boseong area have incorporated the leaves into everything. They make beauty products with green tea, put green tea in their noodles and even have hot springs where you can soak in mineral waters infused with green tea. One of my favorite specialties of the region is nokdon samgyeopsal, sliced pork belly made from pigs who have dined on green tea leaves.
That afternoon, I settled for a bowl of noodles with bits of green tea in the broth, a cup of the green tea from the first harvest of the year and topped it off with a bowl of green tea ice cream, saving the pig belly for my next visit.