Whenever I go on impromptu tea quests, they’re usually solo. When they’re not, they’re usually my idea. This particular jaunt was not only not my idea but one triggered by a blog response. A week or so prior, I posted a bit of tea meta-fiction surrounding my tasting notes of Korean teas from Hankook. A fellow writer/editor friend – whom I’ll refer to as “K” – chimed in with a simple question.
“What are your thoughts on Korean seal tea?” she asked.
I stupidly replied with, “Are you referring to Solomon’s seal tea or…actual seal (lol)? The former is an actual Korean tisane, but I’ve never had it.”
Truth is, I actually had to look it up. Someone outside my usual tea circles had stumped me with a tisane I hadn’t heard of. Oddly enough, though, I was familiar with the Solomon’s seal plant. I learned of it when I did some cursory research on the “Seal of Solomon”, a symbol used often in anime for summoning demons.
In the biblical pseudographical text known as the Testament of Solomon, King Solomon (son of David) was given a ring by the archangel Michael. It was in the shape of a circumscribed hexagram and possessed the seal of God. The ring itself was known as the Seal of Solomon. The circled, six-pointed star has often been used in popular media as a demonic or magical summoning tool.
I have no clue how, but the name “Solomon’s seal” was also ascribed to a genus of plants called Polygonatum. The root of the P. sibiricum varietal – native to East Asia – was utilized in the herbal tisane, dubbed dungulle by Koreans. Many health properties are associated with the herb, but most are topical.
A week later, I met up with K and we journeyed to H Mart – a local Korean grocery store I mentioned in passing. I had only been there once or twice to pick up some Korean jarred “tea” for various experiments. Whether or not we would find the mysterious Solomon’s seal tisane was questionable.
We marveled at the various herbal infusions on hand in the tea aisle. Corn tea, peanut tea, pimple te-…Wait…pimple solution tea? There was actually a pimple-specific herbal infusion on display. Both of us had to snap a photo of the absurdity.
Not too long after that, K located her prey. It actually did exist – a 20ct. box of the stuff from some company called Dong Suh. I was so intrigued by it that I had to buy some for myself.
After that outing, I dropped K downtown so that I could notch off the second leg of my little tea quest. This was not on anyone’s suggestion, rather one made purely by accident. The day prior, I arrived downtown far too early for a wedding. I had three hours to kill, and decided to burn two of those at The TeaZone & Camellia Lounge.
My original “plan” had been to simply sustain myself with a bagel and decaf Earl Grey, but my dumbass perused the menu further. The moment I opened that menu, I knew I was doomed. At the top of the “White Tea” section was something I’d heard mention of but never thought I’d see. Kenyan Purple Silver Needle – the white tea version of the “Purple” varietal I had tried so long ago.
Damn it, I thought to myself.
I tried to pry a sample of the stuff from the barista, but he politely refused. I even dropped my “blog” as an excuse. That didn’t work, either. (Truthfully, it never seems to work.)
The day after – once I dropped K off – I was only a block away from TeaZone. I had no other excuse to resist my poor impulse control. I picked up an ounce.
I brewed both that night. Results:
Kenyan Purple Silver Needle White Tea
The leaves looked very much like Bai Hao Yinzhen, only smaller. Unlike the Kenyan White Whisper, the rolled leaves were nowhere near as plump or downy-firred. In appearance, it resembled a Rwandan white I tried, only lighter in color. It also bore a striking resemblance to some Ceylon Silver Tips I’d come across. As for the aroma, it was herbaceous, fresh, mildly minty with shades of unsweetened pomegranate.
The liquor brewed to a vibrant yellow, which is the minimum expectation of a good white (in my opinion). The aroma was all melons and leafy herbs – nuanced but nowhere near vegetal. Taste-wise, it could go toe-to-toe with even the most high-profile of Ceylon whites. Premium Yinzhen would give it a run for its money, but it would at least put forth a strong case. It almost tied with White Whisper in subtle excellence.
Korean Solomon’s Seal
I had to rely upon a tea bag, so the contents of it weren’t going to be the most visually striking. They were fannings; I could tell. There was an aroma, however – a roasty, nutty scent that reminded me a lot of dandelion root and/or chicory.
The liquor brewed rusted amber, pretty typical of a hearty root-based tisane. What surprised me was how closely it mimicked the aroma of…Frosted Mini-Wheats(?!). Yes, even the inherent sweetness. It’s not every day that I drink a tisane at night that smells like a breakfast cereal. The flavor deviated only slightly from the olfactory comparison, imparting a sensation similar to barley and/or buckwheat. It flirted with genmai territory but thankfully withdrew, keeping well with the realm of “good”. In short, I approved.
It had been awhile since I was caught by surprise by someone else’s tea leanings. Good to know that I can be put off my guard like that. Proof that my snobby armor can still be dented rather easily.
Previously on Steep Stories: Our fearless (or rather, fearful) protagonist was whisked away to an underground, dwarven tearoom in Darjeeling – one that was overrun with dancing snake-people. The crisis was averted by a well-placed Hindi movie musical number…oh, and splendid tea was had in the interim. Afterwards, the pajama’d thirtysomething, a gnome, and an undead botanist hastened their escape. And, now, the continuation…
“Well, this is awkward,” I said with feigned levity while sipping my green tea.
“You have a penchant for snark,” the once-living Robert Fortune grumbled.
The deceased-but-animated Scottish botanist had every reason to be ill-tempered. We were stuck in a rather large bird cage, guarded from all corners by birds. Worse, they were armed with what appeared to be glowing spears. I had no desire to discover what the “glowy-part” could do. On the bright side, though, the tea they served was good. Sipping it gave me time to think why all of the birds spoke Korean.
The only occupants of the cage were me, Zombie Fortune, and a rather disheveled, multi-tailed, yellow fox. Thed – our gnomish compatriot – was nowhere to be found. How we came to be caged by birds was the subject of debate. One moment we were escaping under Darjeeling – the next, we were greeted by pitch blackness, then…birds happened. When Fortune and I awoke, we were caged and served tea.
The bird-guard (?) that had handed us tea said only one word, “Teuksun.”
I assumed he meant the tea. The leaves were small by Chinese green tea standards, curlier than Japanese greens, and possessed a very different aroma than any green tea I’d come across. There was a sweetness and a smokiness to them that was strangely tantalizing. A bit of nuttiness also showed up in the after-whiff.
The liquor was a very light green with a yellowish tinge, very similar in appearance to a Chinese green. However, the scent was nut-sweet, almost like sencha by way of green rooibos. A lingering vegetal underpinning was also present. That same vegetal feeling showed up on first sip but transitioned to a bouquet of sweetened grass, chestnuts and autumn air. While excellent, a second steep turned out better.
“This is interesting tea,” I said, trying to distract from my predicament. “Hints of vanilla and caramel with a vegetal underpinning.”
“You’re not going to drink it?” I asked – greedy hands at the ready.
“I’ve been drinking it for the last six months,” the yellow fox said.
The leaves for this looked just like the Teuksun – vibrant, forest-green, curly leaves. What was different was…well…everything else. The scent was less smoky and sweeter. There wasn’t as nutty a presence, either. Instead, it was just very pleasant to the nostrils. Not too strong; not too soft.
On the flavor front, the darker liquor that resulted imparted a way different profile than the Teuksun. The sweetness was doubled, and there wasn’t as strong of a vegetal note either. Grassy, yes. (It was green tea, after all.)
“Kinda silky and sweet,” I said with a swallow. “Comparable to some good spring Long Jings I’ve tried.”
“Agreed,” Fortune said perkily, awaking from his funk. “A sweet, white winy note.”
“You said this was ‘Gamnong’?” I asked. “As in, the rich part of Seoul, South Korea?”
The fox sighed. “No, that’s Gangnam. Common misconception, actually.”
Ah, I thought to myself. It sounded absurdly close to “Gangnam” – a place I had only become aware of thanks to a song. A catchy song, at that. “Gangnam Style” by Psy – the first Korean crossover hit of its kind. I had a feeling the fox knew of that as well, hence the misconception.
“I’m surprised you speak English,” Fortune said between happy sips.
“I’m surprised you’re both human,” the fox chortled.
“He is,” Fortune said, pointing a thumb at me. “I’m not…well…anymore.”
“Undead,” the fox pondered. “That’s rough.”
The botanist shrugged. “I’ve had time to adapt to it. I’m Robert Fortune, this living lad is The Lazy Literatus.”
“I have a name!” I snapped.
“No one cares,” Fortune returned.
“I’m Hwang,” the fox said. “The English sort call me Yellow. For obvious reasons.”
“Any idea where we are?” I asked
“A pocket realm known only to magically-imbued birds,” Hwang explained. “Awaiting judgment.”
“For?” Fortune pressed.
“Me? Thieving. You? No clue.”
“There was a gnome named Thed with us…” I began.
“He’s being sentenced right now,” the yellow fox added gravely. “By the Sparrow Prince himself.”
“Sparrow Prince?” I repeated. “Seriously?”
“Yes, what’s odd about that?” Hwang asked in return.
“Oh, nothing.” I chose to leave the South Park reference alone.
“Wait…did you say, Sparrow Prince?!” Fortune demanded.
“Indeed I did,” Hwang rolled his eyes. “So glad you’re paying attention.”
“Damn,” Fortune seethed. “They’re gonna kill him! We have to get out of here.”
“What do you know?” I queried.
“I know that Thed is dead if we don’t rescue him.”
“Why?” I yelled.
“Because the Sparrow Prince is convinced that Thed sold actual sparrow tongues to humans in Korea two thousand years ago,” Fortune said through a heaving sigh.
“That’s stupid,” I said with eyes narrowed.
“Sparrows are stupid,” Hwang interjected.
Fortune continued, “Korean green tea is also known as jaksul-cha, which translates to ‘sparrow’s tongue’. Thed was one of the first magical creatures to bring tea leaves to the land that is now known as Korea.”
Hwang went wide-eyed, “He’s that gnome?! The one that was in hiding from Guan Yin?”
The undead Scotsman nodded. “The very same. He was part of Queen Suro’s caravan that brought tea seeds from India to ancient Korea. He was in hiding from the bodhisattva.”
“He’s famous among the fox-folk,” Hwang said with glazed eyes. “One of the greatest thieves and tricksters to ever ride the ley-lines.”
“He never intended to be,” Fortune countered.
“I didn’t either,” the fox winked.
“So…” I clapped my hands. “How do we get out of here?”
“Leave that to me,” Hwang said as he clanked his cup against the cage bars. “Guard! More hot water!”
One of the birdmen mumbled a curse in Korean, but sauntered off to fetch a kettle. When he returned, Hwang grinned with eyes closed. He, then, removed some dark-colored leaves from behind one of his tails. Appearance-wise, it looked like any typical black tea one would find on the market. The pieces resembled a BOP – dark brown, small, and with some curly pieces thrown in. Their aroma was straight nuts. No, not as in crazy, but actual nuts – almonds, I’d reckon. Only a few oolongs have had that type of scent. Before I could ask, he explained.
“This is what I was caught for – stealing tea leaves from a Korean bird merchant. How could I not? They were called ‘Hwang Cha’. It had my name on it, literally. I was framed, I tell ya.” He detailed his claim to “innocence” further as he brewed up the leaves.
The leaves gave the water a yellow gold color – like the namesake suggested – with a pleasantly sweet and roastly aroma.
“Is this really the time for –“ Robert Fortune began.
“Just you wait,” the fox said, pouring the liquor into our cups.
On taste, there was an initial creaminess that transitioned to the expected nutty mouthfeel, and all the while there was this sweet underpinning to the palate. In character, it was a lot like another oxidized “yellow tea” I tried from the Goomtee estate in Darjeeling, yet much more refined. It is as complex as all the other Korean teas I’ve tried. A bit on the pricey side…but you honestly do get what you pay for.
Hwang motioned us to come nearer to him. “Now, blow the steam at the guards,” he whispered. “I could’ve escaped this way at any time…but never had a reason ’til now.”
Fortune and I shrugged at each other but did as we were told. We each went to a corner of the cage, faced our cups to one of the spear-birds, and blew as hard as we could. A funny thing happened…and I do – literally – mean funny. When the tea steam came in contact with the guards, each one sniffed, shook their heads, and promptly collapsed into a feathered heap.
The fourth guard noticed his fallen comrades and seemed poised to signal for reinforcements. Hwang was faster, however, leaping clear across the cage – blowing steam right before he landed. The bird fainted in mid-caw!.
“I’m surprised they didn’t hear us plotting,” I said.
“They’re Korean,” Fortune reminded. “And birds are idiots.”
“And so am I,” I deprecated.
“No argument here,” Hwang stifled a chuckle.
We dashed as best we could to the only source of light in the oddly-tunneled, avian catacomb. Upon reaching the illuminated opening, we were greeted by a grand amphitheater. All the seats were packed with flocks of birds, gulls, jays, and every other assortment of feathered beasty. At the center of the “stage” was a diminutive man in a pointed, green hat. To either side of him, a bird yeoman, and confronting him were a sparrow with a crown and sword and a heinous looking beak of a bird in robes.
“Oh my God, he’s real,” I said, in reference to the South Park-like Sparrow Prince.
“Of course, he is,” Hwang responded. “Why wouldn’t he be?”
“Nevermind.” I had no time to explain a cartoon to a talking fox.
The Sparrow Prince was orating fiercely, outlining the charges against Thed in perfectly cadenced Korean. The robed buzzard-pelican-thing nodded at the accusations listed. I thought I heard the word “cannibalism” mentioned in conjunction with “jaksul”.
“So, what’s the plan?” Hwang asked.
“Leave this to me,” Robert Fortune said, clearing his throat. “My fellow avian citizens!”
The interruption was met with alarmed squawks and siren calls. Fortune did his darnedest to academically explain the linguistic misunderstanding made by the Sparrow Prince and his ilk. The lecture was welcomed with deaf ears and deafening screeches. Hwang was right; birds were idiots.
“He’s dying out there,” I cringed. “Well…more than usual.”
Hwang nodded in agreement. “Zombies are horrible at speeches. Soul of the voice is the first thing to go with undying. “
“I guess I’ll have to give it a g-“
“No!” the yellow fox waved me back. “As a human, you’d be mauled on sight. I’ve got this.”
The multi-tailed fox leapt into the air and landed right in front of the Sparrow Prince. The bird squawked something akin to gibberish. Hwang – in turn – held up a hand to the sparrow’s beak and said one thing. One thing that I had hoped he wouldn’t say.
“Oppan Gamnong Style!” the fox shouted. Electrosynth music blared to accompany his battle-cry.
Hwang had actually done it – took a well-known pop song (and Internet meme) and turned it into a tea pun. If I hadn’t been so embarrassed by it, I would’ve teared up at the ingenuity. The little trickster-fox trotted his way around the amphitheater, and the birds frenzied with him – enraptured by the retardedly addictive song. Fortune and I grabbed the chained gnome while the birds were distracted.
“Yet another adventure that ends in song, eh?” Thed commented dryly.
“Shut up,” Fortune said with exasperation. The poor zombie had been out of sorts this entire debacle. I guess being caged did that to the undead. Who knew?
As we made our way out of the bird tribunal, I looked back at the commotion. I briefly made eye contact with the fox – various chirping flyers swarmed around him. He smiled and winked before his form was enveloped by the fog of feathers.
I hesitated…then left.
Sacrifice by tea…and dance, was my final thought before leaving the “birdemic” behind.
Special thanks to Hankook Tea for providing the samples for this write-up. To purchase their wares, go HERE.