Toward the end of any year, content creators, influencers, media pundits (social or otherwise) are encouraged to create look-backs or listicles of the year-that-was. Throughout my long and industrious “career” as a tea blogger, I’ve made such reflections in the past. Usually commenting on how weird the year was, or how wonderful some aspect of it turned out. 2020, though . . . ?
Yeah, I don’t wanna.
It was a terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE year by all objective measures. I won’t even go into detail as to why, I don’t have to, most of you reading this have felt the “Terrible” in your own lives. While I got away from feeling most of the brunt of 2020, my mental state did not. To the point where I took an unintended hiatus from writing anything for close to three months.
The result of that was a rather unwieldy backlog of tea stories I had yet to tell. Some I may not even get to, come to think of it. So, to close the year out (almost a month after it ended), I thought I’d egress—not with a story—but with a theme. For you see, over the course of the year, something(s) weird and wonderful did chance by me. White teas, quite a few weird and wonderful white teas.
Dokk-cha (or “Tteok-cha, as I like to call it) is a type of pressed tea from Korea. If you’ve been following along in my latest exploits, you will recall I made mention of it in my Canadian-Burlington tea-picking adventure. Pedro Villalon of O5 Tea was kind enough to gift me with one of these coins. Learning what to do with it was going to be a challenge.
Image Owned by the Cha Dao Blog
I first learned of dokk-cha through the ever-resourceful Gongfu Girl blog. They’d had an experience with some of these tea coins at the Phoenix Tea shop and provided an anecdotal how-to on their preparation. In addition to that, she provided another article posted in Cha Dao (written by Steven Owyoung) about the history of dokk-cha. The word “dokk” is actually an onomonopia referring to both the compression technique used for the tea leaves involved…as well as the sound they make.
Many foodstuffs used to be duly…uh…dokk’d, besides tea leaves. Rice was a common one back in the hither and yon. The making of dokk-cha, unfortunately, fell out of favor during and after the Japanese occupation of South Korea – until recently. Monks, tea farmers, or anyone with a wacky idea have been reviving the age-old technique.
The process for making dokk-cha – unlike other compressed teas like pu-erh – is labor intensive but rather simple. Tea leaves are steamed in an earthenware pot, then taken out once softened. Then they’re given a beating via a mortar and pestle until they become a nice, green paste. Said mulch is then pressed (or dokk’d) into the shape of a coin, or whatever the presser wishes.
The ideal way of brewing a pressed tea coin is to lightly roast it over burning olive pit charcoal. Such specialty charcoal is hard to come by outside of Asia Major, but any ol’ charcoal could be substituted. The roasting takes fifteen minutes, or until the coin is pliable. After that, you place the coin in a pot of water over a stove (on a low simmer), and brew it for three-and-a-half hours.
I didn’t have olive pit charcoal. Or a charcoal stove of any sort. Nor did I have chopsticks, tongs, or whatever else to hold the coin in place. What I did have was a brother…
Who made his own firepit.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have any chopsticks to use as a pair of tongs. However, the substitute suggestion was far better – skewers! I asked him what the skewers were used for prior to fitting the coin on one.
His response was, “Uh…tofurky?”
I left that alone.
Over the course of fifteen minutes, I sat in a chair as my brother added whatever kindling he could to the pit. For a man about to get married, he had quite a bit of wood in the backyard to provide for said cause. Ever the do-it-yourselfer, my brother.
As I waved the coin over the flame, there were a couple of times where I didn’t watch what I was doing. Flame occasionally licked the coin itself. I’d heard that was supposed to be avoided. Once fifteen minutes had passed, I looked at the coin. Part of it was lightly smoking. Oops.
I took a whiff.
For lack of a better comparison, all I can say is that it smelled like a reefer madness. Roasty, yes. But very cannabis-like. I gave a nervous smile and motioned us over to the second phase – the simmering and long wait. Bro took out a pot, and put the stove on the lowest setting. I plopped the coin in and monitored the progress of the brew every forty-five minutes or so.
On a couple of occasions, I took the lid off the pot to get a good look-‘n-sniff. The water was darkening nicely – a very even, broth-like darkness. The aroma was…hard to describe. At one moment it reminded me of a roasted Dong Ding. On another, later whiff it resembled a Ti Kwan Yin. Very peculiar.
In the interim, my brother and his fiancée were entertaining guests. I tried to stay out of their way as my experiment manifested. They did, however, coax me out of hiding with a sweet potato veggie burger and gelato. I can never say “no” to gelato.
At the three-and-a-half-hour mark, I turned off the simmer, and – with my brother’s permission – poured the soup-like liquor into his French press. The liquor was very shou pu-erh-like in appearance, but the aroma reminded me of a very ancient Taiwanese oolong.
The entire time, my brother kept the firepit stoked. We all gathered around it – them with their beers and juices, and me with my unusual tea. I sipped it gingerly. That aged oolong comparison? Even more accurate in the flavor. This tasted like a tea decades beyond its years – medicinal, kinda floral, mildly roasty, and with maybe a hint of fruit. Somewhere.
Did I do the process correctly? Did it taste like how it was supposed to? Heck if I know.
As my brother said, “It’s good…but not three-hours good.”
I flatly disagreed. I felt like a fisherman, and the flames of the firepit were my sea. And all I had for bait was a very unusual tea.
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.