Korean Tea Ceremony

I went to a Korean cooking class today to learn how to make Bibimbap, a classic Korean rice dish with meat, mixed vegetables, and lots of sesame oil. It was delicious and satisfied my longstanding craving for Korean food. I learned from the instructor that there are only around four Korean restaurants in the entire country of Switzerland, and none in Neuchâtel. This was surprising to me, because I think I could find four Korean restaurants within walking distance from my house in California. But I digress…

Aside from the obvious deliciousness, I think my favorite part was the tea ceremony after the meal. There is something special to me about the tradition in the ceremony, knowing that people have been drinking tea this way for generations. The porcelain cups were a wispy turquoise; the matching kettles had small cranes painted around the base. Our hostess heated up water in an electric kettle, but from there, all traces of modernity disappeared. After pouring the water into one of the porcelain kettles, she poured it out again into every cup in order to heat them up and prevent the tea from going cold. While the water was heating the cups, she took several spoonfuls of green tea and put them in the main kettle. This green tea was expensive, as it was made from the tiny new tea leaves that the plant produced. She poured the water back into the secondary kettle, poured that into the main kettle, and waited for the tea to steep.

We talked as we waited, and when it was time she poured the tea into the other kettle, lifting and lowering as she poured to cool off the tea. After that, she poured the cups and served us, clockwise around the table. The cups were arranged in two rows of four, the order fixed so that we would know whose cups was whose.

She showed us how to lift the teacup and that we should treat it like a fine wine: smell it, sip it, swish it around in your mouth to experience the flavor. Part of the ceremony is drinking the tea from the tiny cups in three sips. When I asked about this, she said she didn’t know the significance, but that it was always like that. Maybe it parallels to the number of cups of tea we have during the ceremony. Because in between each round, we return our cups to their original position, ducks in a row, waiting for the new cup of tea.

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