Yoon Hee Kim is an oasis of calm as she steeps a beautiful Korean early spring green tea. With deft movements and the deepest focus, she is a dynamo, sourcing and blending tea, teaching the Korean tea ceremony, and in the process, paying homage to her family’s long history of involvement in the tea business. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the recently ended Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle – where I participated in the Cooking With Tea Demonstration – without knowing that her extensive tea operations under the names of TeaClassics and Hancha Tea were only a short distance away from my Los Angeles base.
According to Kim:
“As a young child growing up in Korea, I think I drank tea before I drank water. My uncle, who descended from the Choson dynasty’s finest poet, Yun Sondo, still lives in a house surrounded by well-established tea fields, which was a gathering place where many of the region’s artists and poets practiced their craft and drank tea over 600 years ago.”
But fond memories aside, Yoon Hee is firmly anchored in the present moment as she swirls hot water into a large tea pot to heat it. She then gracefully empties the pot and adds fresh hot water and the tea scooped with a pale blond wood tea scoop, remaining instinctively alert to the perfect brewing time. Seated cross-legged on beautiful silk pillows in front of a long slab of burnished wood, a few inches above floor level, we are treated to an elegant array of Korean tea snacks (rice cakes known as tteok, delicate morsels filled with a juicy paste of honey-sweetened sesame seeds and red bean, and intensely flavored dried persimmon stuffed with walnuts) to accompany the delicate celadon cups of hot tea. The second infusion shows the tea off at its peak, somehow pleasantly “salty” when compared to the “sweetness” of the first cup. Now that we are taken care of, with our tea cups in hand, she spins a short history of Korean tea. “I think of the history of tea in Korea as a dotted line. With its strong associations to Buddhism, the tea culture was eclipsed, but never totally eliminated when Confucianism took over.”
Despite its start-and-stop history, the Korean tea tradition is rich and long and encompasses a vast array of brews other than those made from the tea plant itself. The leaves of persimmon, mulberry, and hydrangea trees and flowering chrysanthemum and cassia seed along with fruits and grains all find their way into the tea pot as tisanes. In Yoon Hee’s words, “Tea is more than just a beverage. It’s a way to honor our common humanity. When drinking tea, we need to know the tea, from soil to the cup.” Whether performing the elaborate ritual of the Korean tea ceremony (she teaches classes about all aspects of tea, including English tea traditions, in venues around the country and in her 5,000 square-foot space, specially designed for different kinds of classes), leading a group on a tea tour through Korea, or dipping a tea bag full of premium leaves into a paper cup filled with good-quality hot water, she asserts that drinking tea is a way to connect the world one cup at a time. And what a delicious connection it is when the tea is brewed mindfully in an environment decorated with hundreds of tea pots, tea cups, tea tables, and English bone china and filled Yoon Hee’s smile and warmth.