Despite the sweltering summer heat, my friend, Allie, and I spent a casual Sunday in June wandering to various sites around Daegu in a half-hearted bid to do something “cultural”. We meandered through the oriental medicine district near downtown and I suddenly had the bright idea that this would be a good area to find a traditional tea room.
A quick bit of googling later and we were on our way. “Google says this is a really nice place! It’s traditional and very well-known,” I explained enthusiastically. But when we reached the spot, something didn’t seem right. I double checked and realized I had looked at the wrong place on the map, and this was not the tea house that Google recommended.
“This place looks shady,” Allie commented. “Let’s just go to a coffee shop where we know there will be air conditioning.”
She was probably right, especially since “tea house” is often code for brothel in Korea. But I’m not one to give up on an adventure so easily, and I was determined to have a nice traditional tea house experience. We trudged up the creaky wooden stairs of a decrepit old building to the third floor and peeked in. With one look I realized Allie was right–this was not the kind of place I was going for–but it was too late to turn back, because an older woman had spotted us and rushed over to beckon us inside.
Walking inside was like stepping back in time to a Chinese food restaurant in the 1940s. A large, murky aquarium sat in the middle of the room; various Chinese art with dragons and designs made in mother-of-pearl adorned the walls, except above the table where she sat us there was a collection of zoo photography of some turtles and zebras. The place was nearly empty save for about five old men, each seated individually at his own table reading a newspaper and topped with a fedora hat.
We did our best to explain to the woman that we just wanted tea. She jabbered away saying things we didn’t understand, then smiled and nodded as if we were all in agreement. Allie and I looked at each other and shrugged; you can’t go too wrong with tea, right?
Beads of sweat dripped down our faces because, as it turned out, the tea room was not air conditioned. Flies buzzed around our faces and Allie glared at me. “Isn’t this fun?” I said with false cheerfulness. “Isn’t this just such a great traditional experience? It’s so cultural of us!”
With that, the waitress brought out a tray and set our drinks on the table. We stared at the glass, then at each other, then at the woman, then at the glass, then at each other with looks of mixed puzzlement and disgust. What she had brought out to us was not like any tea I’d ever seen before: it was a thick, dark, muddy looking liquid with an assortment of floating chopped nuts and topped with a raw egg.
What were we to do?! We couldn’t very well walk out without having touched our glasses, that would seem far too rude. So I gingerly dipped a spoon into the thick “tea” and fished out some of the nuts to try. The tea itself was quite sweet, and apart from the raw egg was tolerable. Allie felt otherwise, and attempted to remove the egg from the glass entirely. But eggs are not exactly easy to scoop up and soon her tea dish looked liked an animal had regurgitated on it. We tried to spoon the mess back into the glass, but when that wouldn’t work we gave up and covered the disaster with the stale cookies on the table. We quickly paid and made our escape hoping the muck we’d left behind wouldn’t offend the woman too badly.
I’ve been unable to find much information about what on earth that concoction was, other than it is a tea that was popular in the early 20th century, particularly when couples were on dates in a tea house. They may have thought of it as a romantic cocktail but let’s just say it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea…
This article first appeared in Platform, Daegu’s newest magazine aimed at reconnecting the city’s residents with the everyday highlights Daegu has to offer. Read the March issue HERE