Thursday, August 30, 2007
Hwa Sun Ji Traditional Korean Tea House, Koreatown
We stepped into the teahouse ready to collapse from the heat and traffic on Wilshire Blvd. As the only non-Korean patrons in the shop, we shared the tea house with a few other parties: a couple of monks, a well heeled trio of middle aged women, a group of teenagers sitting on cushions at one of the floor tables, a family, and a group of young men. Thanks to the hanging transparent bamboo screens, it felt as though each group had their own private alcove.
The menu is divided into several categories of Korean tea: green, medicinal (vegetarians beware: some have animal ingredients such as deer antler), ginseng, loose leaf, adlay, citrus, fruit, root, flower, and traditional drinks (dessert drinks and juices). A few snacks are also available: shaved ice, sweets, ice cream, and cheesecake. Although the sign on the street advertises tea and coffee, coffee appears only in the snack section of the menu and only in two forms: “coffee” and “iced coffee.” For a $10 reservation fee, the teahouse offers a traditional tea ceremony featuring their finest quality green tea.
We wanted to avoid caffeine or anything heating so we ordered a Mo-gwah Cha made of slices of Chinese quince fermented in sugar along with the traditional dessert drink Su Jun Gwa (described on the menu as Korean punch) made with dried persimmons and cinnamon. The latter was served in a bowl with a wooden spoon to scoop out the floating crushed ice and re-hydrated persimmons. It was cold, sweet and pleasantly spicy – the perfect refreshment.
When I inquired about the consistency of the Shik-heh, another dessert beverage, the waitress offered to bring me a sample, a full sized bowl of a sweet (less so than the persimmon punch) icy liquid with cooked rice grains marinating on the bottom. Shikheh is made by steeping cooked rice in malt water, boiling the strained liquid with sugar and cooling. All three beverages were garnished with a sprinkle of pine nuts that added a round fullness to each brew.
Had we known we would be served a plate of complimentary rice cakes and puffed rice squares, we probably would not have ordered the Ho-du Gwa-Ja, a walnut shaped cake filled with sweet red beans. While these “cookies” are widely available at Asian markets, coffee and sweet shops, they were particularly delicious served warm, not overly sweet and imparted a nutty flavor that is not always detectable. They tasted best in combination with a sip of the quince tea.
I’ve never been to Korea other than the 8 hours spent in the Seoul airport where I was mesmerized by candy makers spinning thousands of fine threads of sugar that they rolled as a blanket around minced nuts.
The house rice cakes reminded me of those delicate confections and it was here that I think I’ve found my newest vice. Looking like edible white cat’s paws, the slightly chewy crispy mochi exterior gave way to a cloudlike hollow interior. As light as they were, the hint of oil betrayed the fact that only deep-frying could elicit such perfect puffiness.
The waitress was extremely hospitable and yet discreetly allowed us to enjoy our little retreat. Like summoning a flight attendant, each table was equipped with a button to connect us at any time to our server. When she saw that we enjoyed eating the persimmon in the Sun Jun Gwa, she brought us a complimentary plate of Kkot-Gam-Mal-E, dried persimmons rolled around walnuts. After clearing our table, we were presented with complimentary cups of warm barley tea.
The soundtrack of Korean lute music, the homey and clean décor, and artistic elements throughout the room created a peaceful and pleasing atmosphere. All drinks and snacks were presented on lovely ceramic cups, mugs and bowls (tea pots, bowls and cups were also for sale). We emerged onto Wilshire Blvd. feeling calm and refreshed as though for the price of $15 we had just returned from a vacation in a foreign country.