If you go into an ethnic grocery anywhere, you are bound to find all kinds of weird and wonderful things. This being the 21st century, you might want to consider bringing some kind of computer search capabilities into the mix, so that you know what the heck you’re looking at. For all of Wikipedia’s other failings, it’s surprisingly solid on explaining the ingredients of food and drink. There are also a heckuva lot of food blogs and national pride sites out there, and sometimes the food company websites have pretty informative stuff available in English.
Obviously you should be cautious when eating food from companies or sources you don’t know. Finding an exciting new allergy, side effect,* or digestion disagreement is also a possibility. If you are pregnant, you definitely definitely don’t want to be experimenting with anonymous herbal teas, because some herbs can kill or hurt your baby, and you with her.
But in general, it’s good to try new foods. It gives your tastebuds a workout, and sometimes you find something you’ll be surprised you ever lived without.
If you go into a Korean store, you will find teas in several different formats. There are loose teas bagged up in boxes or kept in jars. There are powdered tea mixes in “sticks” (those long tube things that you rip open, pour out, and throw away). There are boxes of tea bags. And there are jars of liquid or jelly-like mixes that you spoon or pour into hot water. (These are usually made from fruits or peels preserved in honey or sugar-water.)
Often, the store’s inventory will vary with the season. Right now, it’s winter and still cold, so the Korean groceries around here feature a lot of ginseng and ginger tea, citrus teas, grain teas, and grain/nut teas. They are designed to warm you up, nourish you, and help you feel better if you catch something. In the summer, the selection is a bit different, as the teas lean toward things that are supposed to cool you down or help you lose weight. (Buyer beware.) There’s also a few mysterious boxes of Solomon’s seal tea and of Chinese/Korean herb tonics that are apparently pretty standard and harmless (although Solomon’s seal is one of those things you’re not supposed to take when pregnant without doctor’s advice, if you have blood pressure stuff going on). But phew do they look weird!
Heck, they even have pine needle tea. Yeah, it sounds stupid now, but if you were starving and really needed nutrients and greens, you’d be boiling pine needles too. OTOH, being nostalgic and drinking it on purpose seems excessive, though I bet it makes the house smell good and it’s supposed to be good for breathing problems. Some people swear by it, though, and it’s a fairly common herbal remedy around the world. I think it also is supposed to clear you out, so it’s not a casual drink. (But eating or drinking pine needles is VERY BAD for pregnant women or pregnant animals.)
I like ginger tea a lot. Combining it with lemon and honey is good, but you can also get it in Korean stores combined with rinds of the super-sour yuzu fruit (“yuja” to Koreans, “citron” on English-language labels). I got my mom some quince tea of this kind, and she enjoyed it.
However, my curiosity overcame me this time, and I bought a bunch of sticks of yulmucha, a powdered tea made from nuts and Chinese pearl barley (aka “adlay” or “Job’s tears” – not the kind they make into rosaries, but a relative). It’s supposed to have more protein than most grains. What is it like? It pretty much tastes like Cream o’ Wheat with nuts and sugar. I liked it, but it really did come across more as a liquid food than a drink. Maybe I’ll add milk next time.
Korean Tourism article on medicinal herbal teas. Follow the tabs to articles on every other kind of tea.
Korean tea article on Wikipedia. Leads to a lot of individual tea articles.
Places in Seoul to go drink herb teas. This guy’s a big fan of “omijacha,” five-flavor fruit tea made from the schizandra berry. He also points out that yup, a lot of Korean porridge* ingredients and garnishes are also used in Korean beverages. The line between meal and drink can be blurry!
Twenty Delicious Korean Drinks: A CNN travel article covering alcoholic and soft drinks as well as teas. Great pictures. Includes an explanation of corn vs corn silk tea. Describes the perils of soju.
Korean jujube fruit tea recipe with lots of pictures. I knew that jujubes were a fruit that grows on trees, but I didn’t know they were somewhat similar to dates in their taste. I have obviously been propagandized by the candy!
* Linden tea is harmless, relaxing, nostalgic, popular with old folks in Europe, and gives a very small percentage of people heart palpitations. This is why you look up possible side effects when eating or drinking herbal teas.
** Korean porridges include up to seven parts water to one part grain. Cooks were trying to stretch the food available. A grain tea stretches the food even farther, of course.