The coffee situation in Korea was not very advanced in the 1990’s. Koreans seemed to like coffee but I never saw or heard of there being any percolators in apartments and never noticed any ground coffee in stores. I only ever saw instant coffee there in most of my travels back then. There were many vending machines placed outside on a lot of streets. Most of these machines were selling little paper cups with around a third of a cup of hot instant coffee in them. It cost 350 won for each cup and you could choose coffee having milk and sugar or choose black. To me that was just around 35 Canadian cents a cup. These machines seemed to be everywhere I went, in tourist areas and on sidewalks, and sometimes I did get a cup, although I found the cups tiny and wasn’t crazy about it being instant.
Sometimes an office had little paper pouches of powdered ready-made coffee mix to pour into your hot water in your cup. That was your coffee break. The hot water always came from a water machine that had hot water or cold water to drink – you dispensed it yourself from a spout into your cup and the ‘spouts’ always were a blue colour for cold or a red one signifying hot water. The package of mix had instant coffee mixed with sugar and powdered whitener and you stirred it around and that was as generally good as it got for having a cup of coffee in Korea in 1997. I never did see a coffee mug once!
Coffee shops, which were new, expensive places to me, as my area of Canada didn’t have any such places, sold a cup of coffee that was in a western-style teacup, for ₩4000 to ₩5000, which was atrocious in my mind because that was like over 4 dollars or over 5 dollars. Over 20 years ago! The coffee served to me in these cafes tasted like instant coffee, and I thought it was a small amount too. But not as small as the 35 won cups from the vending machines! The ‘coffee shops’ or ‘cafes’ may have been serving ground coffee and it may have been brewed, but it certainly didn’t seem to be. It was slightly gritty and there seemed to almost be some kind of filmy residue in it. They almost always gave you your coffee already mixed with sugar and whitener whereas in Canada, many times the customer puts his own in himself.
When I talked one time to Sail Lee, a salesman at LG Cellphones in my Karibong teaching job, about these coffee shops he said the prices were so high because you were paying for the atmosphere in them. One we both went to near my institute, or ‘hogwan’, had an all-wooden interior as the shop’s theme. We have a lot of wood in Canada but Sail explained that in Korea wood had to be imported from Southeast Asia, like Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. He told me wood in Korea was almost non-existent and was very expensive to import, so it was rare to see it there. This was actually true. Houses and office buildings were made of brick, cement, granite and steel. Parts of temples or palace buildings were so special in part because they were made of wood.
Back to coffee and tea…When you were given white sugar to mix into your powdered coffee it was in cubes and wasn’t as sweet as the sugar I was accustomed to in Canada. Sometimes the cubes were light brown in colour. And you were given a sort of coffee whitener you had to put in your coffee, not milk or cream, as dairy products were not common over there. The whitener could be a thick liquid if it was a fancier set-up or usually it was a powder in little packets. On the subject of their sugar, I saw some Effem chocolate bars in convenience stores, like Mars and Snickers but when I bit into them, the chocolate was not very sweet! I looked at the packages and they came from Australia. I think the food not being as sweet as North American foods is wonderful, as what Canadians have is made from ‘high fructose syrup’ and is unnatural, ‘fake’ sugar. Like I have written before, everything was different there, even the coffee, sugar and cream that we took for granted any day in Canada and the USA.
A number of Korean ways and names copied the west over there, but they had ‘opposite’ policies. For example, there was Maxim for Maxwell House and highway signs said, “dial 119” for an emergency instead of 911 that we had in North America. Funny how somebody in government years ago who organised progressive policies must have deliberately chosen opposite-to-the-West terms and businessmen must have chosen product names that were similar to western products back then.
I remember wanting coffee to drink when my husband and I were travelling in Busan and Gyeongju in late 1999 and there wasn’t much chance of finding any at all as we were not in Seoul. Coffee was lacking in Seoul but at least there were vending machines and cafes selling a bit. I have a few memories of looking at the streets in these cities outside of Seoul and thinking wistfully about a cup of coffee. I know a large number of trendy cafes have spread to many places around Korea by now and that franchises like Starbucks are plentiful. Many things have changed very quickly throughout the whole country, I’ve noticed. I wish for some of these things to have remained the same, to be honest…. Korea and especially Seoul had more character back in the 90’s.
In grocery stores I saw containers of loose green Korean tea leaves and they were expensive – these containers cost $15 to $40, usually. Their teas are special and they have rituals for drinking them and also, their teas have varied uses. Common teas, which were to be added to hot water, were barley, corn, “nut”, lemon, plum and there were many others as well. I remember the Korean secretaries at my institute calling a certain kind of hot drink “nut” tea. This “nut” tea was really Job’s tears tea, I discovered years later. In Canada Job’s tears is sold as a homeopathic supplement for depression in capsules, I know, but in Korea it’s a highly popular tea. If you bought a box of this “nut” tea the powder turned your hot water milky white or off-white and the taste was slightly nutty and creamy like milk at the same time. Many times you were supposed to feel good about drinking their teas because they had health benefits besides having a good taste. Job’s tears tea was called yulmucha. Tea is “cha”.
One of the most common hot drinks was their lemon tea. It was so nice, rich and sweet with the citrus rinds in it but I prefered my Canadian tea bags of British-style brewed tea more. I add milk and sugar to my kind of tea. Korean people call western tea “black tea”. I didn’t know when I was there at first and had to learn. This was difficult to get used to because I never thought of my family’s tea as being black. Back home here I ordered tea once from a lady from Shanghai and got Asian green tea because I didn’t order “black tea” from her. Green tea from Northeast Asia and even lemon tea and the other kinds of teas you do not put milk and (sometimes) sugar in are called herbal teas in Canada. I prefer black tea to any herbal teas. I could only find boxes of Lipton brand black tea and a few boxes of Tetley tea to try to have my “black” tea when I lived in Seoul. It was very frustrating and disappointing because these brands are not like King Cole or Red Rose, which were for fussy black tea drinkers in Canada and England. My parents and grandmother would have cried missing their special British-like, black tea and they would have been upset at the lack of ‘proper’ tea in Korea, actually. My father, mother and grandmother drank their tea multiple times every day at home and were very particular about it. My mother had always said that Lipton and Tetley tea were “not real tea” and that Lipton tea is ghastly, so I don’t know what they’d ever have done over there.
I bought some corn tea while I lived in Seoul. Some teas were sold in teabags and that is how I got my corn tea. Dried kernels of corn were crushed up in gauze-like bags and you’d set a bag in hot water that had been boiling and leave it in the pot to steep for a while. I had bought a little portable stove and a pot after I’d been living in Korea for 5 months and I made some corn tea before I left Korea. I liked a little sugar mixed in with my corn tea. It was rich-tasting and had a deep, sweet, corn taste when I sipped it. We had nothing like that in Canada. You can buy Korean tea that consists of dried corn kernels to boil and the kernels are huge and dark brown. Their fresh corn over there is not sweet or soft to bite into like it is in Canada. We have North American corn niblets in cans called ‘peaches and cream’ variety and use canned ‘creamed corn’ in dinners and we eat wonderful ‘bread and butter’ corn on the cob and it’s lovely but in Korea their corn on the cob is on the dry side with big kernels. They love it but it’s not very nice to eat. I tried it once and was surprised. In Canada and the US we have many recipes made using corn. We make soups and chowders and casseroles with it, etc. I saw corn tea and sometimes saw corn on what was supposed to be a Korean version of pizza while I was there. Besides eating roasted corn on the cob, drinking corn tea and putting a bit on fake pizza that’s all I saw corn used for.
There were vending machines everywhere in Seoul back then selling several kinds of tea. They were lemon, Job’s tears and another few kinds I can’t recall. The machines were everywhere, like the hot instant coffee machines were, and it cost 350 won or 500 won to get a little cup of your chosen hot tea. You could tell it was a powder though that was mixed into hot water. Just the same, I had gotten sick over there and had a few bad sinus infections and these little cups of hot tea helped me a lot.