While in Seoul, Kim recommended a pretty unique food experience of going to the Flying Bird Tea Shop. The little tea shop is known for the little birds that fly around the tea house. They bathe, chirp, and give the place great ambiance. It also has the most beautiful bathroom I ever seen: it features live goldfish in a large decorative bowl as well as a floor covered with smooth pebbles and with medium stepping stones to get to the toilet.
We decided to try a couple of the teas. The first one was Omicha, or “Five Flavor Tea,” that boasts stimulating all five flavors. I found sweet, tart, bitter, and a little salty from the pine nut floating on top. It reminded me of kool-aid if kool-aid had no sugar and just relied on a natural sweetness. Next was the Holy Mushroom Tea, a medicinal tea said to help with diet, hypertension, and cancer. It has kind of a watered down mushroom taste with the mushroom being very subtle at the end of each sip. It did get a little bitter with each sip, but that was a good counterbalance to the rice cakes. The last tea was Jujube Tea. This tea was very thick and sweet. At first, I figured it was the mushroom tea because it was so dense and a color reminiscent of mushrooms. But, the coloring comes from being made from sweet dates and the tea is believed to relieve tension. Kim mentioned it tasted raisin-like and it reminded me of brown sugar.
With the tea, we had a couple of snacking options. Flying Bird provided hangua, which are similar in shape to Cheetos, but are white and covered with sesame and black sesame seeds. They are a lot like American rice cakes or Cheetos in texture. They are airy and sweet. Kim had also brought some tteok ddek, or little rice cakes. They look like they’ll be sweet, but aren’t really. Some have a little extra sweetness to them, but overall they take on the more toasty and roasted qualities of rice that is similar to the flavor the hojicha or genmaicha green tea. Some were flavored with grape or had actual fruit and nuts in them. One had mugwort, giving it a strong herby quality. The texture is what I enjoy the most. It is gummy and spongy and reminds me a lot of when I used to tear of the crust and ball up Wonder Bread. Tteok ddek has that same sense of smooshy and comforting.
The Flying Bird Tea Shop was one of those great stops that remind you just how much ambiance matters. Between the Zen bathroom, that had a heated toilet seat, the playing birds, and the comforting tea, the experience was just as much about meditation and sensation as it was about food. It reminded me a lot of the other restaurants in the vendor district in Seoul in which the restaurants are on the second stories with big windows facing the pedestraian mall. You could enjoy the meal while enjoying the sights and sounds of the shoppers. Although not zen-like in the way that Flying Bird was, it still shows an emphasis on food as part of day and experience, much like a Korean translation of the Parisian café. You shop, you eat, you people watch, your relax, you enjoy. Doesn’t get much better than that.