Before we moved to Chungju, I spent a lot of time paging through Korean cookbooks, trying to imagine our new country though its recipes. Tentacled sea beasts aside, what really caught my attention were the desserts. Apparently, Koreans didn't do dessert--at least, not as I knew it. Per the books, dinner was followed with hwa chae , a traditional punch made of sugared water or syrupy tea with fruit and spices. The glossy photos made it look elegant: flowers of fruit drifting on a sweet lake. I imagined sitting on a wood floor sipping hwa chae from porcelain bowls while the monsoon rains pattered outside our open windows.
So naturally, we arrived to find a land of choco pies and Baskin Robbins. (And, incidentally, a terrible drought--that monsoon can start any day now.) In three years, we have never once encountered dessert tea. Then last Monday the lunch lady filled a divot in my cafeteria tray with fruit cocktail floating in a bright orange liquid.
"Wow, is this hwa chae?" I asked the other teachers.
"Yes," they confirmed. "It's very traditional."
I dug in and came up sputtering. "It's Fanta!"
"Fanta soda, yes," the teachers agreed. "The color is so pretty, and it tastes delicious."
That's one opinion. I myself would say Fanta is the color of a migraine headache and tastes like sparkling Tang. But this was cafeteria food, after all, and I let it go. It just made me want to try the real stuff.
I polled the table on how to make the sugar tea. One teacher suggested I just use cider (Konglish for white soda). A second voted for milk. The internet, when consulted, recommended equal parts cider and milk. The recipe had clearly strayed somewhat from when it was served to royalty in the Joseon Era.
And I, in that delightfully dim and righteous way foreigners have, got judgy. "You make hwa chae with milk and soda? You've got to be kidding me."
Fortunately, my disbelief was interpreted as enthusiasm. "It's so easy!" the other teachers agreed. "You should make some for Sam. Make it tonight!"
Yes, I agreed. I certainly would make some that night. And it wasn't going to be watermelon floating in milk either. I was going to do this right, for crying out loud. Have some respect for heritage, people.
Five classes, one meeting, and an impromptu perm and hairstyling session in the 5th grade classroom later (don't ask), I left school for the grocery store. Sam called to say he had hurt his back, could I swing by the pharmacy for some Tylenol? And come up with something for dinner? Then I got a text from a co-teacher, changing all the lessons for the next day. By the time I dragged home, lugging two bags of groceries and a whole watermelon, my enthusiasm for this project had dwindled.
And I found a bottle of cider in the fridge.
I began to understand the motivation behind Fanta hwa chae. Modern Korean women were like Superman and June Cleaver rolled into one; they were expected to be full-time employees and full-time housewives. Ok, maybe Joseon Era women made their punch from scratch. They didn't have 7-11s back then.
Shortcuts and time-savers? Very traditional.
In the end, I compromised. I mixed the cider with pineapple juice and crushed watermelon. Poured over fresh fruit, it had a cool, fizzy flavor that offset the summer heat. And it took roughly 4 minutes to make.
I still fully intend to make traditional hwa chae . Just not on a Monday night. In the meantime, here's the recipe for Weeknight Korean Fruit Punch:
Cut fruit into bite-sized pieces. (Or go all Martha Stewart with cookie cutters.) Add fizzy beverage of your choice.* Consume.
*Rumor has it a little soju doesn't hurt either.