I do believe it was our mutual interest in tea that brought me in contact with Da-Hyoung Chung, a young businesswoman from Seoul, Korea. But Uday, the photographer accompanying me on a whirlwind tour across plantations in the misty Darjeeling hills, insists it was my lack of etiquette.

Da-Hyoung and I were both staying at the charming visitors bungalow at Goomtee tea estate in Kurseong, one of the 87 estates in the Darjeeling hills that have been certified to say they grow “Darjeeling” teas; these teas are soon to be accorded the GI or Geographical Identification certification.

I was on a writing assignment and scheduled to meet a slew of tea professionals over the next few days, while Da-Hyoung, it transpired much later, had business interest in the beverage. I first heard of her through Prem, the amiable cook at Goomtee, who, at breakfast said there was a japani in the next room – using the Hindi word for Japanese.

Naturally my reporting hormones were tickled. I knew the Goomtee management sometimes took in lodgers, the revenue going in the upkeep of the bungalow and the beautiful gardens. If I could wheedle out a chat session with her, I thought cunningly, I would get a story on “tea tourism”.

I decided to get the lady out of her room and talk to her right then and there. That’s when Uday, steeped in Bengali gentility, decided to protest.

“It’s only seven in the morning,” he hissed urgently, his eyes narrowing to convey his misgivings over imposing ourselves on an unknown woman without so much as a by-your-leave. “You can’t barge in on her so early in the day… she doesn’t even know you.”

I saw sense in his protestations and stopped just short of knocking on Da-Hyoung’s doors. “You are right,” I responded responsibly. “I’ll send Prem instead.” Prem had already woken her up with a cup of fresh Darjeeling sometime back. He would surely not be mistaken for a stranger. Uday was still not satisfied by my devious stab at social niceties, he grumbled, “She may not want to be disturbed by you. Look at the time.”

But I was undeterred. There was a japani, clearly a tourist, who had even more clearly forsaken the luxuries of a plush hotel to savour life in a tea estate bungalow. No way was I going to let the chance to talk to a tea tourist slip by. Prem was primed on what to say to the japani, and how to say it, and despatched – much to Udays chagrin.

Uday need not have fretted. Da-Hyoung turned out to be a charming young woman who was not asleep at the time as we had believed – and was quite ready to talk to us in a few minutes, Prem relayed to us.

“I was getting ready,” she explained brightly as she emerged from her room clad in a salwar-kurta and settled down in a comfortable cane chair in the corridor of the bungalow. Then, taking a sip from the second cup of a Goomtee special that Prem offered – no milk, a little sugar and all flavor – Da-Hyoung suggested we move outdoors to the lush green lawn, shoot my questions, and shoot them “slowly, slowly”.

My first question was the most obvious one: how come Goomtee? I could understand the salwar suit; light Indian clothing is the recommended attire for overseas tourists, especially those from cooler climes. But visiting a nondescript hill town such as Kurseong from distant Japan I could not fathom; it was way off the regular tourists beaten path. Yes, I was definitely intrigued.

“I am Korean,” Da-Hyoung told me between delicate sips of Prems tea, clearing my misconception of her nativity. “I want to buy Darjeeling tea.”

Oops, wrong on two counts. But still, this was too good. She was not a regular tourist but a business woman interested in Darjeeling tea…. a live buyer on my hands! I had a chance to find out about Korean tea drinkers, a species that I had only a sketchy idea of.

For instance, I knew from a report by market tracker Euromonitor that average tea prices in Korea were being pulled down by the declining popularity of green tea, but that the demand for other teas the herbal, fruit and instant varieties was on the up. I had also read somewhere that Korea had lifted 1,500 tonnes of Darjeeling tea in 2013, its first import of the globally-acclaimed leaf, and was planning to raise import volumes over the next few years.

And last year when I had visited Goomtee on another trip, its owner Ashok Kumar told me that Darjeeling varieties were gaining ground in newer markets such as China and Japan; obviously, going by the newspaper report and Da-Hyoungs purpose of visit, Korea too had been smitten by its aroma.

Da-Hyoung said she first heard of Goomtee when as a young professional beginning a career in tea, she started working in Tokyo at a Japanese retailer of tea, teaware and confections that also boasts of several outlets in the US. While here, Da-Hyoung not only picked up the finer nuances of tea and the tea business, but also of Indian teas and high-quality producers such as Goomtee, which her company stocked. “Darjeeling teas are very famous (in Japan),” I was informed. “They taste better.”

In fact, teas from Goomtee intrigued her so much that when she got married, Da-Hyoung decided that her honeymoon would be in Darjeeling; to be precise, at the Goomtee lodge. That was almost three years ago, in April 2012. “This is my second visit,” she said.

Da-Hyoung and her husband have now started a business of their own, opening an outlet of what else but tea in hometown Seoul. “We sell both retail and wholesale tea,” she said. The outlet also serves as a tea room, where customers savour her offerings from various tea gardens.

At Goomtee to sample out various teas to take back home, Da-Hyoung was also scheduled to visit neighbouring Jungpana Tea Estate noted for some of the best teas grown in Darjeeling after our tete-a-tete. I will buy small quantity if they give, she said.

(She later told me over email that she had placed an order for about 9 kilos of Jungpana’s second flush. However, she did not pick up the order immediately and instead sent samples back home; she would choose the teas after receiving the report. The reason for testing back home: “The water is very different in Korea and India.”)

Our conversation ended when Prem walked over to inform Da-Hyoung that her ride had arrived. It was time for her to go tea tasting further up the hills. Before she climbed into the waiting vehicle, Da-Hyoung said she had seen a few places in India but to her Darjeeling was the best. “It’s so clean, so 19th century London…” And then, there was that smile, and she was off.

POST-SCRIPT: A few days after I met Da-Hyoung, a group of 25 Koreans were in Darjeeling town on an exploratory mission organised by the Korea International Tea Research Institute, according to Calcutta’s The Telegraph newspaper. The paper said the group met local tea professionals to learn about Darjeeling teas and at the same time, spread word about their own produce.

Photograph by Uday Bhattacharya. The featured image is of Korean tea buyer Da-Hyoung taken at the Goomtee estate bungalow.

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