Teaism: A Chinese Tea Ceremony

We drink tea to relax, to socialize, to mark important events in our lives, to apologize, for an energy booster, for our health, and to honor a valued guest.  The Doctor even requires it to repair his beloved, malfunctioning TARDIS.  Tea is so ubiquitous a drink in our world that to NOT offer a cup in some places is considered very bad manners.  It is common, and yet tea ceremonies abound celebrating its properties and use.  It is Asian in origin, and yet it has been adopted and enjoyed by most of the world. It is a simple drink that has over the years become entwined with some complex philosophy.  Above all, for our purposes, the history of tea is entwined with the history of the Silk Road.

Chrysanthemum Tea in Bloom

On our recent trip to China, we had the opportunity to enjoy a tea ceremony and sample a wide variety of different teas. More of a learning experience than a formal ceremony, our tea guide explained the importance of fragrance, the many and varied ways that teas are processed and the qualities that Chinese medicine ascribes to different teas. Then we learned how the first few quick steepings of tea were poured out over the cups and pot to wash the tea and clean and warm the cups.  Different teas are best steeped in waters of different temperature and green tea needs only steep for 1-2 minutes while other teas require longer time to coax the full flavor out of them. Some teas like high quality oolongs cane be steeped multiple times and some feel that their flavor improves with age. Some of the teas sampled were:

1.   Yang Tea.  It comes from a mountain rich in selenium which is a powerful antioxidant and in Chinese medicine is believed to be good for the mind and liver function and for preventing diseases of the spleen and kidneys.  This tea contains 20 times more selenium than other teas.

2.  Pu’er Tea.  This tea has a distinctively earthy flavor which gets better and smoother as it ages.  This tea is thought to detoxify the liver and relieving constipation.  It is also said to be good for losing weight because of the microorganisms that help ferment the tea also help to speed digestion.

Tea Ceremony – Xian

3. Ku Ding Tea.  This tea is brewed with only one leaf per cup and still imparts one of the strongest flavors of all teas.  It is believed to lower blood pressure and reduce congestion in the blood vessels thereby reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease.  It is also thought to be beneficial in preventing or mitigating diabetes.

4. Jasmine Tea.  This is a mixture of high quality green tea and jasmine flowers.  It can relieve headaches and improve digestion and even improve complexions when the strained tea leaves are used as a facial mask.

5. Gingseng Oolong Tea.  This tea is mixed with powdered gingseng root and is said to enhance immunity and increase vitality.  Some also drink it for the sweet taste it leaves in the mouth and throat that is similar to licorice.

6. Lychee Black Tea.  Powdered lychee fruits from China’s tropical areas are mixed with tea to make a sweet and flavorful tea that is said to be good for the skin.

7. Dragon Well Tea. This tea tastes like roasted hazlenuts and is enjoyed all over China for its memory enhancing properties and the ability for it to lift one’s spirits. It is said to detoxify the blood, increase metabolism, and reduce the harm caused by free-radicals.

8. Da Hong Pao. Also called rock tea because of how it is planted in and near rocks to enhance the growth of the plant and the flavor of the tea. It has the aroma and flavor of smoked wood which is used during tea processing. It is said to relieve abdominal distention and quenches thirst.

Chrysanthemum Tea Pods

9. Chrysanthemum Tea.  This flower tea is good for the throat and is said to lower the body’s inner heat and improving balance.  It is believed to reduce oral cavities and gingivitis.

10. An Xi Ti Guan Yin Tea.  This tea has the gentle fragrance of fresh orchids and green grass and is good for relaxation and increasing calm.  It is rich in vitamins E and C and the is believed to improve vision, reduce body weight and promote longevity.

11.  White Tea.  Made from immature tea leaves picked just before the buds have fully opened, this tea takes its name from the silver fuzz covering the buds that turns white as it dries.  High in antioxidants and immunity-boosting phytochemicals, this tea is an excellent adaptogen.

My favorite teas from a flavor point-of-view are Pu’er and Dragon Well tea, although the aroma of the floral teas and the sight of them opening in the water is really lovely. In general, there is a lot of beauty in tea. For me, that is part of the pleasure and part of the problem. I can’t bring myself to break up the compressed Pu’er bricks with pictures of horses and tigers to brew and instead have them hanging around the house from red knotted cords.

When the chrysanthemum blooms in the water, I don’t want to drink the tea to have it become a soggy sponge at the bottom of the glass – I want to appreciate the bouyant bloom forever.  For millenia, chrysanthemums have been the last natural flowers to bloom each year in most of Eurasia before the chill of winter descends. At my age, it is no wonder I am hesitant for the flower to fade.

Of course, this reluctance to destroy beauty is but a limitation caused by my attachment to the object (beautiful tea bricks) and to the aesthetics of the beverage as a culinary creation.  Haven’t you ever seen a dish presented so beautifully that you found it difficult to take that first bite?  Drinking a cup of chrysanthemum tea is a bit like that for me.  Well, if attachment is the problem, then more tao . . . I mean more tea is the answer.

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of Chrysanthemum Tea in Bloom by © | Dreamstime.com; photo of Tea Ceremony – Xian by Laura Kelley; and the photo of the Chrysanthemum tea Pods by © | Dreamstime.com.)

(For tea-lovers who find themselves in Washington, DC, I recommend the tea house  – Teaism – originally in Penn Quarter and now also in Dupont Circle and Lafayette Park neighborhoods.)

(For post about the Burmese origins of tea – click here.)

China: There and Back Again

We returned home from China a few days ago, my mind is still awash with all of the fantastic food I encountered on our combination family vacation and food research trip. We sampled a wide variety of food from fine restaurants in big cities serving national and regional specialties to street vendors dolling out snacks for a single yuan or two. We toured outdoor markets serving cooked food as well as huge, modern supermarkets where locals buy fresh produce and staples as well as fresh dumplings, rolls and breads. I even bought an armful of unusual, local snacks at the Xi’an Airport which included Yak Jerky and Dried Chicken Feet. In addition to sampling and enjoying food, I’ve brought back recipes and food ideas that I will have to reconstruct and share with you.

Hua’s Restaurant – Shimao Mansion

In Beijing and Shanghai, we sampled classic dishes such as Shark’s Fin Soup, Bird’s Nest Soup, Hong Kong Roast Goose, Deep-Fried Pigeon and Stir-Fried Abalone. We also enjoyed a modern take on Peking Duck, called BaYe Duck, that is prepared exclusively at Hua’s Restaurant in Beijing. This last dish is interesting, because it is representative of a new, lighter Chinese cuisine called Beijing cuisine in which traditional dishes are prepared with modern health sensibilities in mind.

Seahorse Tokay Wine

Xi’an was all about local food and drink for us. We sampled a variety of local “wine” which was really corn-based liquor (aka Chinese moonshine) flavored with pomegranates, saffron, ginseng and wolfberries and the strangest with starfish, sanddollars, a turtle and what might have been a lizard. The drinks flavored with pomegranates and saffron were good and had a great flavor, the other two just tasted sharp to me – not something I would reach for a second time unless they had fantastic health benefits attached to it. On the other hand, the tea we had in Xi’an – blooming jasmine, pu’er, and dragon-well tea were keepers that I brought home loose or pressed in decorative tea cakes

Other local food we had in Xi’an include hand-stretched noodles in a rich broth and thousand year eggs as part of an incredible buffet. We also had grilled mutton spiced with cumin, babaojing rice cakes flavored with jujube and jam, and persimmon cakes – all food that arose from the Shaanxi Muslim community.

Dumplings were everywhere – stuffed with pork, cabbage, fish, and combinations of meat and vegetables, and we enjoyed them with dipping sauces or sliced baby ginger and salted cucumber sticks. They also have marvelous “soup dumplings” that are served with straws for you to enjoy steaming hot soup before the cooked dumpling dough. These are made with a mixture of meat and aspic that then becomes “soup” when steamed. We trudged through the long queue in Shanghai’s Yu Yuan Bazaar for an authentic soup dumpling from the source at the Nanxiang Bun Shop.

I’ll be writing about these experiences and more over the next few weeks and I hope you tune in to enjoy the descriptions, cultural significance and when possible, recipes for some of the food we sampled. (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley).

Culinary History Mystery #4: The Origins of Tea in Burma

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river . . .
And she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China . . .

I grew up hearing Leonard Cohen croon these words over and over. Telling perhaps about my age and background, but important as an introduction to the history of tea as well. As a global drink, that came out of Asia and is now enjoyed in different forms worldwide, the history of tea is important to the Silk Road, and to understanding the history of Old World trade in general. And everyone – including Leonard Cohen – knows it comes from China, right?

Well, it turns out that the answer to that last question is really a lot more complex than it seems.

There is so much scholarship on the history of tea. And yet, almost all of it omits an important part of the story, namely that wild tea, or the closest thing that we have to it today is native to Burma.

Tea Leaves – Freshly Picked

The common belief is that the Chinese invented tea brewing around 2700 BCE when leaves drifted on the wind into a cup of hot water near to where the legendary Emperor Shen Nung was sitting. He drank the liquid in the cup, took a liking to it, and tea-drinking began. This is a myth – the sort of exotic tale that traders used to tell about the dangers of the spice harvest to drive up the price of goods. There is little evidence to support this story as the origin of tea brewing, and lots of information to refute it. In 1200 BCE there is another reference to tea-drinking at the royal court of King Wen, but no information about what sort of leaf, flower or bark was used to brew the tea – at best, a shaky data point with more interpretation than information value associated with it.

Around 350 ACE we have two solid pieces of information to document the use of tea in China as a medicine. The first is in an update of an ancient Chinese dictionary known as the Erh ya revised by Kuo Po. In this the drinking of tea as a medicinal beverage is clearly described as are the details about the plant and leaves. Geographical information about where the plants grow is also offered and lovely touches like how many men’s armspans the tea-tree trunks are. Clearly, this is tea and not a brewed beverage made from some other sort of plant. Slightly later in that century, there is documentation about the transport and planting of large numbers of tea plants from Yunnan to Szechuan Provinces – the likely beginnings of mass cultivation. Tea drinking as a medicinal beverage and the use of its flavor for culinary use grew in popularity over the next few centuries in China until Lu Yu’s Tea Classic (Ch’a Ching) is published in 780 ACE. So, there is a solid, documented history of tea drinking in China for at least 1700 years.

I’ve always been the sort to peek behind doors and curtains when I walk into a room, and yes, I always surreptitiously opened my gifts before Christmas morning when I was a kid. So for me, the less documented part of the tea-use story is the most fascinating part. If there is a mystery, I love to get digging.

It turns out that indigenous peoples in Burma and Assam (northeast India) pick young tea leaves and brew them, and they have done this for as long as anyone can remember. In other words it is not a learned activity from the neighboring Chinese or from western colonists. On a small scale, before the colonials, these same indigenous people also engaged in cultivation of tea with each family group growing subsistence levels for personal consumption. Additionally, many of these peoples carry tea seeds with them when moving from one settlement to another – indicating the importance of the plant to them.

Pu’er Tea Brick Tang Horse

Burmese cuisine also claims six flavors: sour, bitter, salty, astringent, sweet and spicy. And yes, you guessed right if you knew that the principal “astringent” flavor was represented by tea.

In addition to drinking brewed tea leaves, the Burmese also eat the pickled leaves as a vegetable. Their Laphet Thote which some of you may have enjoyed is a “salad” of fresh fermented tea leaves, lime juice, peanuts, sesame seeds, chili peppers, pounded shrimp and a bit of sugar. Bok choy or other vegetables are often added to extend the dish, or it can be eaten prepared en seul as specified above. Flavorwise, the ingredients read much like Burmese Tamarind Leaf Salad, but the tea leaves add a tremendous pucker factor to the dish that tamarind leaves do not offer – hence its importance in the Burmese flavor pantheon as an astringent. According to state statistics, pickled tea for use as a food (not a beverage) accounted for almost 20% of all tea consumption in Burma in 2006-2007. Laphet thote also has great ceremonial significance in Burma and as such is an important part of food for festivals, holidays and weddings.

Ground or pulverized tea leaves or the use of tea-beverage itself are also used as flavorings from China (tea eggs, to flavorings for soup, vegetable dishes and spring rolls) to Pakistan (a flavoring for chickpeas and other pulses). But to my knowledge, the direct mass consumption or fresh fermented or pickled tea leaves is uniquely Burmese.

Tea leaves are also chewed for a stimulant effect (not unlike betel, tobacco and coca) in Burma, Laos and Thailand and miang production is an important rural industry. Leaves are steamed, wrapped into individual bundles then packed into containers and weighted down. They are then covered with banana leaves. Young leaves are fermented for a few days to a week and mature leaves are fermented for as long as a year.

Pu’er Tea Medallion

So, a survey of other indigenous and national practices in the countries bordering western China’s Yunnan province – popularly noted as the birthplace of tea – show us that tea drinking and the eating or chewing of tea leaves takes place in nearby Burma and Laos and also is evident in Assam and in Thailand. What this suggests is that tea drinking and eating is probably ancient across the entire region and not something that is uniquely Chinese.

Modern molecular systematics also suggests an ancient regional use of tea. A study done by a team of researchers from China and Japan (Phytochemistry 71 (2010) 1342–1349) have used the phytochemicals in tea to create a “family tree” of different tea species and varieties called a dendrogram.

Backtracking a bit about species and varities, Camellia sinensis is the plant that modern tea is harvested from. This has two modern subspecies or varieties, var. sinensis and var. assamica. As you may have guessed, var. sinensis is found mostly in China, with some spread to bordering areas to the west and south, and var. assamica grows from Assam through Burma and into western China where altitude and precipitation favor its growth.

The earliest large-scale production of tea in China was in the form of easily transportable tea “bricks” and was made from C. sinensis var. assamica leaves. Pu’er tea is still made from the same plants and sold in brick form to this day. Chemosystematic analysis of several of the polyphenols from almost 100 tea species or varieties by the Chinese-Japanese research team indicate that the closest “wild” ancestor to these assamica leaves comes from the area near Dali, China and is often referred to as Dianmien tea. The tea species this represents is Camellia irrawadiensis – which is native to Burma, Laos and western China.

So a history of tea is indeed complex and made more so by the repetition of myths and legends. But there is also the value of indigenous practices versus mass cultivation and consumer trade to consider, and the importance of the value of oral history versus the published word at play as well. Modern science is throwing its hat into the ring and is helping to unravel this tangled skein of tea tales. More stories from the Tea-Horse Road and the “discovery” of tea by western colonialists will follow on a periodic basis. (Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photos of modern Pu’er tea bricks borrowed from Google images).