Monday, July 18, 2005

Tea and me: Part 1

This is the first post in a series on all things I know and have experienced with Tea.

In the Rose home we always had lots of tea around. Boxes of tea bags and a few canisters of loose leaves could be found tucked in kitchen drawers and sometimes even lining several shelves in the pantry. Mama Rose always seemed to buy more tea even when we hadn’t finished any of the ones she had bought months before. When I was real young we did have some loose leaves around, but she’d normally buy the Bigelow box sets and sometimes even the plain Lipton bags. As I got older I noticed she bought a lot more tea from our weekly trips to Flushing, Queens. She’d buy bags of loose leaves of Chinese green or black tea. Today, all her loose leaf teas are lined up on the counter—ready to be brewed at a moment’s notice.

I remember Mama Rose carefully selecting teas she wanted to buy for both our home and as gifts from Ten Ren tea shop in Flushing, Queens (this is a well known purveyor of Chinese tea and teaware from Taiwan that has stores in mainly highly Chinese populated areas of the US). Recently, when I wanted to give a friend’s mom a tea set and Chinese tea as a thank you gift, I went directly to Mama Rose who bought me a small canister of some green tea variety. I knew I could never pick out the right tea myself.

For a long time, I couldn’t tell the difference between one tea leaf or another. I’ve only begun to understand the subtleties in the last few years and recently I did some online research. Stephen Jack wrote a really thorough article on the subject of tea you can find here.

The different varieties of tea essentially come from the same plant but are processed differently:

Green tea: Non-oxidized

Wulong (Oolong) tea: Semi-oxidized

Black tea: Fully oxidized

Then there are the blends: fruit infused teas and chai (which is tea mixed with spices).

I’ve had a few good tea learning experiences. Like the time I went to a tea house in MaoKong 毛空 (on the hills outside of Taipei) four years ago and recently had a chance to revisit. During my first trip, my chinese language teacher had organized it so that the tea house visit was the reward after a day of climbing the hills of MaoKong 毛空. My Chinese listening skills were not as good as they are now, so I didn’t really totally understand everything the proprietor said. Therefore, when my teacher decided to organize another trip to the same tea house two weeks ago, I was the first one to sign up.

During the first visit, the tea master explained to us the way in which to pluck the leaves and which ones were for what grade of tea. He also showed us how the leaves were processed: some dried on special racks and others that were even microwaved (yes, this is actually a method used by some tea producers here in Taiwan). We then drank several different varieties he had brewed to show us the difference between leaves that were processed using a variety of methods.

My second visit was a bit different because it was raining and we were unable to go out onto the hill and inspect the tea trees. Instead, we stayed under the canopies of the tea house while he explained different categories and aspects of the tea he has produced. We also had a wonderful meal in which he cooked a number of dishes including one that used tea leaves as an ingredient. But I will discuss this meal in another post.

Tea drinking is an essential part of Chinese culture, particularly in Taiwan (mainland Chinese regard tea as an important part of life and culture, but the Taiwanese appreciation is just at another level altogther) and the tea drinking “ceremony” (I use this term with caution as the Chinese do not emphasize the same type of “ritual” aspect to tea drinking like their Japanese counterparts) really deserves to have its own post, so stay tuned for that one.

But to continue with this post...though I’m not totally ignorant on the way of the tea, I don’t claim to be a connoisseur. I do, however, enjoy a freshly brewed glass of loose leaves almost everyday. Being in Taipei now is no exception. My aunt J.C. has quite a few canisters of tea, including one from Canada that has been processed with maple essences. It’s a really nice slightly sweet loose leaf tea and I particularly enjoyed it during my first week in Taipei when I would come home everyday trenched from a Taiwan downpour. It's still a bit funny to me that I was enjoying a Canadian tea in Taiwan. I have since moved on to locally produced teas, but after this typhoon, I might want to brew a glass of the maple leaves.

Tea is an essential part of food and drink culture in Asia. No matter what country, city or town you’re in, tea will always be around you. It’s served in the restaurants, by your hosts, sold in the vending machines or at the grocery store. Tea drinking culture can be seen and tasted throughout Asia. Even though the number of coffee shops (“Thank you” Starbucks) has quintupled or more in the last 5 years in every Asian country (particularly those in East Asia), tea houses and tea stores are still quite prevalent. During my visits to Kyoto and Seoul, I noticed that dining establishments are not only serving hot and cold tea, but cakes and other desserts with tea as an ingredient.

In Kyoto R.X. and I had a green tea crushed ice dessert at a cute little café on the top floor of a nearby department store. We waited a while for it (how long does it take to make this?). It came with red bean and green tea mochi balls (sweet glutinous rice balls that are soft and sticky). It was refreshing but after a while a tad too sweet. We ordered one and it was huge--even R.X. and I couldn’t even finish it together.


Green tea flavored crushed ice with mochi balls, topped with sweet red bean.

In Seoul, R.X. took me to O'Sulloc , a tea house that serves an assortment of foods and drinks with green tea. As we waited to be seated in the brightly lit, sleek and modern café, I noticed the delicious looking cakes in the displace case. Each one had some sort of green tea filling, frosting or even sprinkles. It was a delight to look at and they all looked savory. We were seated on the second floor and given a stiff leather bound menu book. Each dessert and drink was pictured along with a description (in Korean, of course, so my Korean friends translated when I could not figure out from the photos). We settled on three small cakes and mochi balls. The largest of the three was similar to a tiramasu and had a layer of green tea cream in the middle. A round cake was filled with cream and topped with peaches and green tea frosting. The third cake was a flat chococlate cream and wafer cake with green tea sugar dust on the top. The mochi balls were light and sticky, just as the should be. The green tea in these Korean desserts differed from the Japanese version. Particularly in the third cake, I noticed that the tea flavor was much more subtle. The Japanese shaved green tea ice had a distinct taste of Japanese green tea and really was intensely sweet. The Korean cakes had just a slight tinge of green tea, a muted flavor amongt the cream and wafers and they were definitely not as sweet.

I’m now in Taiwan and have yet to try any green tea desserts—actually, I haven’t seen any. I have good tea memories of past visits to Taiwan—drinking "zhenzhu naichai" 珍珠奶茶 (literally translated as “pearl milk tea”), known in the states as bubble tea and, of course, my visits to tea houses. However, I’ve never had any Taiwan dishes (dessert or not) that were made with green tea as an ingredient. I’ve been on the lookout for the last few weeks, but still haven’t found any.

Till then, I’ll be sipping another brew.

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