In what about tea concerns, every country in Asia has his own “recipe“, not only for the preparation, but also the condition when a tea is offered, served and shared with friends, as well as which variety is chosen for the kettle.
But here in China, drinking tea is a must-do, like eating is in the rest of the world. Well, eating has a big social component here too, especially in the Canton area, but this will go for future posts. Back to tea-things, it can be considered THE social beverage by its own merits. It’s drunk anytime, anywhere, by any social group, more even than water or any other drink you can think.
Also, it’s not only a daily life beverage as it could be coffee in Italy, kumiss in Mongolia, or chelas in Mexico, but also has a great heritage from history and culture, being connected and feed with a vast array of deeply rooted traditions and beliefs like Zen, Buddhism or Confucianism, which linked the consumption of tea with inner peace, reflexion, spiritual supercharge, meditation and various Nirvana, as well as a source of cure for various diseases.
In addition, Chinese tea-drinking popularity pushed the large production of teaware and porcelain, and made mighty and famous the Chinese porcelain industry, brought to Europe by Marco Polo.
As you can see, tea spreads in such diverse areas such as medicine, social life, commerce, arts, literature and spirituality, relating and feeding off each other during centuries, in a process that ended in today’s tea, preserving almost all the characteristics the people has given to the tea (being scientifically proved or not) during all this time.
Passion for tea here is so strong that, as in example, can lead to unreal situations and unusual job offers and harvest methods…
Well, all together makes the Chinese “way of tea”: their own tea traditions and culture, involving the performance itself (preparation, presentation of tea leaves, brewing) and the social interaction done during the pouring as well as before and afterwards.
Tea and teaware
First of all: there’s only one plant that “produces” tea: Camellia sinensis. So if you’re buying or drinking something called rooibos, chamomile, bergamot or whatever else, that’s not tea. It’s an herbal infusion, not tea.
To make it more clear, the term chá, pinyin for the Chinese word 茶 (tea), comes from the word cháshù (茶树): tea-plant (the camellia sinensis), so more reasons indeed to look for this name when buying tea..!
Also, he difference made between the types of tea (green, oolong, etc.) is the process, nothing else. They all come from the same plant.
The leaf is the part of the plant used in the brewing, and it can have lots of sizes, and in theory, the smaller the leaf, the more expensive tea, because it’s implied the flavor is better. But do not take this too seriously. Every kind of tea, brand, method of brewing, gives tea a unique flavor, so it’s up to you to discover and appreciate it…!
Some varieties are kind of rolled or wrapped, even the entire leaf, so when it gets through the brewing process, gets unwrapped in all its extension, as you can see in the first picture of this post.
I particularly like green tea as well as the compressed one, being this last one a nice and practical present going back home. In some moments of history was used as a currency, so imagine how appreciated it was.
The hardware for tea brewing and serving is diverse, and depends on the situation and place, but the best and common part of it is the traditional chinese tea pots, made of unglazed clay, seasoned from years of use, if you’re lucky.
This clay it’s supposed to absorb the essence and flavors from the infusions made and eventually, over time, develop a glazed appearance on the inside. The clay used to make these tea pots is a special Yixing clay, only found in this small town in China, near Shanghai, and it is highly appreciated.
The ceremony (brewing tea)
There are different methods and ceremonies, such as the Kung Fu, the Gaiwan method, Perennial, Wu-Wo, Tibetan and, of course, daily ‘methods’ like just a teapot and boiling water. I’ve seen the Gaiwan overall in restaurants, whilst the “kettle method” (tea + water until leaves whitens) is more for the daily common use and some popular restaurants too.
Normally, the commercial brewing method is known as Gong Fu tea ceremony, or indistinctly Kong Fu, as it is the one I’m about to describe.
The ceremony starts with a prepared tea set table like this:
The small figures displayed are from loyal customers (also wealthy) who pay to the shop to keep their figure in all the performances of the ceremony. Each figure is a lucky charm for his owner, and can be from having lots of children to lots of money, passing by things less mundane like inner peace and health. Every time the tea ceremony is performed, some pots of hot tea are being poured all over these figures:
Then tea leaves are prepared and presented in a display vessel. Normally they use one to two spoons of leaves as a start.
All glasses and recipients are rinsed with hot water. The purifying nature of this gesture is evident, and also has a counterpart in another purifying “ceremony”, but in other circumstances: before eating, all the dishes, bowl, chopsticks and cups are cleaned with tea.
But in the tea ceremony, this is also done to warm up the vessels. There’s no worry about the water, because usually there’s a draining tray in the tea set table (and so that, it’s also called “tea boat”).
Before serving the tea for drinking, hot water is poured all over the leaves and then, almost immediately, thrown away. This way dust and other particles are cleaned from the leaves and they starts to opening up, freeing the first notes of their aroma, and being savored before drinking in special cups, to “impregnate” your palate with it.
When the teapot is filled and covered, is rinsed with hot water all over again, drawing the stream over the air hole until water comes out the spout. When this occurs, it’s supposed to be on the right temperature.
Water is poured into the fair cup to heat it. A fair cup allows the tea to be poured from the teapot into a holding vessel. Sometimes these fair cups use a filter to trap unwanted tea particles that may have passed on from the teapot.
Tea is poured several times in order to appreciate the escalade and points of the tea over the time and dilution. As more good is the tea, more brewing will be able to be served without diminution on the flavor or taste, but sustaining it.
As you can notice, the chinese ceremony emphasizes tea itself rather than the ceremony, despite Japan’s tradition (to mention the most known one), and how the selected tea tastes compared in the successive rounds of drinking.
The person performing the ceremony should do it in calm and relaxed manners to create a peaceful and neutral environment for tea enjoyment. The drinkers are the ones who should “fill” the room with their conversations.
This skills brewing tea should be reflected through hand movements, facial expressions and clothing. Note the position of her hands:
Sometimes you will see a person knocking his fingers on the table when another pours some tea in his cup. This knocking can be either with the top of index and middle fingers or with those bend.
This is not a Morse code or something else between the customer and the waiter, as I thought when I arrived. It’s a sign of appreciation.
The history goes like this: Chinese emperor, long time ago, Ching dynasty or so. The emperor likes to dress casual and go around the country with a discrete court of servants, all of them low profile. One day, in a restaurant, after pouring himself a cup of tea, the emperor filled the servant’s one aswell.
Having an emperor filling your cup was something extraordinary and an act of immense grace by the emperor, so he wanted to kneel down to pay respect and gratitude, but being told to stay discrete, instead of that, he keeled down with the fingers, a mode of legs.
This tapping is still in use nowadays as a sign of courtesy and politeness when someone pours you a cup of tea or top up your cup.
Making quality tea, water is as important as the tea. Tap water here in China is low quality, so you have to buy bottled one for daily life and use. It’s not only about the bacteria and related stuff (that can be erased easily boiling the water) it’s about the chemicals that sometimes, depending where you live here, water can carry with.
Have in mind that each kind of tea has its own water temperature: green tea is ruined by boiling water, while black one can easily handle it…
Infusing time is also very important! The combinations between water temperature and time the leaves should be in can give a vast array of tones and points of flavor.
The social aspect
For me it’s the most important part of the tea consumption here. The ceremony’s ok, nice and whatnot, but it’s performed only in certain, special occasions. Tea-drinking-time is not about making all the drama of the ceremony to enjoy a cup of tea, but to share.
Tea is drunk everyday, all day long, for any occasion, with anybody. For example, it’s very common to see a portable electric hot plate with a small kettle and some rusty clay tea pots, being shared by the owner and friends with maybe some usual customers:
Sometimes I’ve been offered a cup after buying some fruits in a shop near my apartment:
Also, tea is not only served “as it”. It can also be served with milk, flavored with thousands of fruits, as a smoothie and, to make long story short, a vast array of products, but better leave this mundane side of the tea for further posts…
Some spare tips:
- Do not do a tea with a teabag. That’s for lazy British.
- Use bottled water if possible, but not distilled. Cold one (not previously boiled or flat water) would be ideal.
- Place the tea-cup in a lacquer, wood, or bamboo holder, never directly to the table (as seen in the pictures).
- To appreciate the flavors and tones of tea do not add sugar, nor milk or lemon.
- A teapot (as well as teaware) should never be washed with detergents or soaps, but with boiling water.
- The teapot and other teaware must be allowed to dry naturally.
- Jade Market, Hong Kong (香港玉器市場). Tea and jade are some of the cores of the ancient Chinese culture and society.
- The Flickr set on Chinese tea, with a tea ceremony, diverse teaware and other ‘tea moments’ across China.