When it comes to tea, each Asian country has his own “recipe“, not only for the brewing, but also for when a tea is offered and shared with friends, the varieties chosen for the kettle and how you serve it all: the ceremony.
Here in China, drinking tea is a must, like eating is in your country. Well, eating is a big deal here too, especially in the Canton area, but I will put this aside for future posts. Back to tea, this beverage can be considered THE social drink in Asia by its own merits, having deep roots in Chinese history, culture and philosophic-religious schools (Zen, Buddhism or Confucianism), which linked the consumption of tea with inner peace, reflexion, meditation and various spiritual things, as well consider it a cure for various diseases. In some moments in history it was even used as a currency, and it pushed the manufacture of teaware and Chinese porcelain, brought to Europe by Marco Polo.
As you can see, the tea culture in China spreads in many areas like medicine, commerce, arts, literature and religion, relating and feeding off each other during centuries. All these elements make the Chinese way of tea: their own tea-related traditions, history and culture, involving the process (preparation, presentation of tea leaves, steeping) as well as the social interaction that tea incites.
Tea, teaware, and other basics
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, it is not tea. It’s an herbal infusion, but 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).
Also, the difference between types of tea (green, black, oolong, etc.) is made during the processing of the tea leaves. They all come from the same plant.
The leaf is the only part of the plant used in the brewing, and it can have lots of sizes, but in theory, the smaller the leaf, more expensive is tea, because it is assumed that the flavor would be 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…!
The hardware for tea brewing and serving is diverse, and depends on the opportunity, situation and place, but the best and common hardware are the traditional Chinese tea pots, made of unglazed clay, seasoned from years of use, if you’re lucky…
Clay it is supposed to absorb the essence and flavors from all infusions made in it, and eventually, over time, develop a glazed appearance on the inside. The preferred clay to make teaware is supposed to be a Yixing clay, only found in this small town near Shanghai, highly appreciated all over the country.
There are different ‘ceremonies’ for making tea, understanding the term ‘ceremony’ as the ritualized preparation and serving of the tea, such as the Kung Fu, the Gaiwan, Perennial, Wu-Wo, Tibetan, and of course, plain methods like a teapot and boiling water. I’ve seen the Gaiwan ceremony in fancy restaurants, while the “kettle method” (tea + water until leaves whitens) is more for daily use and some popular restaurants. Usually, the commercial brewing method is known as Gong Fu tea ceremony, or indistinctly Kong Fu, which is the one that follows.
The ceremony starts with a prepared tea set table like this (with more or less accessories):
These small figures on the front row are from loyal customers (also wealthy) who pay to the shop to keep their personal figure in all the ceremonies. Each figure is a lucky charm for its owner, and it can be for having children, lots of money, or things less mundane like inner peace or health. The frog with a Chinese coin is for the wealth (there were 5 of them).
Every time the tea ceremony is performed, hot water is poured all over the figures and the cups, to warm them up. There’s a draining tray below the tea set table (and so that, it’s also called ‘tea boat’), so the water don’t spills.
And after this initial rinsing of the teaware, the tea is presented in a tea holder, from which the tea leaves are actually picked up for the brewing, not from the bag, so the people on the table can examine and appreciate its appearance, smell, and other characteristics.
The leaves are picked from the tea holder and put in a Gaiwan cup (the white one in the pictures below), then, some hot water from the teapot is poured on the leaves in the Gaiwan, and almost immediately, thrown away (the water). This way, dust and other particles are cleaned from the leaves, and with any bubbles on the surface, are scooped away with the lid. After this ‘fast rinsing’, the tea is steeped properly to brew the leaves, freeing the first notes of their aroma. This first brew is poured into the cups, but is not drunk.
The Gaiwan is refilled with fresh hot water from the teapot and left to steep. After the pertinent brewing time, it is poured to another vessel, called tea pitcher or fair cup. The fair cup is used to hold the tea and make it the same density and taste before actually serving it, as the same tea leaves are steeped several times in the Gaiwan cup, to appreciate their flavor points over time and dilution (seen above).
The Chinese tea ceremony emphasizes on the tea rather than the ceremony (while Japanese tradition is just the opposite), and how it tastes in the successive rounds of drinking. The performer should do it in calm and relaxed manners to create a peaceful and neutral environment to enjoy the tea, and the drinkers are the ones who should “fill” the room with their conversations.
These skills are reflected through hand movements, facial expressions and clothing. Note her hands:
Sometimes you will see a person knocking fingers on the table when another pours some tea in his cup. This knocking is done with the index and middle fingers.
This is not a Morse code or something else between the customer and the waiter, as I thought when I saw it. It’s a sign of appreciation. The history goes like this: Chinese emperor, long time ago, Ching dynasty or so, 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 too. Having an Emperor serving you was something extraordinary and an act of immense grace by the Emperor, so the servant wanted to kneel to pay respect and gratitude, but being told to stay discrete, instead of that, he kned down with the fingers, as if they were 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.
To make a good tea, water is as important as the product itself. Tap water 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 microbial stuff (that can be wiped out easily boiling the water), but about the chemicals and taste that sometimes, depending where you live, water can carry with.
Keep in mind that each kind of tea has its own water temperature: green tea is ruined by boiling water, while black tea can easily handle it… Regarding the infusing time, take into account that combinations between water temperature and time the leaves are left in the teapot can give a vast array of tones and points of flavor. Lifehacker has a great guide to this (see links at the bottom).
Tea culture and society
For me it’s the most important part of the tea consumption here. The ceremony is nice and whatnot, but it is done only in certain special occasions. Tea time is not about making all the drama of the ceremony to enjoy a cup of tea, but to share it.
Tea is served everyday, all day long, for any occasion, with anybody. For example, it is very common to see a portable electric hot plate in many shops, with a small teapot and a rusty clay teapot being shared with customers. These below is from a shop open at 3am, where you could grab some food too (left) and a fruit shop, where you can enjoy a little chat before or after buying.
Some spare tips on tea:
- Do not use a teabag. That’s for lazy people.
- 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 the infusion, do not add sugar, milk or lemon.
- All the utensils and pots should never be washed with detergents or soaps, but with boiling water only.
- The teaware must be allowed to dry naturally.