Sunday, September 06, 2009

Back to the World of Tea

(Care for a cuppa? Tea , to some, is not to be drunk but to be appreciated over a small quantity at a time.)

Believe me, I have never drunk so much tea (in Chinese style) in my whole life as I did during those years living in the UK. Chinese tea is not a common beverage in Singapore as we prefer drinking tea in the English way, that is, adding sugar or milk to it. If not, we prefer coffee to tea generally. Tea with addictives or coffee provide a stronger taste than Chinese tea. Well, Chinese tea is relatively bland.

The raw flavour

If it wasn’t for the fact that after trying all kinds of brands while living in the UK that I find English tea too weak for my taste, Chinese tea would never catch my attention. Whether in the form of tea bags or loose tea leaves, the tea that I tried in the UK could only emit the fragrance of tea but somehow, didn’t have much taste of tea.

Then the jasmine tea served at Chinese restaurants in Chinatowns rekindled my feel for Chinese tea and I began to appreciate its “blandness”. Surprisingly, I found the taste of tea in the “blandness”. In fact, for the same reason, it is refreshing and thirst-quenching. Without the additional flavours of sugar or milk to obscure the actual taste of tea leaves, you can actually taste the subtle fragrance of the leaves themselves.

The beauty of subtlety executed in the form of taste. Ahhhh…..

Chinese tea is always a welcome after a meal of oily food or junk food.

(To some, tea itself is secondary to teapots. For those with a refined taste, tea is used to cultivate the pots with its fragrance. The more frequent the pot is used, the more fragrant the pot will be and thus the better the taste of tea that is steeped in will be. The quality of teapots affect the taste of tea but it will make no difference to taste buds such as mine.)

Poetic names of Chinese tea

Apart from re-discovering the beauty of Chinese tea, I also discovered the beauty of the names of Chinese tea.

Dragon Well (Longjing), Black Dragon (Oolong), Iron Goddess of Mercy (Tieguanyin), The Spring of Green Spiral (Biluochun), Lion Summit (Shifeng)……

The equivalence of tea to wine

Tea to Chinese is as wine to Europeans.

Some tea can fetch as much as 300pounds per 500g. It is the same mentality of people who are willing to pay a fortune for a vintage wine. The only difference is the object of value.

Pre-Qingming Dragon Well tea is a treasure because of the short period of harvest time and the intensity of labour involved in the preparation. Qingming is actually the tomb sweeping festival and usually falls between late Mar to early Apr in the solar calendar. Amazingly, it always rains around the Qingming Festival and rain provides the element for great quality tea.

Therefore, young tea leaves are promptly harvested during this period. However, as rainy days are short and only the young leaves are harvested, a quantity of 500g of Dragon Well tea requires a lot of labour. After the harvest, leaves are to be dried for a few days before roasted in small quantities for a few hours several times. All these have to be done over a span of 10 days and thus, the high price of this tea. And this is the Pre-Qingming Dragon Well, the first batch of Dragon Well tea in the year just after winter.

However, Pu’Er is the gem. Most tea will turn bitter when they are steeped too long but not Pu’ Er. It is described by some people a tea which is always in “continuous tense” as its flavour changes subtly during different stages of steeping but will not turn bitter. Therefore, there is no final taste of Pu’ Er. Just like the vintage wine, aged Pu’ Er tea tastes better. It can be kept for as many as a century, if well-kept and therefore, such vintage Pu’ Er is much sought after. Well, I have tried it once but I still prefer Oolong and green tea to Pu’ Er. In C’s words, it tastes like mud. Nevertheless, I will give myself and Pu’ Er a second chance again.

6 colours

There isn’t any uniform way of classifying tea in China yet. Some classify them into 6 different colours according to the extent of oxidization. White, yellow, green, blue-green, red (equivalent to English’s black tea) and black.

(Jasmine tea in gunpowder form)

In love with Gunpowder

I never knew what gunpower tea was and thought it was a type of tea.

Then to realize they are what the Chinese termed as “Pearl Tea”—tea leaves that are rolled into pearl-like shapes. Gunpower is the term used by the English as the leaves are rolled into pellet form which resembles gunpowder.

I fell in love with gunpowder tea in Bejing when I discovered Ginseng Oolong, which Oolong tea is used as the base tea and infused with ginseng before being rolled into gunpowder. There is a range of gunpowder available, even Jasmine tea can be found in such form as well and they are indeed more fragrant than the usual jasmine tea which is green tea mixed with jasmine flowers.

Chinese versus Japanese

At the mention of green tea, the show is definitely stolen by the Japanese, so much so that green tea becomes more of a Japanese tea than the Chinese. Chinese green tea has a more mellowed taste than the Japanese’s. But I like them both in their own ways.

For those who find Japanese green tea less appealing but would like to tap on the benefits of green tea can turn to Jasmine tea or Dragon Well tea as an alternative as they are both green tea.