The gaiwan is warm to my touch. I pick up the Chinese bowl, hold the lid tight and pour out the tea into a cup. I bring the cup to my nose and sniff—the aroma is subtly sweet yet intense. A sip leads to a flowery implosion—the fragrance and flavour linger long after the cup is emptied. Jasmine tea is a welcoming gesture unlike any other.
I’m at Lock Cha, a tea house in the heart of downtown Hong Kong, at the insistence of a friend. With the rest of the glittering megalopolis waiting to be explored, a tea appreciation class didn’t seem to be, ummm, my cup of tea. But, intrigued by the ideology and timelessness of Cha Dao, the Chinese tea ceremony, I decide to go for it.
I’ve never really been big on tea. A cup in the morning and I’m done with the beverage for the day. But I’ve come to realise, in just a couple of days, that tea is an intrinsic part of life in Hong Kong. People sip tea through the day: Before meals, during meals, as a substitute for water, for health, at leisure or for plain pleasure. If, in India, tea is a once- or twice-a-day drink, prepared by brewing dried leaves in boiling water, topping with milk and stirring through with sugar, in Hong Kong, it is considered one of the seven necessities of life (the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar).
Over thousands of years, the Chinese tea ritual has been honed into a fine art. Cha Dao, which translates into ‘Tea Way’, is commonly interpreted as ‘the Way of Tea’. The ritual is more than just the preparation and consumption of tea; it’s a layered discipline with deep meanings.
Lock Cha is a traditional Canton (or Guangdong)-style tea house, locally called chalou and subscribing to the Cantonese tradition of yum cha, which involves supping on tea, dim sum and simple dishes. The ambience is zen-like; strains of soft music play in the background, delicate teaware is displayed artistically, and the aroma of tea gently infuses the air. It stocks more than 100 varieties of tea, from the delicately scented chrysanthemum tea and the aromatic green tea known as a ‘wakening’ tea, to the strong pu-erh, a Chinese black tea said to aid digestion.
Legend goes that tea was discovered by Chinese Emperor Shennong in 2737 BCE when a leaf fell into water being boiled for his consumption. History says the use of tea as a beverage started when the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) conquered Ba Shu (today’s Sichuan). During Han rule (202 BC—AD 220), tea was regarded as a medicinal herb. Over the next 300 years or so, as Buddhism gained ascendancy, monks started using tea as a meditation aid: It supposedly fostered peace, calm, humility and a respect for nature.
However, the Golden Age of Tea came during the Tang era (AD 618— AD 907). Till then, tea drinkers were the academic and cultural elite of society. Tea now became a beverage consumed by all classes, so much so that the government started levying a tea tax. Scholars, academics and thinkers congregated at tea houses to share ideas. Political loyalties and social standing didn’t matter; honesty, morality, intelligence and rational discourse did. Drinking tea was associated with literature, arts and philosophy in general and Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism in particular. Chinese tea houses worked like Parisian cafés, rendezvous for the intelligentsia. Today, tea houses continue to function as centres for social and intellectual exchange: Tea is to China what wine is to the West.
Earlier in the day, while traipsing around a busy neighbourhood, I’d found myself at a tea store. The variety, displayed in tins, canisters and bins, left me spellbound. Tea can be broadly classified into six varieties, the chatty manager told me, depending on the level of fermentation. Presenting small quantities in pretty little porcelain dishes, he said, “Those withered green leaves, that’s green tea, the least processed of all teas. White tea is lightly oxidised and is similar to green tea. It gets its name from the silvery-white hair on the unopened buds.”
At one level, tea is also about cultivating values and principles that are significant and enduring. “Brewing round after round of tea that tastes exactly the same helps us be patient, practice and persevere,” Maria says, only half-jokingly.
Tea can also be brewed in two other ways. The Chaou way is an informal method and lends itself to delicate and medicinal teas, and tea tastings. A tiny cylindrical cup allows one to sniff at the tea, after which it is brewed in a chaou (a set comprising a cup, saucer and lid). Gongfucha, far more formal, is ideal for oolong or double fermented teas such as pu’erh. It necessitates the use of a complete tea set and a Yixing clay tea pot, and is usually preferred for formal events and occasions. The method of brewing the tea remains the same.
Maria advocates the use of strong black tea with heavy meat dishes, and advises pairing lighter green tea with desserts. Her parting shot: “Tea bags are a never, not a no-no!”
The elaborate nature of the ceremony and the ritualisation of an event that’s part and parcel of our life has made a strong impression on me. The first thing I’ll do when home, I tell myself, is to dump the many tea bags I have collected and brew myself a cup of Chinese tea. I look around, keen to pick up the right teaware.
Pots and Pans
Teaware is an important component of kitchenware here. A regular tea set comprises a teapot, cups, tea tray and a sieve. Often, families set out a favourite clay animal or two, for luck. Cups of tea symbolise a warm welcome and, traditionally, a visitor must sit down and drink tea while talking.
A cup of tea could also be an offering made to express respect or regret, an apology or a celebration. “Tea plays a special function at weddings. Apart from connecting the two families, we believe that the bride and groom must brew it to express thanks to elders and seek their blessings,” says Martin Lee, a Hong Konger I have befriended.
Surprisingly, despite India’s long association with tea, we have no ritualised ceremonies that can be compared to the Chinese Cha Dao, the Japanese Sado or the Korean Tarye. Sado, a ceremony around the Japanese green tea called Matcha, is similar to the Chinese tea ceremony. Tarye, the ‘etiquette of tea’, focuses on relaxation and harmony and how they can enhance the pleasures of the ceremony. I realise that a ceremony, with its many rituals and traditions, is about more than the preparation and consumption of the beverage. It’s a way of life.
We step into a dim sum diner for an early dinner. Pots of pu-erh make their appearance at every table before the meal. I see a woman rinse the cups with tea. This is common dinner etiquette: Across the region, restaurants offer large receptacles to allow customers to clean their cups, bowls and cutlery, if they should so desire.
We tuck into our dumplings, following them up with swallows of tea. Martin tells me it’s important to never “judge a tea by its name or price”. “What matters is the taste and how it affects your palate. We believe that tea is like colour; its vibrations must match yours. Only then can you truly enjoy it,” he says.
In this ultramodern city, where time is always at a premium, the laidback tea ceremony showcases the importance of slowing down. To take time to enjoy the moment, to actually focus on what I am doing, to single-task. Looking around, at the many people sipping tea, I realise that slowing down is essential to live in the present, instead of looking at the past or focusing on the future.
A Chinese tea cup is small, but it doesn’t hold only tea and water. With every sip, I partake of China’s living heritage.
(This story appears in the 06 September, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)