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In China, Tradition Brews in Tea Cups

In Hong Kong, culture thrives in hot water

Published: Sep 2, 2013 06:00:07 AM IST
Updated: Aug 26, 2013 02:20:33 PM IST
In China, Tradition Brews in Tea Cups
Image: Corbis
A waitress serves customers at Guanyinge, a 100-year-old tea house in Peng county, in China’s Sichuan province

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.

Hot Waters
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.

In China, Tradition Brews in Tea Cups
A range of teaware is used to brew the perfect cup

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.”

This is a whole new ball game for a novice in the art of tea, be it preparation, consumption or appreciation. The other varieties look similar to me, but not to Charlie Wong. Yellow tea, a light tea, is processed like green tea, he said. Oolong, a traditional Chinese tea, is sun-dried and oxidised while the red is a completely oxidised tea that the world knows and drinks as black tea. Chinese black is segregated into hundreds of types, depending on where it is grown, how it is processed, the additives used, etc. “Look for leaves, shun powder,” is Charlie’s advice. “Tea leaves with tips are more nuanced and have a mature complexity.”

Chi for Tea
The Chinese believe tea has connotations of happiness, enjoyment and fortune. Every Chinese tea ceremony is said to have a spirit—a chi—of its own. The chi is he, jing, yi, zhen, which translate into peace, quiet, enjoyment and truth, respectively. “For us, tea is not just a beverage,” says Maria Chen, our hostess at Lock Cha. “We believe it also helps quench thirst, aids digestion, provides health benefits and often adds flavour to food.”

A range of teaware is used to brew the perfect cup: Teapots, cups, glasses (for brewing and drinking), gaiwan (serving as a teapot or cup) and a tea tray with an in-built draining board. A flat-bottomed teapot allows long and thin tea leaves (such as Dragon Well) to nestle comfortably at the bottom; a round one is perfect for rolling round leaves (Jasmine tea). Teaware is commonly crafted from clay or porcelain. Yixing teaware, made from zisha or ‘purple sand’ clay sourced from the mountains of Yixing—these are highly prized, with prices ranging from 20 to thousands of yuan—are ideal for black and oolong teas, and aged pu-erh.

The Chinese Way of Tea isn’t only about the tea. It blends many things: Attitude, tea and water selection, the right teaware, a calming ambience, the proper technique, and graceful mannerisms. Together, they create the perfect cup of the delicately nuanced beverage.

We begin with a cleansing ceremony. The tea pot and the small cups, which hold about two swallows each, are washed with hot water. Apart from cleaning, this warms the teaware. Tea leaves are then placed in the pot and hot water poured in until it overflows. This water must be quickly drained off into the tea tray. The excess water helps the tea leaves to expand and ultimately enhances the flavour of tea.

“Brewing tea depends on three things—the kind and amount of tea, the temperature and the brewing time. Each kind of tea needs water at a certain temperature. Green and white teas, for example, are delicate and will become bitter if steeped in boiling hot water. For oolong, 180-190 degree F work, while red and black teas can use boiling hot water to release their full flavours,” says Maria. “I use the same leaves six to seven times,” she says. “But if it steeps too long, the tea will be bitter. If it doesn’t steep long enough, the real aroma or flavour will elude you.”

In China, Tradition Brews in Tea Cups
Image: Corbis
Clay pots tend to absorb odours and tastes, which is why most Chinese don’t use soap to wash teaware

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 masters often place greater importance on the quality of water than the tea leaves. Over-boiled or distilled water is said to be dead, devoid of qi (energy). “Use tap water. Sterilised water has no life and, consequently, will lead to lifeless tea,” Maria tells us.

Colour Code
I’m learning new things every moment. Green tea isn’t only rich in antioxidants. If I pause for a moment, I can inhale the aroma—is it grassy, nutty or floral? Maria scotches all notions that green tea can be ‘slimming’. “Green tea is ‘wakening’ tea; it is tea that keeps you youthful. By nature, it’s cooling. It’s a delicate tea that also makes for a great cold water brew,” she says.

I take a swig of white tea. It’s mellow, sweetish and light. I swill it around in my mouth and think it is subtly floral. Yellow tea seems more complex—the aroma’s pronounced; I take a breather and find that the aftertaste is delicately nuanced and woody.

For someone who hasn’t dwelled on the flavours and aromas of tea, this is a complex art. I sip oolong and pronounce my judgement: “Kind of floral and fruity.” Maria smiles and looks at me questioningly. “And there’s a spicy aftertaste,” I add.

Like wine, it is possible to get drunk on tea. “Too much of oolong on an empty stomach, especially, can give you a head rush,” Maria warns. Dumplings are passed around as we sip oolong.

Next up is red tea, robust and full-bodied; the aroma is rich on cocoa, the taste is heavy on molasses, fruit and honey.

Maria passes around cup after cup, urging us to drink in the perfect manner. A tea cup must be emptied in three sips. “Hold the rim with the middle finger and ring finger. Women can let their pinkie dangle but it must be curved inwards for men. Place the forefinger at the top of the cup—this covers the lips as you sip and lets you drink like a lady or gentleman,” she says. The first sip, after taking in the aroma, is a small, polite one. The second one should empty two-thirds; the last must drain off the cup.

 “If anything is not your cup of tea, never force yourself,” Maria reiterates. “We’re looking for pleasure, not pain.”

I seem to have found my cup of tea in pu-erh, the Chinese black tea. The twice-fermented and aged tea has the colour of cognac, a strong earthy taste and a mellow flavour.

Pu-erh has been consumed by the Chinese for centuries and is said to have aided their longevity. It also lowers cholesterol, aids digestion and cures hangovers. “My grandma had pu-erh all her life. She’s now more than 100 years old,” Maria says.

She narrates a story about her grandfather, who was loyal to a brand of tea for 30 years. “One day, there was no tea in the house. He simply poured hot water into the pot and let it stand for a while. He got his usual cup of tea,” Maria says. Clay pots have a tendency to absorb odours and tastes, which is why most people here don’t use soap to wash teaware. “Our tea has no milk or anything that can leave residual deposits, after all,” she adds.

In China, Tradition Brews in Tea Cups
Image: Corbis
Tea houses still serve as centres for social and intellectual exchange

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.)

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  • B Rajeev

    Very nice..........

    on Sep 2, 2013