23 April 2010

Say NO to Bananas

When you’re drinking some fine teas, that is.

I had already been sitting there for 3 hours with them and since I was running late, I had missed breakfast, too. 

I try not to eat too much when I taste teas.  Many foods will change one’s taste perceptions, but I was too hungry and I didn’t have time to run into the 7-11 for some biscuits before our meeting.

Mrs. Hoho (she chuckles at me fondly with a “hoho,” sometimes a “hohoho”) was packing tea.  She and Mr. Hoho (a misnomer, since I usually only get one “ho” from him) are usually pretty busy, so it’s not uncommon for them to miss meals.  I had been eyeing two bananas sticking out from a bag that looked like their daughter’s lunch sack, fighting the urge to take food from a child.


“Mrs. Hoho, I haven’t eaten all morning.  Can I have a banana?”

She walked over to me and put a hand on the table as she looked around to find the banana that I was eyeing.  “Oh, let’s go eat some noodles and buns, that banana is not for you to eat.  If you do, you won’t be able to taste tea anymore.”


“Bananas dull your tastes.  Some tea sellers used to offer bananas to their customers so that they wouldn’t be able to taste the bitterness and astringency of the tea.”  Mr. Hoho said that smaller finger bananas have a richer and denser taste than the average yellow bananas we see in our grocery stores.  Bananas, in retrospect, do tend to coat our mouths with a thick “film,” their mushy flesh filling in the many hiding spots in our mouths. 

We shared a several buns from a nearby shop and returned to drink more tea.  At the end of our day, they gave me a banana to eat and asked me to taste tea again.  It became hard to accurately taste the subtle flavors of tea.  Acidic fruits, like berries, kiwis and grapefruits, will definitely affect the experience of tea tasting (usually negatively), but bananas help bad teas taste less bad.

08 April 2010

Don’t Turn Down an Invitation for Tea

A tea friend reminded me of Lu Yu’s advice to never turn down an invitation for tea.  I have turned him down twice because of scheduling difficulties, but his advice is good and I find myself being more aware of trying to accept invitations for tea.


“I recommend that you don’t mention the year of your teas.  To experts, it doesn’t mean much.” 

She was quite busy that day, dually filling an order on the phone and preparing a pot of hot water for me.  I had been excited to meet this tea expert after having read a bit about her over the years.  Whenever I visit a new tea friend, I try to bring something special with me that I hope we will enjoy having together.  The reason is not to show-off what I have in my collection, but because it is an uncommon occurrence to find kindred tea spirits that would understand both the brew and my intentions.  I can share a special brew with any tea lover and we may enjoy its beauty together, but a long-time old-tea drinker will be able to connect with the brew in a more immediate and deep way.  Through that, we too may be able to relate and connect and when we do, there is so much excitement and discussion.  Rapture from a cup of tea.

A special tea, usually an older one for me, is a gift and a gesture of respect. 

She continued: “I have many teas here that are as old and older than yours.  Let’s have one of mine today, ok?  You can save yours to drink with your friends.”

I smirked to myself inside of my head, thinking that her statement was akin to a parent saying to a child, “Aww, that’s nice sweetie.  Now why don’t you run along and play?”  I am certain, though, that this tea expert did not mean to be rude.  She probably comes across many know-it-alls bringing low-quality tributes.  We shared one of her brews, she taught me some more about her oolongs, and by the end of our time together, we did not linger in the realm of tea zen.  40 mins was my allotted time and as if on cue, the tea price list appeared and I walked out with a bag of tea that I was sold on.


I was having tea at Floating Leaves some while back and a newer customer came in with a tea to share.  It was a 1 year old Muzha Tieguanyin.  The customer admitted that he didn’t know much about the tea, except that it tasted very good to him and he was looking for something similar.  Being that he was a self-admitted tea newbie, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tea was indeed very good.  No wonder, he had bought it from Wistaria.  Don’t discount the newbies, many of them are lucky to have excellent tastes when they start.  Some of the rest of us have had to – or continue to – work a bit more to get there.


I was in the Bay Area this past week and wanted to visit a tea friend that I owe much to.  She was one of my first tea teachers.  I brought with me some of my prized teas that I rarely share, but alas, last-minute business emergencies caused her to miss our meeting.  I brought my old pu’er to our designated spot and shared it with some new tea friends.  We had a great time, but I lamented the fact that my friend was not there to share the occasion with us.  I asked the tea server if he would be so kind as to save a cup of the tea for her to enjoy at another time.  Following the last of my requests, he simply stated that my friend, a long-time tea lover and tea businessperson, has had many teas in her life and had certainly had one as old as mine.  Unsure of when she would visit again, a cup of saved tea would be left to sit indefinitely.  In short – my tea would not be missed.  A tea that has sat for 40 years can surely survive a week in the fridge, I thought, but I was not going to have my way.  There was to be no affinity between the brew and its intended drinker that day.

It is not every day that one has the opportunity to try such a well-aged and rare tea, one that also carried with it my gratitude and respect.  Many people have tried 40 or 50 year old pu’ers, but there is a big difference between a 50 year old label cake and other pu’ers, for example.  Age is only a part of the story.  I regret that I could not share a special brew with my friend, to whom I owe many more pots of rare brews.  Perhaps Lu Yu’s saying will remind us to meet for tea again in the future.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

02 April 2010

Doing it up, Tang Dynasty Style

I was at the Flagstaff Museum of Teaware in Hong Kong over a year ago, so these pictures and this article are long overdue.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that my pictures are of low quality, partly because of the yellowish-light used in the displays, but mostly because of user skill-lessness.  Photography is generally prohibited in the museum.  It was just my luck, though, that a group of art students from the University of Hong Kong were there that day to work on a project.  I had walked in with that group and the museum guide asked if I was from the University of Hong Kong.  Since I was technically a student there (on exchange) many years ago, I said yes I went there.  She waved me through and let me use my camera as well.  Sweet!  But she reminded me not to dawdle and to avoid using my flash, which is why my pictures ended up somewhat blurry and dark.  Ok ok, those “effects” probably have more to do with, again, the user.  Moving on….

The following series depicts the major steps for preparing powdered tea, per Lu Yu’s methods, during the Tang Dynasty.  Water, probably stream or mountain water, is heated in a charcoal burning stove.  The pictures are shown below, in order, with my paraphrased explanations for each step.


tang2 - boiling water, look for fish eyes.  Called first boil

Step 1:  Boil the water until you see bubbles the size of "fish eyes.”  Yes, I realize that different fish have different eye sizes and shapes, but I’m guessing that Lu Yu meant common Chinese river fish.  No idea what type of fish those would be.  This is called the “first boiling.”

tang3 - season the water with a pinch of salt Step 2:  Season the tea with a pinch of salt.  I know, it looks like the preparer is putting in about 1/4 cup of salt.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the Chinese placard to reference what is meant by “a pinch.”  No worries, I can confirm next year.

tang 4 - boil to a string of bubbles, set one ladle aside for later use

Step 3:  Take out a ladle of the boiling water for later use.  Where to put it?  In a bowl of course.

tang5 - stir the boiling water with a pair of bamboo chopsticks

Step 4:  Stir the boiling water with bamboo chopsticks.  This step is pretty straightforward; I have no sarcastic comment here.

tang6 - add the tea powder and stir

Step 5:  Add the powdered tea into the boiling water.  Simple?  Maybe not.  There has been some gentle debate about whether the powder should be stirred as its added to the water or if it should be allowed to sit for a bit, be absorbed into the water, and then stirred.  I *think* Lu Yu said to stir as the tea is added. 

tang7 - reduce the boiling; ladle in that set-aside water to reduce the bubbles

Step 6:  Reduce the boiling.  That ladle of water you took out earlier?  It has cooled a lot; add it back in and watch the bubbling ease up.

tang 8 - serve the tea in bowls     

Step 7:  Serve the tea in a bowl.  Yes, I also wondered why the powdered GREEN tea that was added to the water turned BLACK in the picture.  As far as I know, salt does not interact with tea in such a manner.  That bowl of tea looks like it has pu’er in it.