Tea? Who drinks tea? At home, generally our parents’ generation drank tea. It was Indian style tea, strong and black in colour. Some drank it white and sweet, some black with lemon, some straight out of the billy, boiled over an open fire and tasting of smoke and gum leaves. The younger generation is more likely to drink coffee or fruit and herbal teas. But Chinese tea in all its variety? Not very many people really know this wonderful part of Chinese culture.
Here, I have learned to love tea and one of my favourite activities is to hit the tea markets and spend all day there, chatting to the tea sellers, sipping different teas, drooling over the beautiful teapots and trying to decide what to buy, how much lightening my wallet can stand.
Little tea shops are lovely places to start learning about tea. Tea shop owners are happy to spend time chatting about tea, while we sip different teas. Fancy tea shops also abound, and in these, the art of tea is as important as the taste. Here, the invariably beautiful girl serving you tea will be dressed in traditional costume, she will sit or kneel before you at a low, highly decorated, ornately carved table, and with graceful gestures pour tea into your thimble sized cups. A traditional musician may be playing nearby.
The tea pouring ritual is fun watch. The tea leaves are selected and we smell them, good aromas, strong or fresh grass green. The tiny cups are removed from the sanitiser with special tongs, and hot water is poutred over them, then water at the correct temperature (it varies with the type of tea) is poured over the leaves to wash them and this tea is then poured over the cups. Next round of water is poured onto the tea and then strained and finally tipped into your cup. The lid of the small tea pot or cup is offered for smelling, the colour of the tea examined and then we can sip. Each round of tea changes flavour, some becoming sweeter, others becoming stronger. Then different teas are offered, and we start again. Tea tasting is fun!!
There is a touch of snobbery around tea, just as there is around wine or olives or cheese back home. ‘Real’ tea isn’t fruit- or flower-flavoured. ‘Real’ tea relies on the mountain it is grown on, the water the tree is watered with, the age of the tree, the time of the year the leaves are picked and many more things aficionados talk about for hours.
To appreciate ‘real’ tea head for the tea markets. Tea markets are wonderful and sell everything to do with tea – the leaves themselves, the special pots, cups, tools and implements that accompany tea. Nimble fingered girls sort tea leaves and stalks. I stop to chat with them and they show me the stalks which can be used to replace your earrings at night. These stalks have an antiseptic quality and prevent infection. Like everything else edible or drinkable in China, tea in all of its forms is good for you!! Pu’er is good in winter, green tea in summer, this tea helps you lose weight, that tea helps you regain your appetite.
I have three “cha hais” – the table-top trays to hold the tea cups and pots while serving. But these are small – not like the huge, elaboratly carved and decorated marble and wooden tables. I also have a collection (growing…) of ‘cha chong’ (tea pets), small scultpures to bring luck. and to keep them beautiful, the waste tea and hot water are oured over them.
Tea is fascinating.