Most of us are beginners when it comes to Chinese teas. There are hundreds of varieties that go far beyond supermarket brands. Tea is synonymous with Chinese culture. Their varieties are named for their place of origin and processing; they offer distinctive flavors and health benefits and play a role in Chinese folklore and history.
Writing 茶 Ch’a the Chinese character for tea, begins from the top down with the radical for grass. We see two vertical blades growing in a level field at the top of the word picture. Below are a person’s arms and below that a tree. The Chinese are a practical people. They describe tea not as the thing itself but a plant in relation to us in the world: A person picks tea leaves from a tree.
Lu Yu, known as “the saint of tea,” wrote the first tea encyclopedia after the Chinese had used it as medicine for a millennium. The plant he described, a tree, was not the same tea bush we know today. He opens The Classic of Tea (Cha Ching, A.D. 780) with “tea is from a large tree in the south” and describes tea trees in Szechwan so wide that two men must link arms to encircle the trunk. He writes that the leaves resemble gardenia and smell of clove and the flowers are like the wild red rose turned white. He believes tea drinking should be an exercise in moderation and limited to three cups daily.
However, Lu Yu writes, “If one feels hot, is given to melancholia, suffering from aching of the brain, smarting of the eyes, troubled in the limbs or afflicted in the hundred joints, he may take tea four or five times. Its liquor is like the sweetest dew of Heaven.” During the mid-Tang Dynasty Lu Yu, an orphan, was adopted by the Abbot of Dragon Cloud, a Taoist monastery in modern Hubei province, China. But Lu Yu became bored and left the monastery to travel as a comedian with a performing group. He had learned a lot about herbs and tea because monks considered tea drinking to be perfect for a life of moderation and contemplation. At age twenty Lu Yu began his tea quest in southern China. Locals thought he was nuts when finding a particularly wonderful tea plant he sang and danced around it. The Cha Ching includes Lu Yu’s knowledge of planting, processing, tasting, and brewing tea. His tea research and tea rituals helped elevate tea to a higher status throughout China even though the herb was known for over a thousand years before the Tang Dynasty and Lu Yu.
Between the Yuan and Qing Dynasties tea production advanced with improved methods of cultivation and processing and tea houses sprang up all over China. By 900 A.D., tea drinking had spread from China to Japan where the tea ceremony or Chanoyu, was created and tea became an art form requiring years of study. In the 17th century Holland and England began importing tea. Catherine of Bragana married Charles II in 1661 and she brought her custom of afternoon tea from Portugal. She served tea between breakfast and dinner to avoid starving herself and then binging on meats and sweets at night which troubled digestion and complexion. Today we enjoy tea to clear the senses, energize the body, and lift our spirits.
What is Tea?
All teas, no matter the flavor and color, come from the tea plant an evergreen Camellia sinensis and is normally classified into five varieties: white, green, oolong, black, and pu’er a red, fermented tea. All are healthful.
Tea Health Benefits
Some researchers believe tea’s benefits come from its digestive tannins. Many scientists believe it is tea’s polyphenols and rich source of flavonoid antioxidants that protect against oxidative stress. Antioxidants help prevent disease. Tea helps control glucose and insulin and keep the gastrointestinal system running well. Improving digestion can certainly help balance blood sugar and lift our mood. Every task becomes easier when we easily digest our meals and focus our thoughts. Tea contains L-theanine a unique amino acid that enhances attention and mental focus. Besides, carefully brewing tea is an art that requires patience, taste and paying attention to tea’s pleasure. Inhale your tea’s aroma from a lovely tea cup and watch the leaves unfurl. The depth of color and the steam as it rises are delightful. Here are six categories of Chinese teas that are most popular.
Green tea is probably the best known tea. (There are new tea plantations springing up in America. The U.S. League of Tea Growers reports there are 60 farms in 15 states. Most were started in 2000 and several, including The Great Mississippi Tea Co. and Virginia First Tea Farm, are less than five years old.) Raw tea leaves are fresh, shiny green and without flavor. It’s the processing—drying, toasting, rolling etc, that creates the satisfying flavor, light green color, fresh aroma and slightly bitter aftertaste.
In China Longjing is the most prized spring-picked green tea. Longjing translates as “Dragon’s Well.” This green tea originates from the mountains surrounding West Lake in the Zhejiang province. The leaves are hand-fired in a large wok immediately after picking and have an appearance of smooth flat green leaves with pointed ends, “resembling a sparrow’s tongue.” According to legend, the tea was named because a dragon that lived in a well near West Lake Village saved the village by bringing rain after a long drought. Zhejiang Longjing tea leaves are pale green, the tea color is clear not turbid. The brewed tea is very fragrant, mild tasting and bright yellow green. Taste is refreshing or strong, sweet and nutty, smooth and rich with slight vegetal undertones.
As the grades of Longjing tea decline to lesser grades, the color changes from light green to dark green, the tea leaf changes from small to large, and the tea quality changes from smooth to rough “the fragrance changes from tender to thick.” The fourth grade tea begins to have a rough taste. The bottom of the leaf turns from tender buds to the opposite leaf, and the color changes from light yellow→green-green→yellowish brown.
Everyone loves delicious jasmine tea which has become synonymous with fine Chinese cuisine. Produced in Fujian province and Taiwan, jasmine tea is most often made with green tea but can be made with black, white, or oolong tea and in loose leaf form as well as rolled pearls. It takes nearly a year to gather the tea buds, tea leaves and jasmine flowers and process the aroma and flavor of the flowers infused into the delicate tea. It is more than tea with added flowers. Jasmine Green Tea is made with select quality tea leaves blended up to five times with the aroma of jasmine flowers. The flowers are gathered in the morning, kept cool and when they open in the evening, they are mixed in with the leaves so that their fragrance is absorbed. A Premium Grade tea brews very smooth and mild compared to lower-grade jasmine teas.
The fragrance is fresh citrus-like and lasting, the taste is mellow with a smooth, crisp finish. The tea color is yellow-green and bright, and the leaf base is tender and even. Jasmine tea, made through a series of technological processes is prized for calming the mind, relieving depression, strengthening digestion (especially the spleen) and enhancing qi vital energy. It is anti-aging and improves immunity. In addition to the delightful flavor, it is a health-promoting beverage
White tea, has a mild flavor, less caffeine than the others, and is famous for being particularly high in antioxidants. It is claimed to have the ability to combat ageing and help prevent cancer. Experts claim silver needle white tea lowers blood pressure and cholesterol and helps improve eyesight.
In the world of oolong tea, there are four main types – Tie Guanyin from southern Fujian province; Wuyi Mountain oolongs from northern Fujian; Taiwanese oolongs; and Dan Cong from Guangdong province. What makes Dan Cong special is the unique aroma sub-varieties available within Dan Cong. There are said to be at least 10 different aroma sub-varieties of Dan Cong, each with unique taste and flavor profiles. And in general, all these sub-varieties fall into 1 of 3 main categories – fruity, floral and herbal aromas.
Another unique feature that makes Dan Cong amazing is that there are no artificial flavors, additives or essential oils added to create their vibrant flavors. All of the different varieties come from the tea leaves and no other additives. The tea flavors have been developed by generations of selective tea cultivation, tea plants chosen in order to bring out the naturally fragrant flavors.
The word “Dan Cong” literally means “single stem.” If you look at an actual Dan Cong tea plant, it differs from a standard tea plant. Dan Cong are single trunk trees, such as Lu Yu described, as opposed to long interconnected tea bushes. It is said that Dan Cong tea varieties stem from ancient “mother trees.” Folk legends have developed around these famous teas. For example, Ya Shi Xiang “duck shit flavor” tea was given that name by a farmer who feared that his prized tea plants would be stolen unless he made his tea seem less attractive. Other teas in the area were traditionally called such names as “thieves’ shit” for the same reason.
Pu’er tea has beautifying and anti-aging benefits. It is a red fermented tea known to reduce harmful cholesterol, enhance digestion and reduce body fat. It has a rich, earthy flavor and satisfying sweet aftertaste. It is made into large round tea cakes, loose tea or small tea balls made in Yunnan. It can be green, slightly aged, or “cooked” which is aged for 6 to 60 years. It is so valuable that it is collected and traded like fine vines or stocks.
JinJunMei is the highest quality black tea made from tender young buds harvested by hand in the forests of northern Fujian and processed to be a rich full-flavored tea. Black tea is processed longer than the other teas and has a stronger flavor and higher caffeine content. The final step of processing is especially crucial in black tea production which results in a fully fermented tea. The gold-colored JinJunMei tea has a creamy aroma and a fruity, velvety flavor that resembles dry longan fruit.
Chinese people frequently give tea as a gift for friends so a good way to taste them is with a tea collection or samples.
The Chinese have a traditional way to brew their exquisite teas called the Gaiwan or Gongfu method. It uses a small zisha purple clay or yixing tea pot and little tasting cups. It is a time-honored tea ceremony to be enjoyed with friends. First the pot and cups are warmed by pouring boiling water in them which is discarded. Then dry tea leaves are added to fill the empty warm teapot, keeping the lid on for 10-20 seconds to awaken the aroma. Lift the lid to enjoy the fragrance. Then add boiling water to the pot, swish it around, rinse the tea for 5 seconds and discard the water. That prepares the tea leaves. Finally boiling water is added and briefly steeped for 15 seconds to a minute or more. A fine quality tea may be brewed at least 3 –7 times.
Have you wondered how to recycle brewed tea leaves? In China before the Tang Dynasty around 960A.D., tea was cooked as a vegetable adding scallions, ginger and dried orange peel. Early American colonists also cooked tea leaves because its astringent quality improved the colony’s most frequent illness—dysentery. Today Burmese cooks make a spicy, crunchy fresh vegetable salad including sliced cabbage, tomato, dried shrimp, chili peppers, fish sauce and fried nuts and seeds. The dressing added to the salad is made with fermented tea leaves. Here’s a recipe:
- Lahpet (Burmese Pickled Tea Leaves)
- 4 Tbsp good quality dried green tea leaves
- hot water
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1/4 tsp dried chili flakes
- 2 tsp lime juice
- 1 inch ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- Salt to taste
- 2/3 cup neutral taste cooking oil like avocado oil
Place the tea leaves in a tea pot or a large cup. Pour hot water over it and let it steep for about 3 minutes. Drain off the tea liquid or drink it and squeeze any excess liquid from the tea by pressing with the back of the spoon. If you think it’s too bitter, let it steep for another 3 minutes and then squeeze out the liquid from tea. Some cooks add a pinch of salt to speed fermentation.
- Transfer the tea leaves into a sterile glass jar, leaving the lid partially closed, and let it sit at room temperature for 3 days.
- After 3 days, put the laphet in a food processor along with garlic, ginger, chili flakes, lime juice, and salt to taste. Give it a whirl in a food processor until the leaves are finely chopped.
- While the food processor is going, slowly add in the oil. Secure the lid on the jar and place this in the refrigerator for another 3 days so the leaves have time to “pickle” with the other ingredients and for more intense flavor.
- The laphet dressing is ready to be used for laphet thoke the salad.
If fermenting tea leaves at room temperature is a concern, then mix the tea leaves along with other ingredients in a food processor and chop it up and let the leaves “pickle” in the refrigerator instead for at least 4-5 days or longer.
- Tea Deodorant
Another surprise is to use dry tea bags in the refrigerator to cancel food odors. This works well. I use peppermint teabags but any tea will do. Tea is antibacterial. Replace the dry teabags after a month or so when they lose strength.
What’s your favorite tea? Have you ever splashed cold tea as a facial astringent or used tea in other surprising ways?
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