Monday, April 18, 2011

Loose Leaf Tea

Before I begin, I just want to point out that I was all over the airwaves last night. If you were watching TVBS (argh - I hope you weren't) or another channel, both interviewed me in Chinese about watching the firewalking ceremony at Bao'an Temple yesterday. So that rain-dampened white girl you saw on TV who really needs to work on her tones and punctuates strong opinions with "diu啊!" (not "對啊") - that was me.

As you know if you read one of my previous posts, I had my wisdom tooth removed last week. It was my first one and quite a shock. At some point I mentioned this to a friend, who said "stick some dampened bags of green tea in the fridge and then press them against the sensitive area - it helps". This surprised me, so I did some Google-fu and found out that it was, in fact, true - the tannins in tea reduce blood flow and help stem bleeding and so biting on a moist tea bag does actually have an effect.

Taiwan is famous around the world for its teas, especially its oolongs, and people (locals and expats alike) flock to teahouses regularly to drink it or make it at home: I don't know about you, but we have a full 功夫 tea set - albeit with purposely mismatching cups - at home and a little portable stove to prepare it on. So you'd I'd be able to just run to the kitchen and grab a teabag, no?

Well, no. We do have teabags - some herbal teas, South African Rooibos, some Taj Mahal Indian black tea for chai - but nothing that would make a suitable tannic acid filled bag of tea to press against sensitive, bloody gums. I did eventually use the black tea, but the taste of Taj Mahal is so strong and difficult to swallow when not brewed in a cup that I couldn't take it for long. A nice, light green or oolong would have been better.

That said, I don't know anyone who drinks oolong or green tea from teabags in Taiwan, unless they're at work and it's those Ten Ren teas that every office provides in the break room (I go to different offices for work, so I've seen a lot of breakrooms and drunk a lot of second-rate office coffee and Ten Ren tea).

Instead, we all drink looseleaf tea, because duh, it's better. It just is. I know technically tea in a teabag doesn't have to be inferior to loose leaf tea, but it seems like that's always the case: the fact that it's in a bag makes manufacturers feel as though they can add extra junk to it or simply use lower quality tea, and nobody will notice. I think Lipton's entire product line is based on that principle - "second rate tea for people who don't care". The Taiwanese I know, if they're not in the office and if they're going to drink tea at all, will either do it in 功夫/老人茶 (my namesake!) style, or will brew it in a big pot with a filter and drink it in a cup. The thing that never changes: it's always loose leaf tea. Always.

That right there is a cultural shift I'd never considered until the moment when my friend said, offhand, "just use a wet green tea bag" as though of course I would have green tea bags lying around the house, because I love tea and live in a country famed for its tea - and it neither occurred to her that I wouldn't drink good tea in a bag, nor to me that people actually do keep tea bags on hand, and that some in fact consider them indispensable to a proper cuppa. To me, a proper cuppa is brewed in a little pot and poured piecemeal into miniature cups, or brewed in a big filter and poured in a mug. It is definitely not dunked in a little paper receptacle straight into a cup.

"But loose leaf tea is so complicated!" folks back home say.
"No, you just...put some in the pot, then add water and quickly wash it out, then add more water and let it steep but not for too long, then pour it through this filter into a little pitcher and then pour it into these glasses, and you can use these tools to do it. See, easy!"
"Umm, that's not easy!"
"Sure it is!"
"No it isn't - first, how do you use those tools? Then, you always have to steep, pour and drink quickly enough so that the tea isn't too strong and doesn't get cold, and all you get is barely a mouthful at a time..."
" you need more than a mouthful at a time?"
"Maybe I do, yes, and then what do you do with the leaves?"
"Put them in a bowl until you're done and ready to throw the whole lot out."
"Why not just boil or even microwave some water and just add a tea bag?"
"Because it's not the saaaaaame."
"Sure it is."

But no, it's really not. The quality just isn't there. Forgetting all the meditation /peace/beauty/solemnity/whatever of the Old Man's Tea ceremony (though I won't deny that it's beautiful), it just feels nicer. It's not as hurried, it's more sociable and it's still very much a way of life in Taiwan. When we spent a few nights in Donggang to catch the beginning of the King Boat Festival, the owners of the hotel invited us to drink tea with them at their big old tree stump table. When we stay in Lishan, the owner of the homestay we like has his own tree stump table and makes lao ren cha for his buddies, while guests make tea and cavort outside. When we stayed with Sasha's family in Dashe, her father made lao ren cha on the coffee table two nights in a row.

I feel like, when doing this, that what I'm getting for all my time and effort is quality - good tea from small manufacturers (I'm a big fan of Wang's, and 來自台灣ㄟ好茶, a company that makes Lishan and other high mountain teas has some nice selections, and you can buy Pinglin tea here if you don't feel like going to Pinglin) that pride themselves on freshness and location.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that drinking looseleaf tea is so much more than just drinking tea - it's a connection to an entirely different way of doing things. It's a connection to products of a proud local origin and not just a brand name on a flimsy box. Do you know the name of the town in which Red Rose or Lipton is grown? Could you find the farmer if you wanted to? Probably not, but in Taiwan you can locate the town in which the tea was grown and often it's possible to find the farm itself. It's easier than you'd think to buy tea right from the farmer who grew it (you can do this in Pinglin if you are judicious about your tea purchases). You're getting connections to all sorts of things - not just flavor, but there is that, too - by drinking looseleaf tea that you'll never get by chucking a paper packet in a microwaved cup.

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