Monday, August 18, 2008

Chinese Tea Traditions

Chinese Tea Traditions

Understanding Asian tea must begin with an understanding of China. But that's not as simple as it sounds.

To begin with, you need to know that not all Chinese drink the same kind of tea, nor do they all use teapots. Let's take a journey.

North China: If you have the opportunity to travel to northern China, you will likely be served jasmine green tea, often in a lidded mug. From the Forbidden City in Bejing to the sleeper cars on China's railways, jasmine green tea is ubiquitous. It's the most popular tea for northern Chinese.

South/Southeast China: As you head south towards Shanghai, unscented green tea takes over. East central China produces an infinite number of green teas, and you can spend a lifetime seeking them out. Shanghai has shops with the greatest variety of choices. Hangzhou is famous for its Long Jing or "Dragon Well" green tea. You must seek it out!

If you journey to southeast China, to Fujian or Taiwan, you'll discover that people are proud of their oolong teas brewed in the “gong fu” style with tiny unglazed clay teapots and cups. Men often make tea this way on tables set up along sidewalks, as they play cards and talk in the evenings. Taiwan has a highly developed tea culture with refined teahouses in the heart of cities and rustic teahouses located in mountain tea fields.

Pu Er Tea: In southern and southwestern China, the earthy tasting Pu Er tea is commonly drunk, especially in restaurants. Because it is believed to help digest food (especially oily food) Pu Er is commonly served in Hong Kong/Cantonese dim sum restaurants, another of the many fun Chinese tea traditions. A few blossoms of dried Chinese chrysanthemum are often added to the Pu Er to liven up the taste. Remember, if your teapot needs replenishing of hot water, just turn the lid upside down or place it on the table. The waiter will know what to do. Also, after the tea is poured into your cup, you can show thanks by tapping your fingers on the table next to the cup.

Eight Treasure Tea: Tea steeped with other ingredients is also popular throughout China. One of the most famous teas is "Ba Bao Cha" or "Eight Treasure Tea," which is made with green tea, red dates, dried Longan fruit, dried chrysanthemum flowers, red wolfberries, raisins, rock sugar, and sometimes other ingredients. Ba Bao Cha is a sweet drink and believed to have many medicinal benefits. Ask a Chinese friend about it. More info...

Lei Cha: Another unique custom found in mountainous areas of southern China and Taiwan, is "Lei Cha" or "Pestle Tea." The name refers to the mortar and pestle used to pound tea, peanuts, sesame seeds, toasted rice, and sometimes ginger mixture and made into a beverage by adding boiling water. This is an ancient tea custom dating back to possibly the 3rd century AD. Lei Cha is especially popular with Hakka Chinese, a sub-ethnic group found mostly in southeast China and Taiwan.

Tea Mugs/Teapots: Chinese people don't always have a teapot on hand to make tea. Throughout China, it's common to see people drinking tea from glass jars in which leaves are thrown in the bottom and replenished with hot water throughout the day. Sometimes, tea is simply tossed into the bottom of a wide cup, covered with hot water, and allowed to steep. At more formal settings, a tea set is brought out for the "Chinese tea ceremony." In Taiwan, most families have a “gong fu” tea set which consists of a very small teapot, a small decanting pitcher, and several tiny, handleless cups. The teapot is filled 1/3 full with oolong tea, brewed for about one minute, decanted, and then served. The tea can be infused numerous times, with progressively longer steeping times.

Teahouses: Teahouses, which had been closed down after the Communist revolution in 1949, have now begun to reappear in China. In large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, fashionable teahouses serving all types of teas have become popular gathering places for the newly rich, and Chinese tea traditions have begun to undergo a renaissance. Taiwan tea growers have also begun tea operations in mainland China, and Taiwanese opened the first artistic teahouses in China as well. And so today, Chinese tea is improving in quality and teahouses are once again becoming a part of Chinese life. That's good news for everybody.

Family Customs: Finally a word on family customs. When a couple gets married, tea serves a symbolic purpose, for the couple is expected to serve tea to their parents as a sign of thanks for raising them. Cups of tea are also set out before the family shrine or in temples as offerings. And tea is always served as a part of socializing with friends, neighbors, business associates, or relatives. Tea is to the Chinese what wine or coffee is to Europeans.

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