Wednesday, October 6, 2010

chinese tea ceremony

A pastime I want to share with you that delights me immensely is setting up a proper Chinese tea service. This is according to a tradition in China called gong fu cha, which translates to "tea brewing with great skill." I was first introduced to Chinese tea a few years back, when I started hanging out with a couple of good friends of mine, Chris and Jon, who at that time shared a house in the High Desert. Chris had a couple of bricks of a special tea from China that I was not very familiar with, called pu-erh. He had crafted a wonderfully rustic low table out of wood in the Asian style, and we spent many visits sitting there having conversation and making pot after pot of this tea in a little porcelain tea set. I became hooked, and back at home I began reading a pile of books about tea from the university library, and ordering tea supplies directly from China through eBay.

Pu-erh is made with a broad leafed variety of the traditional Camellia Sinensis plant which we all know so well from our black and green teas. However, this one is compressed, fermented, and the exciting thing is that it can be aged just like a fine wine, for upwards of a hundred years. Below is a picture of the various ways the tea is compressed. On the left is a brick of the ripened leaves. On the right is an opened small nugget or tuocha of the raw pu-erh leaves. You can see that it is more green in color because it hasn't ripened yet. (Since the 1970's, tea producers have learned how to artificially ripen the tea, so even a younger tea can be ripe too.) For me, it was just the thing I was looking for. I have made a strong commitment to a meditation practice that requires a renunciation of alcohol, but this interest in tea provides me the many pleasures available to serious wine enthusiasts. I can study the history and process of the cultivation, and can study the geography of the many regions of China where this plant is grown, essentially traveling and connecting intimately to far away parts of the world from home. Then there are the sensual details. A pu-erh tea is just as rich as a wine with tasting notes. I think of a ripened pu-erh as a big red like a Cabernet Sauvignon. While it isn't fruity, it is robust and has some of the similar notes: earth, roots, muskiness, tobacco, leather. And it has a similar creamy smooth full-bodied mouth feel. I also appreciate raw pu-erhs that are fresh and still look kind of green. These I liken more to a white wine, like a Sauvignon Blanc, with strong grassy notes. The teas are of course not refined like a wine; indeed they are very unrefined and rough, but I am charmed by that primal quality.

So the other part to this is the actual ceremony. I think that Japanese tea ceremonies are much more well-known than the Chinese. As far as I know, and keep in mind I haven't traveled to Asia before, the intention of the Japanese tea ceremony is to achieve the maximum refinement and beauty. This is very different than the Chinese, where beauty is important but the primary goal is to achieve the maximum best tasting cup of tea. It is much more casual, and I think practical. I won't explain all the guidelines, because other websites would do it better (see wikipedia for a good ex.). Above is a picture of my tea table with the various supplies. The vessel for brewing the tea is called a gaiwan, which is traditionally made from a special kind of clay called Yixing (pronounced Yee-shing). The small pots made from this clay are semi-porous, so they absorb the tea over time. It is said that after many years of curing, one can simply pour hot water into the pot, and it will make tea from this residue. Thus, a different pot is needed for each general kind of tea. The pots are very small so the tea becomes more concentrated without oxygen interfering, and boiling water is not only poured into the pot but over the top of the full pot as well, so that it becomes as hot as possible. A special tray is used to catch this extra water. I always find this copious pouring of water is very soothing, like the feeling I get from a fountain. Many different types of cups can be used, but I like celadon cups which are again very traditional. Celadon stoneware usually has a craquelure glaze, so there are these tiny cracks throughout that become darker as the tea stains them. A part of the ceremony is to brush water on these cups before use so the cracks become darker, and to appreciate the pattern which is similar to that of dragonfly wings. The pu-erh tea leaves can be used to make multiple pots of the tea, as many as five or six.

So there is my summary of many of the things I appreciate in this special tradition, at least regarding pu-erhs. I haven't even mentioned my second favorite Chinese tea, oolong, which employs the same ceremony but has different characteristics, so you may see a special post highlighting it someday. Because I know pu-erh isn't widely available, if you have never tried it and are signed up as a subscriber to the blog I would like to do what I can to send you a sample. Just let me know.

Stefanie's comment: I love the fact that Katherine has taken tea appreciation to the next level, savoring it like fine wine. Recently in a travel guidebook I read a Westerner's account of the impatience he experienced in witnessing a Chinese tea ceremony, and I'm sure there are many people who would find it frustrating to take so long to pour and drink a tiny cup of tea. For me, though, it is a reminder to take the time to enjoy life's simpler pleasures more often... and in much greater detail! Sure, you can grab a cuppa on your way out to work or absently sip your beverage while you're plugging away at your computer (not that there's anything wrong with that), but I found that Katherine's description was a beautiful reminder to set my multitasking aside every once in a while and slow down enough to enjoy every aspect of my cup of tea, thereby adding a few minutes of focus to my otherwise overstimulated daily life. And it's such a treat to yourself to do this. Spending an extra 30 seconds to notice the smell, the feel on your tongue, the subtleties of the flavor, etc. could add a significant amount of peace and mindfulness, and consequently, health and equanimity to your day. I hope you'll take Katherine up on her offer and try some of this pu-erh. It's really wonderful.

1 comment:

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