Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan
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Heart’s Delight

May 09, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings

We indulged ourselves in one of my favorite weekend “brunch” traditions, which was going to Chinatown for dim sum.

We arrived at the restaurant at noon and I was surprised to find how uncrowded it was. Oh, there was a lively business going on at the dim sum palace known as Chau Chow City, but nothing like what it was like ten years ago, when you had to fight to get in on a weekend day between 10am and 1pm. I don’t know if it’s the economy affecting the crowds or just the tradition of family dim sum for Asian-American families is waning? Several of the Asian markets have closed because fewer and fewer families make the special trip to Chinatown to do their shopping. On the other hand, the huge Asian markets like Super 88 that are located in the suburbs where the vast majority of the Chinese population have moved to are also downsizing. So, I don’t know.

You wouldn’t think the economy would keep people away from dim sum, which is one of the least expensive gourmet meals one can buy. Six of us went this morning, and we were overstuffed at the price of $12 each, and that with leaving a generous tip. $12 each got us approximately 15 different dishes? Let’s see if I can remember:

* congee with roast pork
* beef shumai
* beef ball with ginger
* shrimp & peanut dumpling
* pork & leek dumpling
* shrimp and something dumpling
* beef wrapped in rice noodle
* chicken steamed buns
* pineapple buns
* fried sesame balls filled with bean paste
* silken tofu in sugar ginger sauce
* sticky rice
* mango pudding
and probably at least two other things I can’t remember now.

And tea. Of course, it being a large dim sum restaurant in the traditional family style, the first thing they put down on the table is a teapot. (In our case, two pots.) And cups. At Chau Chow City they used ceramic pots with fresh leaves and water, as opposed to given you pre-brewed in a vat in the back. (Although I think at dinner time perhaps that’s what you get… because tea is considered absolutely essential to have with dim sum, at dim sum they serve the “better” stuff.)

Since the leaves are in the bottom of the pot, the tea gets stronger throughout the meal, but as soon as you finish your pot, if you flip the lid of the pot over, a waiter will whisk it away and bring you more. Then you start over with weak tea, waiting for it to get stronger.

I was not able to pinpoint what exact tea we had today. It reminded me strongly of the magnolia oolong I bought in my last batch from Holy Mountain Trading Co. I bought only a sample to try it and it was lovely, much like a jasmine, but with a gentler, rounder flavor. Whatever it was, it had very light oxidation and the leaves were still quite green in the pot.

This is the opposite of the Chinese restaurant where I go for lunch near my house sometimes, a take-out joint that also has a fairly nice little dining room called Wok and Roll. There they serve an oolong that is very oxidized, giving it a roasted flavor that reminds me of the sweet smoke of burning autumn leaves. After eating when I meet a friend there, we’ll sit and drink pot after pot of it. I’ve asked what kind of tea many times and all they will tell me is “oolong.” One of these days I’ll have to ask to see the can.

In the old days of dim sum what they used to do was just let all the little dishes and steamer baskets pile up on your table and then count them up at the end to figure out what to charge you. Now they have a tally card at your table and each server pushing a cart around will stamp it for each thing you take. This means that at the end of the meal, the waiter no longer has to do the traditional “try to carry away as many dishes simultaneously as possible” act. They do, however, still wash the table with your leftover tea in the traditional manner.

The technique of washing the table with tea goes back into time immemorial. I have no idea how far back people have been doing it. Kenneth Lo, Britain’s eminence gris of Chinese cookery and culture (who if still alive today would be 94, I think…) spoke of it as a tradition he remembered from his childhood and one he trained his waiters to do at his UK restaurants. Tea had some antiseptic properties, plus of course the water was boiled, so before the next group is seated at the table you are vacating, the waiters usually pour what’s left all over the table and wipe it up with towels.

Of course, in my group, there is never a drop of tea left.

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