Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan

Chinatown, Dollars and Scents

May 18, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Reviews

Sunday found me in New York’s Chinatown, where I stopped before heading home after a weekend in the city for both business and pleasure.

This is the Chinatown of my youth, a place my family almost always went when we were in the city for any reason. (That is, after we’d moved to New Jersey from Manhattan when I was around five.) If we had out-of-town guests or family, and had spent the afternoon sightseeing, we would finish the day with dinner in the basement dining room of the Hunan House on Mott Street, or in later years the upstairs eatery of Say Eng Look (“Four Five Six”).

One night we brought my uncle, who was doing post-doctoral work in marine biology at U. of Southern Mississippi, and some of his researcher/grad school friends there, when they were on a road trip from USM to Wood’s Hole in Massachusetts. One of the guys on the trip was from Singapore, and when the waiter brought the hot steamed towels before the meal for our hands, he pushed it into his face and nearly cried. “It smells like home!” he said, surprised at the intensity of his own reaction. (I gather that Southern Mississippi in the early 1980s wasn’t exactly the most culturally diverse place to be.)

The towel, if I recall correctly, was scented with jasmine. The tea, also, was jasmine. And the flowers that they “lei” you with when you depart the Philippines (where the vast majority of the Chinese side of my family lives) are jasmine. Unlike the Hawaiian leis, which are colorful and showy, the strings of jasmine flowers are just little white nothings. But the scent! The scent is so strong that the clothes we wore on the 24-hour-long flight home from Manila when I was eleven still smelled like jasmine after being run through the laundry.

After all that, you’d think I was going to write about jasmine tea. But no. Today I’m actually drinking a rose-scented black tea I purchased yesterday. And the scent of a tea is nearly as important as its flavor.

I was dismayed to find that Kam Kuo, the grocery store on Mott Street that was where my family bought staples that couldn’t be found elsewhere, like preserved prunes and shredded salted pork, not to mention can after can of generic Chinese tea of many kinds, is gone. It would appear that the disappearance of the Asian grocery is not only endemic to the Boston area, where in the past few years Yoshinoya, most of the Boston Chinatown groceries, and most recently Kotobukiya have closed, while the Asian-grocery chain Super 88 has massively downsized.

The generic Chinatown teas are not to be pooh-poohed. The wine steward at L’Espalier tells a story about spending six months in a small town in Italy, and how the “generic” wine there that everyone picked up in jugs was far superior to most of the finely bottled, imported stuff one can buy here. With Chinese tea, which one used to find in these groceries in dizzying arrays of colorful cans, it’s the generic stuff, but so much of it was so very good. Oolong in the brown can, vanilla black in the pink one, lychee black in the orange one, was that Sunflower Brand or did someone else just make a can that looked exactly like it? Sometimes they were knock offs of each other, but they still tended to taste the same. Of course, like wine, it could vary, depending on the year and the weather and so on.

I don’t know where I’ll go for the generic teas any more. Maybe they’ll just be replaced on my shelf now by “better” teas from mail order on the Internet? Or maybe I’ll start buying more tea from places like the TenRen Tea store on Mott Street.

I have no memory of this store from my childhood, but my mother wasn’t a big tea buyer or drinker so perhaps it was there and we just never went in. I have no idea how long it’s been there. But they have two storefronts, a cafe where they have tea and various foods to buy and eat, and a tea and ginseng shop. (They also have shops in Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, Canada, and Taiwan. According to their web site, they have been around since 1953, a Taiwanese company, with over 100 retail locations.)

The tea and ginseng shop is all ginseng along the left-hand wall, all giant yellow tea canisters along the right-hand wall. corwin in particular wanted some generic “black tea” for making iced tea with this summer, and some lapsang souchon, which we’re out of. He pulled a pre-packed 1 pound bag labeled just Black Tea off the shelf for $8.00 and bought it based on the scent. He was looking to replace the Keemun in the yellow can we’re nearly out of, and although there was nothing labeled “keemun” here, as he put it, “This smells right.”

Then we asked to smell the lapsang in the can.

When I say giant yellow canister, I mean it was so large it was wider than the waist of the woman helping us.

When she opened the lid, it was like she had lifted the lid on a charcoal grill.

I hadn’t been hungry up to that point, but all of a sudden my stomach growled.

“That’s the stuff,” corwin said, taking an appreciative sniff.

We got a pound of it, for ten bucks. She weighed it out on a scale, sealed the back, put the bag in another plastic bag and then taped that shut. Then I asked to smell the rose tea.

Ahhhh. Not the strongest smelling rose tea I’ve had, but a gentle scent, not overpowering, not too perfumey. I think some rose teas use some rose oil to treat the leaves and they come off like drinking a bottle of perfume. This just smelled nice. I got a half pound for $7, and we were done. The clerk tossed some free samples into my shopping bag and off we went to eat dinner, my hunger finally roused by the scents.

Dinner, incidentally, was at our current favorite place, a restaurant on Bayard Street we discovered some years ago which was then called New Green Bo. Now that it’s not New anymore, presumably, the name has changed to Nice Green Bo. (One site on the internet said they had changed hands, but the woman in charge of the dumpling making and dining room was the same one who has been there for years.) Their specialty is the Shanghai-style soup dumpling, which became all the rage some years ago. Having now been to shanghai and had the soup dumplings there, I was feeling sanguine about whether we got them or not. But then we ordered a basket of eight, and when we had finished eating them–in fact after we’d finished stuffing ourselves with a fabulous meal of peking duck (prepared right at the table), tiny crispy eels, sauteed pea tips, and pan fried noodles–I still wanted to have more. So, beware. The soup dumpling is addictive.

I settled for topping off the evening with a trip to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, another place we always went when I was a child and the first place I ever had green tea ice cream. They opened when I was around ten, if I recall correctly, and the shop quickly became a must-visit place. Back then it was the only place you could get ginger ice cream or lychee. This was even before the Haagen Dasz revolution when fancy ice cream stores (quickly followed by Ben & Jerry’s) became the norm in shopping districts. Ice cream shops in the New York area at the time were Dairy Queen, Carvel, or Baskin Robbins.

I had the “Zen Butter” ice cream this time, which was like butter almond, except with sesame seeds instead of almonds. It was creamy, delicious, and just a touch on the salty side like peanut butter, which I love. Yum.

Anyway, today, have finally brewed the rose tea and it is a very pleasant tea. It doesn’t knock my socks off, but I wasn’t expecting it to. The scent and flavor are actually somewhat similar to the dragoneye black I am currently out of, which is one where the black tea is actually treated with the juice of the dragoneye fruit. This points up the fact to me that roses can be more fruit-like than flowery sometimes, and that adding the rose petals to the black tea just brings out the natural sweetness in the heavily oxidized tea.

You know what it would go perfectly with? Soup dumplings. Ah, damn, I really am addicted now.

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