Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan

San Francisco Tea Tour: Stop #4

September 14, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Shops

Our final stop of the day would be the Samovar Tea Lounge. Samovar is tea at its hippest, while at the same time reaching back into the cross-cultural history and roots of tea and the tradition of the tea house as a hang-out.

On previous trips to San Francisco I had been to their location on the border of the Mission and the Castro to meet up with business colleagues. Tea is far superior to meet over than lunch, because you don’t get overstuffed, and you are intended to linger over tea. Tea allows you to set the pace of the meal and conversation, rather than being lock-stepped through courses and perhaps hurried out the door. You have nibbles, you have steeping and re-steeping, and you have the weight of thousands of years of civilized conversation behind you.

Tea and writing go together as cornerstones of Sinified Asian culture, and perhaps that is where philosophy comes in.

Instead of the old stand-by in the Mission, though, we went to Samovar’s newer location, on the park by SF MOMA and Zeum/The Children’s Museum at Yerba Buena Gardens. It’s a lovely, light, airy space, with a high ceiling and one entire wall of glass, decorated inside with various Asian accents, both contemporary and ancient. We sat in a corner under a statue of Ganesh, his dais liberally piled with stray coins. We added the ones we’d picked up on the train tracks earlier in the day (well, those that hadn’t already fed a parking meter) and looked over the menu.

Lots of lovely choices for light meals, from tea-drinking cultures all over the world, both western and eastern. I chose not to get something that would actually use the titular samovar, but opted for a “honey ti kuan yin”. I was tempted by the wuyi oolong and several other enticing-looking selections, but ultimately the Iron Goddess got my vote. Midori got pu-erh. I decided on congee (a.k.a. jook, rice porridge with various tasty veggies and meat tossed in) while Midori ordered a cheese platter that included slices of apple and honey in the comb.

The food was quite good, the tea divine, the people watching, top notch. One table over from us was an older gentleman in a finely tailored suit, his long gray ponytail combed neatly back. He was people watching nearly as much as we were, and either making notes or sketches in a small notebook. Eventually he finished his tea and left, and we asked the waiter what his story was. A playwright, he told us, who comes in there nearly every day by himself, and enjoys the tea and sights and the company of others without actually having to speak to them.

Midori philosophized about the people there, and how might they look different, or the same, fifty years from now. Who will be at the tea house and why? And how will the institution of the tea house change by then? If at all, when one considers how little it may have already changed basically in its importation from one culture to another, from one continent to another. The tea house, the coffee house, and the bar/wine cellar have similar and overlapping places in many cultures in both east and west.

A thought occurs to me now, which is thinking about tea and alcohol in terms of yin and yang. You would think tea would be yang–so hot! and it contains a stimulant!–while alcohol would be yin, so sedating and cold. But when you look at the effect that each has on people, tea is calming and relaxing, while alcohol although sedating to one’s neurotransmitters actually stimulates people to action through removal of their inhibitions. At most British-style formal teas I have been to, the clientele has been 90% or more female (yin), while I’ve been in many many bars (not just sports bars, either) that were 90% or more male (yang). But a tea house like the Samovar Tea Lounge is a mixture, male and female, young and old, locals and tourists, regulars and those stopping in for a special treat.

We could have happily sat there another hour, but Midori had to pack for another business trip, while I had a class to teach that evening, so we soon had to take our leave of those pleasant surroundings. But I will surely return to the city by the bay, to these and other tea locales that call to me on future visits.

From People Watching
From Ganesh Surveys All
From Cheese, Fruit, & Jook

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