Tea Writings

A blog about tea from the desk of Cecilia Tan

Virtual Pot Hunting

November 06, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings

My favorite tea pot broke the other day. It was a white china pot, with a blue fish on the side. I was attempting to scrub it out by hand after it had gone through the top rack of the dishwasher. It slipped out of my wet hands and smashed in the sink. When I say smashed I mean the spout broke into about 12 pieces plus many slivers of smashage as small as grains of sand. In other words, it shattered a lot like glass, and the slivers were even sharp enough to cut, as my thumb discovered shortly thereafter. It’s not reparable. (The teapot, that is–my thumb turned out fine.)

This pot was bought in Chinatown for four dollars about 12-13 years ago, and over the past five years or so has been used pretty much every day. One impressive thing about the inside of the spout where it couldn’t be scrubbed–which I can see now that it’s smashed–is the coating of tea residue. Pitch black and the texture of sandpaper. Wow. Read the rest of this entry →

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.
Read the rest of this entry →

San Francisco Tea Tour: Stop #3

August 31, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Shops

Next Midori took me to a place I never would have found on my own, the Lupicia tea store inside the San Francisco Centre, despite the fact it was a mere two blocks from the hotel I’d been in the week before for a conference. San Francisco Centre is a shopping mall. I’m not a big fan of malls. Having spent my teenage years in suburban New Jersey, the mall is a place that I associate with being trapped in a place where shopping to increase one’s social status is the only pastime. This is why I don’t live in the suburbs now.

The Lupicia store, from the outside, looks like a fancy cosmetics store. Everything is lit with the tiny bright jewels of track lights, some things in neat shelves, others in baskets… Seriously, it could have been bath soaps and skin care products they were retailing, like an AVEDA store.

However, it smelled far better than any cosmetics store I have ever been in, of course.
Read the rest of this entry →

Tea Touring #2

August 17, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Reviews, Tea Shops

Our next stop on our San Francisco tea excursion was the Aroma Tea Shop, a place I’ve ordered from many times on the web but never visited.

If you have seen their web site you will have seen a posed photo of Haymen Da Luz and his wife Ying Wi, described there as “the young and sexy owners of Aroma Tea Shop.” In the photo they are both wearing traditional garb, Haymen is holding a bamboo bird cage, Ying Wi a teapot that matches her chongsam. Midori, who had met them before at their Richmond area store, however, described them to me as “like two characters straight out of anime.” Read the rest of this entry →

San Francisco Tea Tour, part one

August 15, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Shops

Today I am drinking bubble tea, because I worked at my tae kwon do school this morning. Otherwise one would normally not see me getting up earlier on a Saturday than on a weekday. It’s a scorcher out there today (or as we say here in Boston, “ah scaw-chah”), so on the walk home I could not resist stopping at Tapicha, the bubble tea stand in the Porter Exchange (Lesley) building.

I’ll have to do a bubble tea review at some point, but today I’d like to finally start writing about all the tea shops I visited while on my recent travels in San Francisco, Montreal, and Washington DC.

Actually, on the trip to DC I was so busy I never made it to Teaism, which I recall liking very much on past visits, though I did have some surprisingly nice teas in the fancy hotel where the SABR conference took place. They had Republic of Tea in food service bags in the restaurant, and every day the maid refilled our selection of Taylors of Harrogate. The hotel was one of the more expensive ones I’ve stayed in, so it was nice that the tea was a little more upscale than what one often finds. At a reasonably nice Sheraton one will find Tazo, at a Holiday Inn Express, Lipton. (I bring my own teabags when I travel, since in some hotels one doesn’t find tea at all. This wasn’t the case this time, though!)

But a bagged tea made in a hotel room coffee maker is just to tide me over most days while I am traveling until I can have some real tea, either by returning home, or by playing tea tourist.

Tea tourist stop #1 on my trip to San Francisco was, accidentally, the Asian Art Museum (see previous post), but I made an actual plan to meet up with my friend Midori to seek out some shops in the city. Midori has many virtues as a friend, not the least of which are an automobile, fine taste in tea, and an unending ability to converse with me about all the intellectual curiosities of the world (people, food, culture, art, architecture, food, history, politics, literature, and did I mention food?).

Our day began with dim sum. We met a small group of friends at a restaurant just a few blocks from Chinatown proper, at 11:45am. I arrived at 11:40 and the place was deserted enough that I checked that they were open. By 11:45 four parties had been seated and I could literally see people coming down the hill and up the street from the financial district. I secured us a table for five and by 12 noon there was a line out the door.

It was dim sum, therefore we feasted. The tea was good, if unremarkable. Thus fortified we set out for the Ferry Building, which has become a gourmet shopper’s dream.

Handcrafted chocolates. “Tasty salted pig parts.” (As the Boccalone slogan reads.) Wild mushrooms. organic everything. And a tea shop. Read the rest of this entry →

Tea Travel & Starbucks

July 24, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Reviews

Tazo Tea has been stalking me.

Okay, not really, but it seems like everywhere I have been in San Francisco OTHER THAN the fancy tea shop tour I took yesterday with a friend (posts on that still to come), it has been TAZO TAZO TAZO.

It started when I suddenly realized the day after I arrived that I had not, in fact, remembered to pack my travel stash of tea. So I began my re-caffeination the day of the convention with a stop into a ubiquitous Starbucks where I availed myself of the “China Green Tips” tea. At SBs they put two tea bags in the large cup (whatever the **** they call it). I let them steep for maybe a minute, maybe 90 seconds before I pulled them out, and the resulting brew was pleasingly grassy and sweet.

I went back to Starbucks for this same tea several times over during the convention, although “back” is perhaps a relative term, since I never found that exact Starbucks again, but kept ending up at other ones that I thought were it, but weren’t. (All were within 2-3 blocks of the hotel.) Interestingly, none were as good as that very first cup, making me wonder if I had found that same location if they would have been, or if it was some other factor.

Meanwhile, the hotel itself also stocked Tazo, and at the various buffet meals we took part in I helped myself to more. I’ve had Tazo in these kinds of hospitality situations before. Earl Grey, Wild Orange, etc. It’s often the hotel brand one gets with room service, too. But I had never seen the “Green Tips” before and still think it’s the best.

Now I am in the Oakland Airport. My flight is delayed, but at least there is free wireless and a Starbucks with plentiful power outlets. I’m drinking Green Ginger right now and I’m wishing I had gotten the Green Tips instead. It’s not bad, but it’s not a tea drinker’s tea, really. I had to sugar it to make it really palatable, and now it’s pleasing, but a bit like drinking candied ginger. Yummy, but not tea.

Or maybe anything would just seem blah compared to the tea I drank yesterday. Next post I’ll start trying to go through the teas and the tea tour I went on yesterday. A friend from the Bay Area and I hit four different tea shops (and dim sum) in the course of the day, tasting and smelling lots and lots of very fine, wonderful teas. More on that when I get back home!

Tea Art

July 22, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Reviews

Today I visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, especially to see the”Lords of the Samurai” exhibit.

It should shock no one reading this that the Japanese ruling class of 1100-1868 were very into tea. They were strongly influenced by China, and many noble families collected tea implements (bowls, scoops, etc…) from Viet Nam, Korea, and other “exotic” places, and kept them as prized family heirlooms. One bowl in the exhibit had been cracked and fixed up with gold. Many of the individual implements were given poetic names like “Queen of the West.”

You may be familiar with the term “raku” to refer to a kind of pottery. The name originates from a family of ceramicists, and one person in particular, Raku Chojiro, who popularized a style of rustic individual pieces, each being completely unique and more naturalistic than the prim, painted ceramics from China. They have a bowl in the exhibit which Raku Chojiro made himself! (Pictures and more details here. They also have the original scrolls of the Book of Five Rings as copied by Miyamoto Musashi’s apprentice. For a martial artist like me, that’s a bit like seeing the Gospel actually written in some Disciple’s hand.)

Some of these prized tea things were so highly valued that the high ranking families had paintings made of them.

I ended up buying some sencha in the museum store after looking at the exhibits. I bought “Sa” brand sencha, which has various “award winning” claims on the box and a fru-fru marketing blurb, like most fancy teas seem to have these days.

The sencha is good. I’m on the second steeping on this chill and foggy San Francisco evening. The tea has that grassy flavor, a hint of that rubbery side coming out that is so common in sencha and dragonwell, but not in a detrimental way. I don’t think I dare go for a third steep, though. It will likely turn bitter before reaching a reasonable level of flavor.

Speaking of bitter, throughout the convention I was attending all weekend, I made a trip pretty much every day to Starbucks, where I purchased the Tazo “China Green Tips” every day. The first day it tasted quite sweet to me, but each successive day it seemed to be getting more and more bitter, even when I definitely did not oversteep it. I finally figured out today that everything tastes a bit bitter to me right now, even chocolate malted milk balls. Weird, no? I’m not sure if it’s my allergies acting weird, or my brain being out of whack, or what. The first day, I found I quite liked the China Green Tips and I will definitely try that one again sometime when my taste buds and/or brain have gotten over this bitter phase.

Tea-Drinking Weather

June 29, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings

The main consequence of the fact that it has been rainy and cold for the entire month of June is that I have continued to drink hot tea far into the season when I would have normally switched to iced.

This is good! It means not only no summer hiatus for Tea Writings (not that I was sure there would be one…), I have kept up my routine of taking breaks from writing and work to brew new pots multiple times per day.

I have never been good at just sitting and meditating. What? Just sit and try to think about nothing? I have always been better at reaching a meditative state through motion or music or something else where you distract the brain from thinking and only later when you “come to” do you realize you’d gone into a meditative state. Practicing martial arts, for example. At some point your mind has to get out of your way for you to really excel at it. Consciousness expands to include everyone in the room, maybe everyone in the building. This happens not through sitting still, but through doing focused motions.

Making a pot of tea can be like that, if I let myself be mindful. If I am not focused, I get the order of the steps wrong. The water boils before I have picked out a tea. I rinse out the pot with hot water but I forget to rinse the loose leaves. I measure the leaves but haven’t put the basket in the pot yet. And so on. It’s often like that first thing in the morning when my brain is still trying to shake off the effects of the allergy medicine I took the night before.

But once I’m actually awake, it’s a nice break to go every hour or two, out of my office and down to the kitchen, which overlooks the cool green summer shade of my back garden, and brew a pot.

I’m not always mindful while making tea, of course. Sometimes I’m checking my Twitter feed on my iPhone with one hand while I empty the dishwasher with the other, while waiting for the boil or the steep. But at least I have the chance to step away from the computer a few times a day.

Today I am finishing up the very last of the Stash brand “Light Fragrant Ti Kuan Yin” that I got for Christmas two and a half year ago. Honestly, over the two years it has lost some of its flavor, but I never should have taken so long to drink it. The container got buried under some others, and then it was superseded by newer, fancier Iron Goddess purchases from Aroma Tea Shop in San Fran and elsewhere, like the packet I brought back from China itself, which I used up immediately.

Which raises the question of what to do with the teas that have lost their luster in the back of the cabinet? I’m far too frugal to contemplate throwing them away. But there are a few that just don’t have much to recommend them, now. Perhaps some of them should end up in the smoker the next time we barbecue? Your suggestions are welcome at ctan.writer at Gmail dot com, or comment below!

Today’s Tea: Honey Lemon Sunburst

June 20, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Reviews

I am still working my way through all the samples I got from Holy Mountain, and this one I have had to brew five or six times before I was ready to write about it. They call it “Honey Lemon Sunburst Green Tea” and describe it as: “A traditional favorite combination of flavors brightened with a burst of sunflower petals.”

This skimpy description does not really prepare you for the unique sweetness of this tea. “Bee pollen?” is what a friend of mine quizzically asked when I served it to her.

“Maybe?” I replied. What gives it the honey flavor when there doesn’t appear to be any actual honey in or on the tea leaves? Where does the lemon flavor come from, for that matter?

Holy Mountain lists is among the “scented green teas” and clearly it’s more to do with the scent than an actual flavor, but it’s a mystery to me how it’s done.

Interestingly, I’ve been wanting this tea a lot on the days when my pollen allergies are the worst. Is that backwards? Something that tastes infused with bee pollen? Or maybe I’ve just been trained to think of the combination of honey and lemon as good for sore throats and congestion? But this tastes nothing like a Luden’s Honey Lemon cough drop–it doesn’t even taste like a traditional cup of Lipton with honey and lemon. It tastes spring-like and fresh, and every sip is invigorating. Who knows, maybe it actual helps my allergies somehow, though perhaps just the result of drinking something hot on my clogged sinuses and swollen eyes.

This tea is a mystery, a sweet mystery, and will apparently have to stay that way.

Roast Sweet

June 17, 2009 By: ctan Category: Tea Musings, Tea Reviews

Ahhh, this is Da Stuff.

I’ve been drinking a lot of enjoyable teas lately. Despite the fact that it’s mid-June and the longest day of the year is nigh, it’s been downright chilly in New England. With the temps in the low 60s every day and in the 50s (or even 40s again like it was last night) at night, it’s perfect tea-drinking weather. A warm pot sits on my desk throughout the day and evening hours while I work.

Having just ordered a slew of sample teas from various places, I’ve been brewing lots of things that are quite tasty, but I’ve been refraining from writing about them until I’ve tried them each four or five times. I used to review music back in another life, and I learned that I didn’t really know what I thought of an album until I’d heard it through five times. I figure tea might be the same.

Except today I brewed a pot of “Oolong Choice.” Read the rest of this entry →