Drinking Tea the Chinese Way

HOW do you like your tea? Where I grew up, in Britain, it was served with milk and sometimes sugar and was a strong, fragrant brew. In fact, we used to joke with mother, saying that she made it so strong that the spoon would float in it! The black tea she used was called Indian tea, as it came from India or Sri Lanka. In our house there was also a caddy, a small container, of China tea, also black but with a different flavor and aroma. Personally, I did not like tea at all, even though mother always served me a dash of tea in my milk.

Later in life I was introduced to a very different tea. A Japanese friend invited me for tea. He served a pale-green tea in small handleless cups, but it did not taste like the tea I knew. This tea I liked! However, a friend with me alarmed the host by asking for milk and sugar to add to the tea! Our host explained that Japanese tea was not taken that way. Later, when I lived in Japan, I was delighted that Japanese tea in great quantity was always served to friends and visitors.

After that, I moved to Taiwan. I wondered if the tea my mother served would be the beverage of choice of most Chinese. How glad I was that green tea is also drunk in Taiwan, although the flavor is slightly different from that enjoyed in Japan. And then there is oolong tea, different again, and also very popular. You may be wondering how these three completely distinct teas are produced and why they taste so different.

 Where Tea Comes From

Tea, known as Camellia sinensis, grows wild in China and Japan, the trees being up to 30 feet [9 m] in height. As you may have already guessed from the Latin name, the beautiful ornamental camellia shrub (Camellia japonicus) with dark-green, glossy leaves and exquisite pink, white, or red flowers is a very close relative of tea. In fact, the Chinese name for the camellia is cha hua, meaning “tea flower.”

But where does tea as we know it come from? According to The Encyclopedia Americana, the first authentic mention of tea appears in the biography of a Chinese official who died in 273 C.E., although a plant mentioned in a work edited by Confucius, who lived from about 551 to 479 B.C.E., is presumed to be tea. The first English-language reference to tea was made by R. Wickham, an agent of the English East India Company, in 1615. In the mid-18th century, a considerable quantity of tea was purchased by Thomas Garway, proprietor of a London coffeehouse later known as Garraway’s.

Tea in its cultivated form grows in many different parts of the world. The Dutch took tea to Java in 1826, and the British, famous as lovers of tea, took tea to India in about 1836. Then, in the 1870’s, when a fungus killed Sri Lanka’s coffee trees, tea bushes were used as replacements.

Tea-Growing in Taiwan

The island of Taiwan, although not large, has now become an important producer of tea. The mountainous area around Nant’ou is particularly famous, as higher altitudes produce the better-quality teas. Why don’t you come along and visit one of the tea-growing areas in these beautiful, green mountains?

We visit the Farmer’s Cooperative in LuGu (Deer Valley), where there is a tea museum. It comes as quite a surprise to us that oolong tea and green tea are rolled before the drying process. In the past this was done by tying the tea in a bag and rolling it with the feet. These days, of course, there is a machine to do the job. Now we can see why a small amount of Chinese tea in a pot unrolls and fills the pot when hot water is added. How surprised we are to learn that good tea is quite expensive! We are served a delicious oolong that is sold for about $45 a pound [600 g]. A more expensive tea may cost $57, or a prizewinning tea at a competition may be sold for up to about $1,400 a pound [600 g].

Varieties of Tea

To most Westerners, the most popular kind of tea is still black tea. Oriental tea drinkers call it red tea because of the color of the beverage. This tea is produced by allowing the leaves to ferment fully after the processes of withering and rolling have taken place and then drying the leaves.

For the extremely popular oolong tea, fermentation is permitted to occur naturally after the tea is picked and placed in large, almost-flat baskets. When the desired degree of fermentation has been reached, the leaves are stirred in pans at approximately 250 degrees Fahrenheit [120°C]. This stops the fermentation process. The resulting delicious tea is taken without sugar, milk, or lemon.

The tea with the least fermentation is green tea. In Japan, India, and Sri Lanka, the leaves are sterilized over steam to keep fermentation to the absolute minimum, while the Chinese use dry heat for the same purpose. Green tea is taken just as it comes out of the pot!

 How the Chinese Drink Tea

We have been invited to drink tea with the Tsai family. The large table is, in reality, a thick slice of a beautiful tree stump that has been polished to a very high gloss. In front of our host, Tsai Sheng Hsien, is a tray with an electric hot plate and a kettle. ‘How strange,’ we think, ‘the teapot is no more than three inches high, and there are two kinds of tiny cups ready for use.’ We wonder why and soon find out. Boiling water is poured over the pot and tiny cups and runs through the holes in the inner tray they are standing on. Then the correct amount of tea, enough to cover the bottom of the pot, is put in, and hot water is poured onto the leaves. This is then poured off and discarded. The purpose of this step, our host tells us, is to wash the tea leaves and to “open” the flavor!

Now more hot water is poured into the pot, and after our host has allowed the tea to brew for almost a minute, he fills a small jug with the entire contents of the teapot. From this jug he fills the taller, cylindrical one-inch diameter “fragrance” cups with the piping hot tea. He pours this into the drinking cups by placing the drinking cups over the fragrance cups and up-ending the cups. Then he invites us to pick up the now empty fragrance cups and savor the aroma! “Delightfully fragrant” is our comment.

Carefully picking up the drinking cup by its very top​—the cups are handleless and hot—​we take a sip. “Truly delicious!” we exclaim. We now understand that to the Chinese both the aroma and the flavor are to be savored. No sooner have we drunk the small amount of tea in our cups than they are filled again and again and again. The flavor becomes a little weak after the sixth or seventh time, and our host throws out the tea leaves. “Would you care to try another kind of tea?” he asks. It is too close to bedtime, so we respectfully decline more tea. Since tea contains caffeine, it can be quite stimulating and we may find it difficult to fall asleep after drinking several cups of this high-grade oolong tea.

Tea at a Tearoom

We have never been to a tearoom, or a teashop, and decide to add this experience to our tea adventure. Some tearooms have an attractive garden for their patrons to enjoy as they drink tea. Other tearooms are situated in a natural mountain setting, and the lovely scenery adds to the pleasure of drinking tea.

We choose to drive up one of the mountains surrounding Taipei and take our tea at a delightful tearoom that has a very Chinese atmosphere. The second floor has goldfish-filled channels of water winding across the floor with stepping stones we must cross to enter the small pavilionlike room where we will drink our tea. We can select sweet bean cakes (red or white beans mashed with sugar), melon seeds, dried tofu (bean-curd), rice cakes, or pickled or dried fruits to accompany our tea. We decide on watermelon seeds, dried mango, and plums pickled with tea leaves. The sweetness of the snacks complements the flavor of the tea. As our tea is poured, we can almost imagine that we are back in ancient China!

Benefits of Drinking Tea

According to many Chinese, the drinking of tea with or after a meal is an aid to faster digestion of food. This, it is claimed, will to a certain degree act as a deterrent to weight gain. If true, it is a fine benefit indeed! Recently, researchers have also claimed that green tea can actually be an anticarcinogen. Another benefit we derive from drinking oolong and green teas is that they leave a clean aftertaste that is sweet and pleasant.

So once again the question comes up, “How do you like your tea?” Now that you have learned more about it, the answer may not be quite so easy. Why not try something different and discover for yourself how the Chinese drink tea!​—Contributed.

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Oolong tea

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Women picking tea

[Credit Line]

Taiwan Tourism Bureau