September 30, 2011
Traditional Chinese Tea
Traditional Chinese Tea
The first sings of Autumn are appearing, with a subtle but noticeable drop in temperature, and soon a hot cup of tea will be the order of the day. I've mentioned Maokong before, which is an excellent place to sample the local "cha" (tea), but there are plenty of other tea houses in every city in Taiwan.
One of my favorite ways to unwind, write, and generally ponder life is to visit a tea house. More specifically a traditional style Taiwan tea house. They provide the perfect setting to escape the hustle and bustle of Taiwan cities while enjoying some excellent Taiwan tea and tea snacks.
Tea is a huge concern in Taiwan, with a dazzling variety available. Apart from the traditional green tea, you will come across thousands of small stores selling 50 or more kinds of tea (which I have written about before). For this article though, I want to focus on the more traditional tea house, and the traditional pao cha.
First though a quick guide to pao cha (whole tea leaves, boiling water, little cups). And I must stress that this is my own way of doing things after being shown a few times. There is more then one way to do this. In fact you can ask to be shown by the staff of most tea shops.
The choice of tea is the first thing to consider, and there are many different kinds to choose from. The menus may be in in English with descriptions of each variety, but again you can ask for recommendations. In very general terms, you can choose between a lighter tasting (typically green) tea or a stronger darker variety like Oolong. Ideally, try a couple of different varieties to contrast, having the lightest one first.
After you have ordered, you will be given a kettle with a heat source to keep it near boiling and the tea set. The tea set will always have a teapot, a large bowl for the used tea, a serving pot, tea cups and a variety of instruments for putting the tea into the teapot and clearing the teapot.
I would ask how much tea you should put in the teapot, as it depends on variety, but about 1/3 to 1/2 a pot is usually about right. Put the teapot in the big bowl and fill it with water, allowing the water to flow over the pot, then put the lid on and wait for around a minute. Then pour the tea out into the serving pot (you can usually balance the teapot in the serving pot as shown. Now use this tea to rinse the cups and pour over the teapot (with the lid on). Some people drink this first brew, but I am more often told to use it to warm the cups and pots. Now fill up the pot again and let it brew for a minute or so again then empty into the serving pot.
One thing you are sure to notice is the size of the teacups and teapot. The main reason for this (or so I have been told) is so you always drink a fresh brew. You will use the same tea leaves for five or so brews, and the amount brewed each time is small to avoid bitterness which will result from leaving the leaves in the water for too long. It also means you are drinking a nice hot cup of tea.
Typically, each person will have a tall cup and a rounder one as in the picture on the right. The idea is that the taller one is for smelling and the rounder one for drinking. So when your tea is ready, pour it into everyone's taller cup and let them pour it into the rounder cup, then appreciate the aroma (and it can be quite delightfully fragrant). Keep going with the same set of tea leaves until it gets too weak, then change the leaves and repeat.
I strongly recommend ordering some snacks to go with your tea. Typically these "tea snacks" include dried fruit, dried meat, nuts, and any assortment of small delicacies. Even if you aren't hungry, you will always have room for these when you are drinking tea.
In the next article I will introduce my favourite tea house in Taiwan, but until then, happy brewing!Footnote: When I wrote this the temperatures were dropping, but have since shot back up. It will get cooler soon I promise!
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