Indian Chinese tea

I’m not talking of things which are called Chinese in India and are unheard of in China: like the gobi machurian. This post is about Chinese tea from China: three which I like, and use regularly are Tie Guan Yin (a sweet green Oolong), Da Hong Pao (a smoky red tea) and Yun Wu (an exquisitely aromatic green tea). The names are evocative. Guan Yin is named after the Buddhist goddess of mercy, derived from the male bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara. Da Hong Pao means big red cloak, after an emperor who cloaked the tree whose leaves cured his ailing mother. Yun Wu is the name I like best; it means mist and rain, and you can almost smell it in the brew.

When I first encountered them in tea markets in China, they were all infused in boiling water for very short times: sometimes less than a minute. This is enough to release the flavour of the leaves, as I could tell on sipping the scalding brew. I learnt a lot about Chinese tea habits from these expeditions. But I’m an Indian tea drinker: not necessarily of the milk and masala variety, but I definitely like the brew to tickle my tongue as well as my nose. So I’ve had to experiment with not losing flavour while adapting the brew to my taste.

A blog by Gingko Bay assured me that good leaves are ones which are good in many ways. I usually make Yun Wu by steeping the leaves in absolutely boiling water for about two minutes, covered to preserve the aroma. The resulting brew is a golden yellow in colour: deeper than most Darjeelings and wonderfully fragrant. When I treat the leaves this way I get only one brew from the leaves. This has become my favourite post-lunch tea at work.

I adapted the traditional recipe when making Tie Guan Yin. I pour cold water into the leaves, and immediately pour it out into the drinking cups to remove any other aroma which they might have had. This preparatory process is called face washing in China. Then I pour the boiling water into the pot again to brew the tea. In China the tea is steeped for 30 seconds. I leave it in the pot for thrice as long. The resulting tea has a pale yellow colour, like Darjeeling, and an aroma to die for. The brew is strong enough for me, and it tastes sweet! The dried tea leaves are shaped like little balls which open up into wide leaves after the steep. If I start this brew in the morning, then about 10 grams of leaves gives me tea for the whole day. That’s why I use this on weekends when I’m home.

Da Hong Pao is a red tea, which I have come to brew slightly against tradition. The amount of water I use is somewhat less than what the traditional Chinese recipe calls for, and I’ve increased the brewing time from 45 seconds to about twice as long. The tea comes out dark red in colour, with the tannins which I like in an Indian tea, but with the smoky taste of the original intact.

As you can see, I’ve Indianised the recipes by brewing the tea a little longer than the Chinese would, and by covering the tea while it steeps. I wonder whether there are other techniques for Indianizing these lovely aromatic teas, while still staying true to the flavour of the Chinese.

Tea

Chinese tea is so different from Indian tea that I don’t even know how to begin to list the differences. So, one of the exciting things you can do in China is to taste the teas. It turns out that the best place to do this in Beijing is to go to the Maliandao tea street. This whole street is lined with shops selling tea and tea paraphernalia.

My target was the Beijing International Tea Center, whose entrance is shown in the photo above. This was the only door flanked by elephants that I saw in China. In this one large building you can go from one shop to another tasting their tea. I did not meet a single person who knows English, but this should not stop you. The people here are not only good salesmen, but also seem to like tea. It is an interesting experience to sit down for a tea tasting and converse about tea without understanding the words which are spoken.

I met one young lady who surmounted the language barrier by typing her responses into her mobile, listening to the English translation through her ear buds, and then repeating it. Sometimes I would have to look at her mobile to see the English and say the words out correctly, so I guess I repaid her for the tasting by teaching her a little English.

But there were people who did not try to achieve this mechanical level of communication. The best experiences were with people who would spontaneously bring out a new tea in order to explain subtle differences in flavours and methods of infusion. I would explain the price range I was interested in, but that did not stop anyone from bringing out much more expensive tea for the tasting. I guess the cost of tastings is factored into the prices.

You can walk out of any tasting without buying tea by saying a few words. But I found that when I wanted something I could discuss the price. Getting the price down by a third was not a problem: in my experience there would be an automatic agreement. Starting at half the price would usually lead to a more prolonged discussion, with the final price settling at between 60 and 65 percent of the initial bid.

This was probably the most instructive evening I have spent. I wish there were similar wine markets in southern Europe.