After a long drive from Chandigarh to Delhi, The Family and The Young Niece flew back to Mumbai. I had to take a flight to work. After reaching Lucknow, I had a three hour drive to Kanpur. A break for tea was very welcome. The fact that the tea came in a kulhar was a bonus. The hot tea released the aroma of damp earth, a memory of rain, of deserted railway stations at night.
On our way back from the Eravikulam National Park, we saw a massive black shape between the neat rows of tea bushes which line the slopes here. The bus driver stopped obligingly to let us figure out that the shape was not a rock but a lone bull Gaur. It had its head down and seemed to be rooting at the tea. I’d seen this before. Gaur move through the aisles in these plantations, and if they destroy tea, it is by accident. Their target is the smaller herbs and grasses that grow on the verge. There is something about tea that they don’t like. I’m happy that they leave the pekoes to us.
The genus Bos includes both the Gaur (Bos gaurus) and domestic cattle. It seems that their ancestors developed and migrated from Africa at the same time as humans. The single male that I saw is among the last of a species that diverged and evolved in the forests of India, and is now on the verge of extinction due to loss of habitat. What a sad end that would be to this marvelous and gentle giant!
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.
When we emerged from the subway to the promenade of the Olympic Green, I wanted some coffee. There were a couple of convenience stores near the exit, but no hot coffee. We walked further: a ticket office with cold drinks, but no coffee. The promenade was lined with kiosks selling cold drinks and sausages, but no coffee. Eventually we settled on the most popular drink in the place, which was yogurt out of a pot (see the photo).
We saw many families out together: parents, child, and one or two grandparents. Often one of the adults could be seen carrying a big bag of food. The drinks would come from the kiosks.
Over the next few days we discovered that this was one of the differences between Shanghai and Beijing. Shanghai has coffee everywhere, but the main tourist spots in Beijing have no coffee. In this Beijing is more representative of China. Coffee is largely imported, and costs much more than tea.