Tea is truly one of the most underestimated beverages. I would rather not insult this drink by merely calling it a tea but rather it acts as a catalyst between humans. Any occasion like entertaining guests, marriage ceremony, festivals or friends’ gathering, tea is very much part of the group gathering. I still remember the days when friends gather at the nearest Iranian Joint in Mumbai and drink the cutting chai discussing and gossiping on the worldly affairs. There were days where we used to drink cup after cup just to keep the conversation going on. A cutting chai and hot vada is something you enjoy on a good rainy day. The new generation may not gather at an old Iranian cafe, but the traditions are still continued today at local cafes. In India, we drink tea by adding milk and sugar. The flavors of the same tea leaves change when you add varied ingredients suited to the taste buds of people living in those regions. In India, we have masala Chai when you add spices while making the tea, Ginger Chai when you add ginger, Elaichi Chai when you add only green cardamom and so on. These days people have become more health conscious and started drinking herbal tea, lemon and honey tea, green tea without the milk preparation. During my visit to China, I was introduced to Jasmine tea. I was so in love with the fragrance of the freshly brewed tea that I took a deep breath and smelt the soothing and relaxing smell of the flower before sipping the drink. It was also a cultural shock when the Chinese tea was served in small cups whereas I was used to drinking tea in big mugs. Back in India where we give importance to the color of the tea, more the brewing indicates more dark rich flavor, here the Chinese tea looked pale. Due to lack of spoken English in the country, I was unable to ask the lady about Chinese tea and its importance. The only thing she was interested was in the sale of her products. She handed me a sheet of paper which listed different types of tea and the diseases that it could cure. It was so uninteresting that I walked out of the place not before purchasing the jasmine tea as a remembrance to the place. A year later, I again got a chance to know more about Tea Tradition and Chinese art of making tea when I came to Singapore. I visited the store, Tea Chapter on Neil Road on a Sunday Evening. We met Stanley Tan who explained us about the Chinese Tea Making Process in detail.
History of Tea Chapter : The place was started by 13 tea enthusiasts on October 1, 1989. Not long after the establishment of Tea Chapter, it was visited by a very important guest, Queen Elizabeth II. The queen tasted their light fermented Oolong tea, also known as Imperial Golden Cassia which became an instant hit among other VIPs and celebrities. A picture of queen tasting the tea and the place where she sat during the tea appreciation session is shown below:
The ground floor has retail shop where you can buy the tea leaves or tea set after the tea appreciation workshop. The walls and shelves of the place are beautifully decorated with hand crafted tea ware and Chinese Calligraphy. The tea chambers are spacious yet cozy. The top floor is where the guests get to taste or attended the tea appreciation workshops. We enrolled for one such workshop.
Origin of Tea : The tea master (Stanley Tan) pulled his chair and started explaining us about the origins of tea and where it all began. A Chinese king called Shen Nong left his palace and rode his horse in to the fields. He became very thirsty and found some dirty water. In order to purify it, he decided to boil the water before drinking. While boiling, few leaves fell into the pot. When he drank the water, he was astonished by the taste of the delicious water. He became the first person to taste tea. Soon the word spread like wildfire in the kingdom and tea became popular in China. The word Tea is derived from Chinese language. Mandarin and Cantonese pronounce it along the lines of “Cha” whereas Hokkien pronounce it as “Te”. The word “Cha” became popular in Asian world as “Chai” whereas Tea originated from the word “Te” got famous in the western world.
Types of Tea : Tea is mainly categorized into white tea, oolong tea (blue tea), green tea, red tea, black tea, yellow tea and floral tea. Within each category of tea, differences in location, type of soil ,climate, oxidation and roasting process gives rise to wide spectrum of taste and fragrances. Male and Female have different techniques to hold the tea cup while drinking the tea cup. Yellow tea is called Emperor’s tea which is rare and not for sale. In olden days yellow was considered as Emperor’s color as they believed themselves to be the sons of god. Green Tea has the highest level of caffeine followed by white tea, oolong, floral, red and black tea. It is advised not to drink green tea, white and oolong tea at night. Master also advised to stop taking the tea during pregnancy period due to caffeine content. Different tea have different tea wares to go with during the preparation process. Green, white and yellow tea is prepared in porcelain pots whereas the rest is prepared in purple clay pots to resist high boiling temperature.
Tea Making Process : I recorded a short clip where the master explains the process of Chinese tea making. Based on the tea, water is heated at particular temperature. Warm water is then poured on the tea cups to warm the tea set. Tongs are used to remove the water from the tea cup. Using the tea holder, loose tea leaves are scooped out of the packet into the tea pot. Warm water is poured into the tea pot. The water is poured in a circular motion to create a balanced brew. The first brew is not meant for drinking but for washing the leaves. The water is rinsed off from the tea pot. The next time when water is added inside the tea pot, it is very important to note the timing during the brew. One should not keep the leaves in the warm water more than 30 seconds or 20 seconds based on the type of leaves. It is then immediately served after 30 seconds. The master asked us to smell the aroma of oolong tea which he served before drinking. 5 seconds should be added to the next subsequent brews of the same leaves. One should never keep the leaves submerged in the water. We can reuse the leaves till the smell lasts. For Chinese, tea is not a drink but a way of life. They believe that when pouring the tea in a cup, only 70% of the cup should be filled. Remaining 30% is left as “space for your emotions”.
More detailed picture on temperature of brew, benefits and caffeine levels of each tea leaves is listed here:
While sipping a cup of oolong tea and jasmine pearls, he told us few facts on people of Yunnan region. Chinese people from Yunnan eat a lot of meat mostly beef but still you find people free of cholesterol. The reason is they drink Pu’er tea (black tea) after their dinner which helps in breaking down the fat thereby keeping them healthy. I somehow could co-relate that to our Sulaimani Tea, a popular drink in Malabar region of India. Muslims of Malabar region drink Sulaimani after a heavy non vegetarian meal to aid digestion.
Tea was accompanied by cookies and tea egg prepared from different Chinese Tea. I never tasted an egg which was so rich in flavor!
I enjoyed the tea appreciation workshop thoroughly. The place was really an eye opener. I tried Queen’s Tea (oolong) tasted by Queen Elizabeth II, Jasmine Pearls, Rose Tea and Pu’er Tea. My personal favorite among them is undoubtedly the Queen’s Tea, Imperial Golden Cassia :). After the workshop I purchased two small tins of Oolong and Pu’er tea from the retail shop on the ground floor.
A refreshing drink that brings people together where they share countless stories and talk till one needs to order the next drink. Visit to the Tea Chapter is highly recommended and I will be visiting again hungry for more varieties of tea and the snacks. There is a saying: Life is like a tea. The longer it steeps, the richer it becomes!
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