Aug 26, 2011

how to enjoy a bowl of noodle (or a cup of tea...)

Let's learn how to enjoy a bowl of noodle from the 1985 Japanese movie Tampopo (or Dandelion). This is not about tea. But it's not totally impossible if you replace the noodle with tea in your imagination :-p

Tampopo is a movie about food. Although the restaurant in the movie is meant to be a "fast food" restaurant (because noodle is often seen as a simple food in Asian cuisine), in relative term, the movie is full of slow food spirit. To prepare for learning how to enjoy a bowl of noodle from this movie, I suggest you to read Alex Zorach's tea blog on Slow Food Movement first.

Here is the IMDB webpage of Tampopo.

Following are some excerpts with a study outline (lines from the movie) on how to enjoy a bowl of noodle, with my very sketchy paraphrasing and translation. Maybe after seeing this, you will be interested in seeing the movie yourself. And maybe seeing the movie will make you want to practice on noodle appreciation yourself :-D

(Images are from the movie and organized by Qing.)


How to enjoy a bowl of noodle...

First of all, observe the entire bowl of good stuff. You can see all the side ingredients shining on top of the noodle. Be grateful about their look. Savor their aroma.

The diamond-like luster is from the soy sauce pickled veggie. Soon, you can see seaweed gracefully sinking and minced green scallions floating atop.

Next, focus your vision on the three pieces of pork. They are the key figures of the side ingredients, yet they humbly hide behind other things. Now give them a few touches...

Massage pork slices gently with the tips of your chopsticks. Let them unwind. Remember, use the tips of the chopsticks only... gently... till the pork gets relaxed...

Then, gently lift it up, and immerse it in the soup on the right side of your bowl. Here is the most important thing -- give the pork an apology: See you in a moment!

Then, start eating. Eat the noodle first.

While eating the noodle, fix your gaze on the three pieces of pork, affectionately...
Then take some pickled veggie, and then eat some noodle. While eating the noodle, you can let some more pickled veggie join the noodle in your mouth.

Next, have some soup, three gulps... Then, sit straight, breathe out, and take another deep breath.

Then, pick up a piece of pork, slowly, as if you are making a very important decision of your life. Next, gently shake it for three times. Like this... just to shake off some water.

Now, you can put the meat into your mouth...

... ...

I know some of my friends would say, are you kidding me! Who eats noodle like this! Well, if you are a "noodle person" like me, you will understand it. To me, eating a great bowl of noodle is a sacred moment, no exaggeration! Interestingly, when I was very young, I didn't even like noodle very much and thought it was some boring food - until I no longer have chance to eat the best homemade noodle (which is from my mom) every week! Then, every time I go home and enjoy mom's noodle, all its magical features would stand up - the aroma of flour itself, the "al dante", the sensation between teeth in every bite, the heavenly taste of the soup, the moist warmth rising through the top of my head and sinking to my heels... I don't know when I became crazy about noodle. But nowadays, a good bowl of noodle can make me cry...

This is not about tea. But somehow I believe you crazy tea drinkers have your way to feel for the ecstasy of crazy noodle people. The excitement, the gratitude, the apologies, the careful planning, the affectionate gaze, the emotional bondage... I know, you've experienced them all!

Aug 23, 2011

Taiwan "style" oolong (1) - Zealong Aromatic

Taiwan "style" oolong (0) is here

A friend got this tea for me from Chicago Tea Garden last year, by way of Steepster's choice (which is not available now, but is seriously missed). This is my favorite Taiwan style oolong so far. I think there are a lot of reviews on Zealong out there, as it's quite a hit. It is Sir William's review on Zelong series, Mattcha's review on Zealong Pure and the interesting discussions on their blogs that directly inspired me to go over this tea. It's always fun to drink a same tea with other people and compare notes! Discussions on Zealong has been manifesto, so are discussions on Taiwan style oolong in general. That's basically why I started this  review series of Taiwan style oolong.

Dry tea leaves:

1nd infusion. I didn't use a strainer. The liquor barely has any tea leaf crumbs.

5th infusion:

At the end. If seeing these leaves without any background knowledge, I wouldn't be able to tell this tea is not from Taiwan. In fact, I wouldn't be able to tell from the taste either. This tea uses Qing Xin oolong cultivar and made by experienced Taiwan tea professionals. So the only thing that could make a difference is the geographic factor. But even about that, I wouldn't be able to tell. I didn't find any information about growth altitude of this tea, but it seems the region the plantation belongs to is just about sea level. But this tea has the pure, clean and aromatic taste of Taiwan High Mountain Oolong! I had always thought flavor of high elevation cannot be produced in lower lands. But a friend of mine used to say it can be made by state of art fertilization. Maybe he is right!

Spent leaves:

The leaves must have been harvested by experienced workers. All the leaves must have been strictly inspected too, as there was almost no crumb. Obviously these people are perfectionists!

I've got all three products of Zealong series, Pure, Aromatic and Dark. I took this one out first, as I guessed this would be my favorite. It indeed is! It has a combination of floral and fruity aroma. The taste is pure and harmonious. So even after several infusions, I infused it for quite a few more times as the liquor was always smooth and sweet.

So far, my impression of reading Zealong reviews from other people is, very few, if any, people said it was not good. I think it's obviously very good. The major source of critique is its price. Although this tea is not as affordable to me as many other teas, I think its quality justifies its price. I've enjoyed reading Alex Zorach's blog, Price and Sustainability: What is Overpriced Tea? Using Alex's framework of price and value, I would rank this tea as very high value and I don't see it as overpriced. Its value is primarily carried by its taste and quality. Besides, in the market, uniqueness is a big value too. This is the only New Zealand oolong (doesn't everyone want to visit New Zealand!) and is a high end product using more than one decade's hard work. Of course I hope this tea can be produced more and more, and the price more affordable, but as the production of this tea is still at its initial stage, I think the current price is quite understandable.

Talking about price, I really appreciate Chicago Tea Garden's pricing on this tea. I love online shopping and I am a deal hunter :-D I am glad to see CTG's price is actually better than the price offered by the producer themselves, after all the tea shipped across oceans to America! I think that's what serious tea drinkers expect a specialty tea retailer/importer to do, sourcing unique teas and using their purchase power to get good deals for their buyers. This is internet age and people get information easily. In the old days, it was almost the industry mode that retailers get products from the same wholesaler and sell it for dramatically different prices. But with today's information technology, wholesalers/retailers no longer hold that much of a secret on sources or prices. Therefore, I believe more and more people will appreciate unique products and reasonable pricing.

About pricing, Yaya from New Zealand had an interesting discussion with me here. She provided some perspectives that I barely considered before. Our discussion makes me think that, (1) Pricing is not only monetary, but also about public relation. When a New Zealand tea is more expensive domestically than in the international market, as a foreigner, I am quite happy enjoying it here in US, but I kind of understand that tea drinkers in New Zealand may feel quite frustrated; (2) I guess the market size and market influence have huge impacts on tea prices. Probably that's why we can enjoy relatively good deals in the States. I personally have dealt with people from a few dozen countries buying tea from US. It's quite amazing, as tea is not produced here. But obviously, US is a relatively big market, and easier to buy from than many tea producing regions. Hence the hub effect and some better deals. (3) With increasing market size, I believe (rather optimistically but possibly wrong) the prices of many teas can get more affordable in future, in US market as well as in many other countries.

Aug 14, 2011

to avoid over-brewing & under-brewing Chinese green tea (1)

Most tea drinkers have very good ideas about what can cause over-brewing of a green tea. What I want to discuss here is a series of factors that may cause over-brewing, in a sequence of their significance as far as I can see.

1. Steaming
2. Volume of water
3. Temperature
4. Infusion time
5. Leaf/water ratio

This discussion is out of the thought that some factors are more likely to cause over-brewing, but are often neglected (for example, steaming factor). On the other hands, some other factors are not as likely to cause over-brewing, but are sometimes over-emphasized (for example, temperature factor).

Before I start, I would like to stress that tea brewing is a very personal matter, and there can always be a lot of variations in methods and brewing parameters. Eventually what works is the best, and different ways may work for different people. Sometimes we break some rules, not to prove these rules are wrong, but to demonstrate it's wrong to rule out other possibilities.   

Brewing tea is a process of extracting good flavors out of tea leaves into the tea liquor. Here I will define "over brewing" as brewing that causes unpleasant flavors to be extracted or generated - this is what people say a tea is "cooked". "Under brewing", in my understanding, is brewing that fails to extract most good flavors from tea leaves.

1. Steaming
I usually suggest people to use un-lidded vessels for green tea. Traditionally, gaiwan was a very popular vessel for green tea. But when gaiwan was used to brew green tea with young and tender leaves, the lid was either not placed or only used to cover the cup half way.

People with cooking experience may have noticed this. When you saute some green vegetables in a pan on the stove top, as long as you carefully control the process, you can make the sauteed veggies juicy, tender and crisp, with their nice green color. But if you leave the freshly sauteed vegetable in a sealed container or covered dish for several minutes, it can get pale and soft, losing half of the flavors. What "kills" the veggie dish is also what sometimes "kills" the green tea - steaming, not high temperature.

Why were teapots used in the traditional society for green tea then? I guess, it's because teapots (especially yixing) are good at retaining temperature. This could be important in the traditional society when the rooms were not well-heated in winter. When using teapots in the traditional society, people were struggling with cold environment, and were not worried about over-brewing due to hot environment. This is also why gaiwan is a versatile tea ware. By placing the lid, placing it half way or removing it, you can adjust the brewing environment in the cup.

It's not that a lidded vessel is less good for Chinese green tea. And I personally have a favorite yixing reserved for green tea. A tea drinker can adjust the temperature, leaf/water ratio and infusion time to make a lidded vessel serve very well. Naturally, when a lidded vessel is used, water temperature should be lower, in order to avoid the "steaming" effect. But then the "catch" is, when lower water temperature is used, there is the risk of "under brewing", which will be elaborated in the third section about Temperature.

2. Volume of water
When you use a small gaiwan (4 oz. of less) for Chinese green tea, as long as it's not fully lidded and steamed, feel free to use the hottest water, and the leaves will not be over-brewed. Of course, by adjusting the temperature a little bit, we can get better result. But when the volume is small, the danger of significant over-brewing is tiny or none. The wide opening of the gaiwan cup will allow steam to escape fast and temperature drop fast. This is just an experiment. I am not suggesting everybody to use a vessel as small as 4 oz. for green tea. (Besides, it could be hard for people with big hands!) A "small vessel" is probably something smaller than 180 ml (6oz.). But with a vessel up to 300ml (10 oz.) and with care, the vessel can release steam and lose heat fast, so that the tea will not be over-brewed.

Temperature and Heat are two different concepts. Think of the flame of match stick (temperature around 400 F) and a liter of hot water (temperature: 200 F). The flame has higher temperature, but with its small mass, it has by far less heat than the big pot of hot water. In tea brewing, it is the extra heat, not temperature, that over-brews a tea.

Some people may say, how inconvenient it is to use a tiny small vessel for tea! What if I want more! Well, first of all, I think we should be aware that in modern days, all our vessels, whether for tea, coffee, or many other things, have grown amazingly big. Many of them are so much bigger than what they used to be just a few decades ago. What's small to many of us today, was just normal size in the past. Believe it or not, when you have your tea, snack or other things in a small portion, it tastes better :-D Besides, you can always have multiple cups, with each cup carefully prepared and delicious. When large volume is used, then there should be caution about over-brewing, and other brewing parameters may need to be adjusted accordingly.

Aug 6, 2011

a red tea infuser turned into a Tai Ping Hou Kui glass

It's quite hard to find good Tai Ping Hou Kui, in   my impression, much harder than finding good Long Jing. That makes me a little stingy in drinking it.

Authentic TPHK has its leaves manually shaped one by one. Such kind of tedious labor often makes me feel guilty drinking the tea. Is it really worth it to make a tea in such a time-consuming and painstaking way? I don't dare to say it's not worth it. But I neither want to be the one processing the leaves nor the one paying big money to buy it :-p And if the tea is too expensive, I turn to other teas.

The TPHK I've got this year is pretty good, thanks to the cold spring weather. The leaves, in my eyes, are quite nice. But these are not the most beautiful leaves of Hou Kui. The top grade Hou Kui has all the leaves almost of the same length which would make me feel terribly guilty both for the labor it costs and for my own money :-p Again there is the question "is it worth it?" as there is no evidence that TPHK with even-length leaves taste better than that with shorter and longer leaves. But some people may think it's worth it, because the leaves can be so handsome and is one of the most beautiful tea scenes. As for me, I chose this one with modest leaves, which is still manually pressed one leaf after another one and, to me, is still quite expensive. So I was looking for a very small glass for Hou Kui. 

Before I found a real glass that's small, I got a gift of red tea infuser. It's pretty much like a stout graduated cylinder with a cover and an infuser inlet. The infuser arrived broken but the cylinder and cap are fine. I didn't plan to use it for red tea anyway, but was glad to find it a nice vessel for Hou Kui.

Now this is my official Hou Kui glass (although I use it and its cap for white tea too). I use a small yixing of about 130ml as the water decanter. Hou Kui is a high mountain tea from Anhui and steeps well in very hot water. Unlike Zhejiang tea drinker, many Anhui tea drinkers never have the habit of cooling water before tea brewing. Very few Anhui green teas can be hurt by the hottest boiling water (when brewed in a small vessel, no cap, no steaming...). But I prefer to let the boiling water take a side step through the yixing before pouring it to the glass a short while later.

Hou Kui is a very volume-y tea. What's in the glass is very little by weight. This "red tea infuser" is small and tall, exactly what I had wanted for Hou Kui!

Tea is not a luxury of money. That's what I believe. If there weren't some strange-minded person ever inventing such a strange-looking tea this hard to make, then even the richest person wouldn't have a chance of this drinking experience. As far as I know, none of the emperors in Chinese history had the opportunity to enjoy the luxury of Hou Kui. 

Aug 1, 2011

Ba Ba Cha (bundled tea, 把把茶)

It was something interesting that I would like to try. I don't know if I should call it puerh or green tea, as this traditional tea of multiple ethnic groups in Yunnan and Guizhou was not meant to be aged. But the processing of this tea is quite similar to Sheng puerh (which, some people argue, is basically a type of green tea), and many people just take it as puerh.

Historical records show that Ba Ba Cha was a tribute tea in Ming and Qing dynasties. But I guess this doesn't mean every Ba Ba Cha is at the tribute tea level. On the other hand, it doesn't mean the tea is good only when it's at the tribute tea level. After all, traditionally, most puerh was simple and cheap product that was good and enjoyable.

In recent years, I've heard of people making Ba Ba Cha with ancient arbor, even Ban Zhang tea leaves. I've never tried these products, but think such idea sounds a little unbelievable.

Traditionally, the most famous Ba Ba Cha was made with leaves of Jing Gu Big White Tea cultivar. Although called "white tea", this cultivar is quite different from the white tea cultivar from Fujian, and this tea was famous for making green tea. Nowadays, Jing Gu Big White Tea cultivar is also used to make puerh (sometimes sold for quite a high price), while some people argue this cultivar is not suitable for making puerh that is to be aged. But, the border between puerh and green tea is sometimes blurred. So it's hard to say which saying is more right than the other.

The one I tried here is a typical simple and cheap Ba Ba Cha. It's made from Nannuo autumn arbor leaves, the same leaves people use to make puerh. In my understanding, this tea was made into Ba Ba Cha mainly because it's an easy (and therefore less expensive) way of making tea.

Dry tea leaves:

Since it's a cheap tea mainly enjoyed by local blue-collar workers or peasants, I thought I would brew it the Yunnan way, instead of the gongfu style. I brewed it in a glass, and I guess I put too much tea in the glass.

It was not as harsh as I had thought, but indeed somewhat harsh. To me, the harshness is onto the stomach, but the flavor is not very bitter. It was actually a lot less bitter and astringent than I had thought, for such a crude-looking tea. I guess it's partially because the simple processing kept most leaves free of being crushed.

It's not something that blows me away. But I was glad to have tried this somewhat "exotic" tea. Besides, this simple and cheap tea indeed outperformed my expectation.