Monday, June 25, 2007

In the Land of the Black Dragon: A Voyage to Fujian [v]

A China Tea Miscellany

In this post I've collected a number of small, truly miscellaneous items, that didn't really fit anywhere else, but which I couldn't stand not sharing with you.

Did You Know ...

... that bottled tea -- green, oolong, or red -- is as popular as carbonated drinks (or more so) in China? You can buy it sweetened or unsweetened, and chilled or room-temperature, at the ubiquitous Seven-Elevens and other convenience stores.

Did You Know ...

... that powdered green tea is gaining popularity in China? (I had to take a picture of it to show you -- I feared you might not believe me otherwise ...)

Did You Know ...

... that the word pu'er (普洱) is, in origin, actually not a Han Chinese term? Rather, as I learned from Niisonge, it comes from the Hani language, in which it means 'family home' (i.e. the sort of walled complex in which an extended family might live together).

... that 'Pu'er' is, historically, where pu'er tea was sold -- not where it was grown? My learned colleague Danny Samarkand writes:
Historical records tell us that Pu'er county was an ideal location as a collection centre for the tea leaves harvested in and around the region. The leaves were processed into tea and from there sent out to other regions and countries on horsebacks. The tea was named after the region, and came to be known as Pu'er, and the place, Pu'er Xian -- Pu'er county.

Did You Know ...

... that in the Chaozhou gongfu cha tradition, the traditional fuel for the stove that heats the water kettle is (as I learned from Will Chen and Mr Tsay of Green of T) is dried olive seeds?

Did You Know ...

... that you can actually find some very nice tea-ware (as well as plenty of tea) in the airports of Asia? The photo above was taken in the airport in Fuzhou, but I was equally impressed with the shops in the airports of Taipei and Hong Kong

(where I had a layover between Taiwan and the PRC). The tea-ware prices will certainly not be the lowest; and I think I would advise against buying the tea at any price (unless you know for a certainty that it is of good quality and not overly expensive). But it will all be packaged well, for traveling; and if nothing else, you can have fun browsing.

Did You Know ...

... that bamboo is actually classified, botanically, as a grass? The largest types are of course the largest members of the grass family. Some species can grow as fast as a meter per day.

(Bamboo is of course vital to cha dao, as it is used for making a variety of tea-ware, including a popular form of the cha pan or tea tray used in gongfu cha, as well as other tea utensils.)

Did You Know ...

... that Wu Yi Shan was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999?

In the Land of the Black Dragon: A Voyage to Fujian [iv]

Tea Recipes from Fujian

One reads in American-published cookbooks on Chinese cuisine that the spectrum of variety in real Asian food is overwhelming beyond our capacity even to imagine; and that the kinds of fare made available in most Chinese restaurants in North America usually bear scant resemblance to what one actually encounters in Pacific Asia. Over and over again during my travels I saw the truth of these assertions.

Readers of CHA DAO may remember that some months ago I posted a recipe for Tea-Smoked Chicken. In this post, as promised, are some Fujian-style tea-related recipes that Jing-Xia taught me on the train to Wu Yi Shan. (Two of them are suitable for vegetarians, though none for vegans.) Together, they give a sense of how pervasive a part of Chinese food culture tea has become over the centuries, and not solely as a beverage. In some cases, the amounts are my own specification, based on careful questioning and subsequent experimentation at home. Thanks Nikky!

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6-12 eggs
2 quarts water or chicken broth
tea leaves (a cheap oolong or green tea is fine)
2-3 dried chillis
2 cloves star anise
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt

In a pot over medium-high heat, bring the water (or chicken broth if not cooking for vegetarians) to a simmer. Add a handful of tea-leaf -- enough to brew a fairly strong tea liquor. Stir the liquid to make sure all the tea is moistened. Add the remaining seasonings and eggs.

Simmer the eggs about 5 minutes, or until their shells turn brown from the mixture. Remove the eggs from the liquid, and tap the shells of each gently with a spoon (just enough to craze the surface, compromising the seal). Return the eggs to the simmering liquid. They can stay there as long as you like (but give them at least 5 more minutes). They are then ready to eat immediately; or you may prefer to cool and then chill them before serving.

• We saw big vats of these eggs simmering in restaurants throughout Wu Yi Shan. Nikky assured me that they can continue to remain warming in the liquid as long as you like. That said, you may want to experiment with simmering times; some people like their eggs (even hard-boiled eggs) cooked as little as possible, while others insist that an egg be boiled until the yolk has a blue/green hue to its surface.
• From the color of the cooked eggs, I surmise that most of the vats we saw in Fujian used oolong tea.
• Feel free to experiment with the amounts of tea and spices you include in the water. The tea-eggs I tasted were not hot/peppery at all, which suggests that that spice was used very sparingly. But this may have been a cost consideration as much as one of taste.

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3 cups unbleached flour, plus some extra for kneading
3 eggs
3 tablespoons water (more as needed)
1 teaspoon salt
1 handful of tea (green or oolong) -- say, 0.7 ounce or 20 grammes

Bring the eggs to room temperature. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the tea to a fine powder. [[This could also be done in an electric coffee- or spice-grinder, but particular care must be taken to ensure that there is no residue of any kind in the grinder; otherwise the tea will be flavored, possibly quite unpleasantly, by what was previously ground in the grinder.]]

Prepare a clean flat surface for working. In a large bowl, mix the tea-powder into the flour. Make a well in the center of this mixture (approximately 4" in diameter). In a small bowl, crack the eggs, and beat them together (with the salt) just enough to break the yolks. Pour this mixture into the flour well. Using your fingertips, sprinkle the flour/tea mixture, bit by bit, into the eggs in the center of the bowl. Add the water as you go along, to moisten the mixture. Keep mixing until all of the flour mixture is incorporated. The dough should be sticky, but not very wet.

Place the ball of dough on the flat surface and knead, sprinkling extra flour onto it -- as sparingly as possible -- to make a non-sticky dough. Roll into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest 20-30 minutes.

[[Easy food-processor version of the above: in a food processor, grind tea to a powder; add flour and salt to mix thoroughly; beat eggs together and pour in slowly to mix; slowly add enough water to make a stiff dough. Then remove dough ball from processor and proceed as follows.]]

Dust the flat surface with flour.
[1] Hand-rolled version: Roll the dough flat; fold it into thirds; roll again. Keep rolling, stretching the dough out until it is flat and smooth.
[2] Pasta-rolling machine version: Roll the dough flat on the floured surface; feed through the machine repeatedly until the dough has reached the desired thinness.

Let the rolled-out dough rest for 10 minutes. Then cut it into noodles of the desired width, either by hand (with a very sharp knife) or by feeding the flat dough through a pasta-cutting machine.

• Use these noodles as you would plain 面 (mian) in Chinese recipes.
• These can be cooked immediately, or dried for later use. Bear in mind that freshly-made noodles cook much faster than dried noodles (within a couple of minutes). And is it just my imagination, or do they also usually taste better?
• Chinese noodles are typically boiled longer (and are thus softer) than Italian 'al dente' pasta.
• You can experiment with the amount of tea -- adding more or less to the flour to reach the desired strength of tea flavoring.

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raw shrimp
long jing tea leaves
peanut or sesame oil

Peel and de-vein the shrimp.
Heat a teaspoon or two of oil in a wok. Toss in the tea-leaves and pan-fry for a few seconds; remove them from the wok.
Heat enough oil to sauté the shrimp. Toss in the shrimp and stir-fry; they will turn a bright red/orange color as they cook. When they are almost done, add the tea-leaves and a sparing amount of salt.

• This dish cooks very quickly. The longest part of the recipe is probably the preparation of the shrimp.
• Amounts are purposely not specified here. When Nikky was served this dish in a restaurant, it consisted of more tea-leaves than shrimp; at home, she suggests, the Chinese cook would reverse the ratio (to the extent that one's budget will allow). As the merest suggestion of a proportion, one might begin with a pound of raw shrimp, a half-cup of tea leaves, and a half-teaspoon of salt. But again, the cook should experiment to find the desired proportions.

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These recipes are copyright © 2007 by 程景霞 [Cheng Jing-Xia]. All rights reserved. They are published here for private home use, but may not be published elsewhere in any format, nor used commercially, without express prior permission.

In the Land of the Black Dragon: A Voyage to Fujian [iii]

What is so rare as a day in June? Well, for me, a day in June in Wu Yi Shan. We grouped for breakfast in the hotel (the only guests in that cavernous dining room) and then met Mr Zhou at his cab outside. Our first stop of the day was at a bookshop -- 文友書店 Wen You Shu Dian, the 'Literary Friends Book Shop' (tel 0599.525.2002) to look at books and magazines especially devoted to tea (one of my greatest temptations to buy was faced in this shop, actually). Following Steven Owyoung's prudent advice, I did purchase a nice hardbound copy of Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng). It was surprisingly compact in one beautiful volume, in contrast with the Penguin translation, which fills five fat paperbacks. Warren found a whole run of a for-the-trade magazine on tea, called -- believe it -- Cha Dao. (Nikky, as Head of Domestic Space Management, was vehemently opposed to his buying any of them, but as I recall, she did not entirely prevail in this instance.) The store was well-stocked with copies of different issues of Pu-erh Teapot Magazine -- the glossy Chinese-language tea magazine -- but (not surprisingly) none of The Art of Tea, its English-language counterpart. We thumbed through the various periodicals, and scanned the shelves for other treasures, but the day lay open before us, so we soon moved on.

Our next big project was to wend our way down the legendary Nine Bends River by boat (technically these craft were, I guess, rafts, made as they were from flat bundles of massive lengths of bamboo -- though curved at the prow). The jolly boatmen, duly admonished in advance by Nikky to be sure and tell us all about what we were seeing, pointed out this or that landmark (and each of the nine eponymous bends) as they punted us down the river. This is a site that has been showcased, I have no doubt, in many a feature film. Not to show it off would be a terrible waste, as there can be few spots on earth of more staggering beauty or dramatic natural effect. I could describe it all in great detail, but there would be little to tell that is directly germane to the subject of tea, apart from finding a few spots that would make spectacular locations for a gongfu session. I will however single out for mention the caves that were used (beginning in the Shang and Zhou periods -- i.e. perhaps as early as 2000 BCE) as burial spots for their dead. The method used was to place the body in these caves in hanging coffins of wood. Floating past these caves, so far below them in their absolutely vertical cliff-faces, one marvels at their apparent inaccessibility.

After our rafting expedition, we ventured into the web of parks that laces this part of Wu Yi Shan. We wanted to wander their winding paths, but above all to search for the famous 茶洞 Cha Dong (literally 'Tea Hole'), another major landmark of Wu Yi Shan. Like the spot where we saw the 'mother bushes' of Da Hong Pao, the Cha Dong is also a deep canyon where yan cha is grown. This walk was perhaps longer than the one to the Da Hong Pao 'mother bushes,' and also uphill, though (it seems to me in memory) not as steeply so. There were certainly sedan-chairs for hire here as well. What was different about this path was that so much of it wound around the very outside of the mountain, affording some truly gorgeous views, some of them to a great distance. At times we found ourselves looking down at spots along the river where we had just rafted; at others, looking inward toward the bowels of the mountain, we poked into dim caves. Some of these were huge, housing a cool mist that blessed the skin after the relentless heat of the open midday air. At one point we found ourselves below the 'Eagle's Beak,' one of many fancifully-named rock formations in Wu Yi Shan. From the raft we had already seen Three Sisters, Frog Rock, Hamburger Rock (!), Two Breasts, and others. To make the best sense of Eagle's Beak, one must turn one's back on the sheer precipice on which one stands, and bend one's head over backwards in order to look up and view the overhang. For those so afflicted by vertigo that they might never be able to experience this, I have courageously taken a photograph of same.

The stifling heat, and the seemingly endless upward trail, like the setting for an episode out of the Silmarillion, made me want several times to turn back; but I had not come halfway round the world for such faintness of heart. Bolstered by the pluck and perseverance of my fellow-hikers, I gathered the strength to keep going (and to stay ahead of a herd of raucous school-children that we could hear, like a band of tiny orcs, advancing not far behind us).

VINCIT QVI PATITVR: Who perseveres, prevails. Eventually we came to a venerable stone arch, and an engraved sign announcing that we were about to enter the Cha Dong itself. If anything, this canyon is more dramatic than the one the shelters the original Da Hong Pao bushes. It is certainly bigger, deeper, and of more complicated shape, comprised as it is of an outer and an inner portion.

The inner Cha Dong is worth viewing at all costs. Moreover, it must be seen with one's own eyes. No photography could possibly do it justice. I will say that its bowl-like shape -- like a deep crater with virtually vertical walls -- houses a field of yan cha that must be highly prized. There is a high waterfall, of the type I associate with Kauai, tumbling into a pool; the legend is that this was once the bathing-place of a goddess. And clinging to one promontory -- this is the only image of the inner Cha Dong that I can bring myself to show you -- is an old-fashioned pavilion that would be just perfect for an afternoon of gongfu cha.

If only we had had the time (and tea) to do so. Maybe someday (in March, or October, please). For now, it was time to hike back down to the river level, where Mr Zhou was waiting for us with the car.

Reunited with him, we went for a brief walk through the park museum, and then peeked briefly into the Wu Yi Palace, a site originally constructed in the Tang and Song dynasties. It was clear that one could explore this region indefinitely, without exhausting its riches; but I had a very special project at this point: to try and find a jade chop that I could use as a seal. This must perforce take us out of the parks.

The indefatigable Mr Zhou knew of a shop that specialized in such jades (tel 0599.525.2542). Moreover, its proprietor, Mr Yang Bao-Ju, is a stone-carver of such renown that clients come not only from all over China, but also from Japan, to have him engrave their chops for them. By my great good fortune, he had just returned from a journey of his own; otherwise I would have found no one in this small town to engrave a seal for me.

The first step was to select the jade chop. Mr Yang's wife gestured welcomingly to me to look over the stones. These lined the shelves by the dozen, and ranged in size and shape from tiny -- and very simple -- to large two-fisted chops of obviously ceremonial valence. I took my time as I scanned the shelves; this was not the time to rush. Eventually I chose one: substantial but not garishly large, of beautiful nephrite jade, with a square footprint, and carved at the top with a pixiu -- the slinky beast of Chinese legend that I share as a favorite with a good friend who has taught me much about Chinese culture. The stone became an object of desire for me as I looked at it; but my heart sank when I heard the cost quoted. I estimated that it was about twice as expensive as it ought to be. Just then, like a guardian angel, Nikky started asking some questions -- not in Putonghua but in one of the Min dialects which, by chance, she shares with Mr Yang and his wife. They were utterly charmed. Suddenly the price dropped -- by 50%! This would even include the engraving -- only, they emphasized to me, because Nikky was speaking Min hua with them, and was practically family.

I had already decided on the imprint that I wanted the stamp to make: four hanzi, done in a script that dates back to the Qin Dynasty. And of course they had to be carved in reverse, so that when the imprint is stamped, the characters will read properly. When I showed my request to Mr Yang, he chuckled a bit at it (it includes a translation of 'corax,' itself an ancient Greek noun), scribbled the hanzi on a sheet of paper on his desk, and got right to work.

At this point, his wife smoothly led us to a large wooden tea-table. Wouldn't we like to have some tea while we waited for him to carve the chop? Well, of course. But I could easily see where this was leading, so I commented pointedly how delicious her Da Hong Pao was, and (thus) what a shame it was that only the night before, I had bought all the Da Hong Pao one could possibly tote back to America. She graciously took the hint, and brought us upstairs to look at some of their more expensive jades -- carvings of museum quality, some of them quite enormous, and worth tens of thousands of US dollars each.

Soon Mr Yang was finished with the chop. He made an imprint of the carving, and I was quite pleased with it, so with many handshakes and nods and thanks all round, we made our way out the door. It was not quite time for dinner, so I suggested: how about some tea? I got no objections from our small band. Anywhere around here that we can get some tea, Mr Zhou? In short order, he took us to 大茶壶山庄 (Da Cha Hu Shan Zhuang, the 'Big Tea Pot Inn'), probably the best-known tea house in town. This was no accident; Mr Liu Feng, the proprietor (who was away on business when we were there) is one of the three or four most highly-respected tea producers in Wu Yi Shan -- indeed, when in 2008 those 'mother bushes' of Da Hong Pao are finally plucked again, he will be one of those who does the honors. This we learned from his proud wife, Zheng Xue-Jiao, who was presiding over the tea house that afternoon.

Once again we were installed at an elaborately-carved wooden tea table with a young woman who would do the gongfu brewing for us. The first tea brought out to us was a 2007 Da Hong Pao -- quite delicious, even to our jaded palates. Then Ms Zheng suggested that we try their seventeen-year-old Da Hong Pao. We could hardly say no to this, on principle, having just drunk some thirteen-year-old stuff the night before. This tea was venerable -- and powerful. There was a certain something that Ms Yu's tea had that this did not -- an extra nuance or layer of flavor, perhaps a spiciness -- but this 1990-harvest tea was a classic. Moreover, it performed like a champion: we were still drinking it, with pleasure, after the fortieth (40th) infusion. I do not recall ever having put any tea through such difficult paces.

By this time, Ms Zheng was sitting comfortably with us and chatting about tea. As many tea vendors do, she had an album of photographs documenting the family business; there were pictures of Mr Liu tending the original Da Hong Pao bushes, or being decorated with a medal by the Chinese government for the quality of his tea. We saw photographs of their tea bushes growing; here was a stand of Bai Ji Guan bushes -- a most rare tea, of which (we were told) there is produced a total of perhaps only 40 or 50 pounds in a year, so little that there is never any left over to age. What a pity, Ms Zheng said, that we had not come sooner; her 2007 harvest of Bai Ji Guan, which was excellent, had already completely sold out.

Once again, at the most impossible juncture, Nikky worked her magic. I am not sure at exactly which point she switched into Min hua, but it was not long before Ms Zheng -- another speaker of Nikky's particular dialect -- fell under her spell too. Well! Look at this! We just happen to have a few grams of Bai Ji Guan left, right here, isn't that amazing? And I really want you to try this tea. See the distinctive color of these leaves?

We relaxed in our chairs. The secret doors had opened for us once again, and the sipping was good. The leaves of the Bai Ji Guan indeed became yellower and yellower as they were repeatedly infused. It is a noble tea, by all accounts, and a great rarity. Our tea-sampling over the past two days was the equivalent of winning several lotteries.

By now it was getting to be time for supper, so we bade Ms Zheng farewell, and left the Da Cha Hu. We had reservations on a plane back to Fuzhou, but not till late that night, so we went foraging for food, which we found in a tiny restaurant staffed by remarkably cheerful young folk. Singing as they worked, they spread us a bounteous table, practically for free, and we took our time dining. The tea was, once again, very weak and watery, but at least this potful was recognizable as some sort of oolong. It was certainly the weakest aspect of the meal; the soup and the other dishes were quite good.

After dinner was done, we still had a good bit of time before the plane, so we poked around a bit in a shop -- I bought a pu'er knife -- and then Nikky suggested that we go for foot massages. We trooped upstairs at a parlor near the Da Cha Hu and were promptly seated in a room with three masseuses, who went to work in triplicate. The whole notion of a foot massage seems impossibly decadent to a westerner, but it is a habit that one can get used to very quickly.

While I was still in a post-massage stupor, Nikky paid the bill -- for all of us -- and then it was time to head to the airport and fly back to Fuzhou. I hardly noticed that the plane was over an hour late for take-off, so many memories from the past few days had I to juggle.

It was extremely late when we reached the Fuzhou airport; we took a quick bus to the sumptuous Apollo Hotel (address: 132 Wuyi Middle Road, Fuzhou; tel 86.591.8305.5555). This was close to the railway station, but also convenient to the airport, from which I had to depart the next day. Here we said our goodbyes, as Warren and Nikky had to catch a very early train. We had shared so much intense tea experience, in so little time, that parting was indeed sweet sorrow. To try and stave that off, we had already made plans for our next visit. I can hardly wait.

-- corax

In the Land of the Black Dragon: A Voyage to Fujian [ii]

[Once again, let me remind you that the graphic images here are essentially thumbnails: you can see a larger version of each one simply by clicking on it.]

The morning of 31 May dawned early for us in Fuzhou. We checked out of the Jinhui Hotel, scrambled across the very wide street to the railway station, and found our train. A quick adjustment of our tickets got us an upgrade to a first-class compartment together -- a much more comfortable way to spend a six-hour journey up to Wu Yi Shan, and the supplement was surprisingly inexpensive. Indeed the railway system (as we once used to know in the USA) is an excellent way to travel, and much more comfortable than by airplane; the only advantage air-travel has (and this is admittedly sometimes crucial, as it was for us two days later) is speed. On a train, it is much easier to get up and move about; if there is a dining car, one can treat oneself to a hot meal; and if one has a compartment like the one I shared with Nikky and Warren, one has relative privacy even while in a public transit system. Add to this, of course, the fact that the ground-level travel allows one to see and possibly even photograph the countryside. From our compartment window I saw a great deal of Fujian province during those six hours.

The compartment was furnished with four bunks and a table. When we wanted a nap, nap we did, and when we were awake, we sat at the table and chatted, sharing anecdotes and planning out trip. As I had skipped breakfast, I was glad for the snacks Nikky and Warren had brought us -- cold drinks, small buns filled with sweet bean paste, and nibble such as pumpkin seeds (green-tea-flavored) and strips of cured sweet potato. The latter tasted to me more like dried guava -- and looked more like Gummi worms -- than anything one would expect from a tuber.

What we did not do on the train was to brew tea. Not that this would have been difficult: the compartment came equipped with its own thermos of hot water, and a sign that read 'Boiled Water Please' -- the latter for hanging on the compartment door as needed. But Warren was leery about the quality of their water, so we forewent the in-cabin gongfu.

As the noon hour approached, we adjourned to the dining-car for some more substantial fare. For ¥82, about USD$10, the train chef prepared to our order the following luncheon:
--- Winter Melon Soup with Scallops
--- Stir-fried Cabbage
--- Iced Tea Duck
--- Sliced Beef with Oyster Sauce
All of these were excellent. The quality of the preparation was equivalent to that of an upscale Chinese restaurant in the US. The one mystery to us was the duck, which came to the table cold and in chunks, but without any noticeable tea flavoring.

Naturally enough, this all engendered some food- and cooking-conversation, during which I began to learn what a knowledgeable cook Nikky is in her own right. The quizzical 'tea' component of Iced Tea Duck prompted her to give me some traditional Fujian recipes involving tea, which I shall post separately at a later date.

I marveled aloud at the uncomplicated appearance of the soup; Warren commented that this minimalist style was typical of the soups of Fujian. (Here are a couple of his simple recipes, in case you would to try some right now:
--- Simmer in hot water: chunks of extra-firm tofu; sliced fresh ginger, minced scallions.
--- Simmer TGY leaves in beef broth.
[Told you they were simple!])

We lingered over lunch, before returning to our compartment, and soon thereafter the train arrived in Wu Yi Shan station. This is much smaller than busy Fuzhou, the provincial capital, and the air is much cleaner and fresher. The mid-afternoon sun had already warmed it thoroughly by the time we got off the train -- just how thoroughly, I would not know until we were out walking in it during the afternoon.

Right outside the railway station is a broad plaza where the taxi drivers wait for the trains to arrive. Nikky, who was born in Fuzhou, speaks a distinctive Fujian dialect as well as Putonghua (Mandarin); this fact was to have far-reaching consequences before my visit was done. It had consequences now, in that it enabled her to find us a cab driver, Mr Zhou, who agreed to be our chauffeur for the next day and a half for a fee of ¥240 (about USD$30). If he ever regretted taking this assignment, he did not say so; but we frolicked all over town (and out of it) until very late both nights. Mr Zhou also played a pivotal role in our actually finding the sights/sites we wanted to see.

Our very first stop was at a travel-agent's office, where we picked up two-day admission tickets to a variety of excursions. The fact that this was even possible had not come home to me before that point, but I now began to realize two things: first, that Wu Yi Shan is quite an important destination for Chinese tourism; and second, that almost no westerners go there. Perhaps this changes later in the summer season, but I had the strong sense that i was the first waiguoren (or laowai, as they doubtless said out of earshot) that most of these folks had seen in many a long day. (I am not counting Warren in this tally of westerners, as he is for all intents and purposes an honorary Chinese.) Certainly they stared, long and hard, as at some exotic beast. But when I smiled at the gawkers, some smiled back. Some chirped out 'Hello! hello!' -- and could not contain their astonishment when I replied with 'Ni hao!' A few actually stopped me and asked to have their pictures taken with me.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. After the travel agent's, we went to our hotel to get ourselves installed and ready for the rest of the day. This was the Wu Yi Shan Yi Li Hotel (tel 0599.525.2019), a vast complex of wandering corridors and lush gardens that seemed utterly empty except for the staff -- and us. Here I learned that one cannot expect Chinese hotels to accept foreign credit cards; the bill had to be paid fully, in advance, including a hefty deposit against potential damage to hotel property. Having already learned, to my chagrin, that not all Chinese banks will accept American ATM cards, I had Mr Zhou drive us to the nearest Bank of China branch to access some cash.

Then it was off to Wu Yi Shan proper. 'Shan' (山) here, or 'mountain,' really refers to a whole range of peaks in northern Fujian province. Among these peaks are outcroppings known as 'yan' (岩, i.e. 'cliff' or 'rock'; you can see that this character itself includes the 'shan' character, i.e. 山). These 'yan' can reach astonishing heights, the tops of which will often be shrouded in mists that refresh the greenery. The flora are as varied as they are exuberant: one doesn't have to venture very far outside the town center to find oneself in a jungle of green plants of every size and shape.

I came to Fujian to find one particular green plant, of course: Camellia sinensis sinensis. Most specifically, I came to Wu Yi Shan to see with my own eyes what are surely some of the most famous and revered plants in the wide world: the august 'mother bushes' of Da Hong Pao or 'Great Scarlet Robe.'

There are several versions of the picturesque story explaining the origin of this name, but they follow more or less similar lines: The emperor fell gravely ill, and was nigh unto death. Some Buddhist monks from a temple in Wu Yi Shan ministered to him, brewing a special tea with leaf taken from three extraordinary bushes known to them. Soon, by virtue of the healing powers of this tea, the emperor had made a complete recovery. When he despatched his officials to Wu Yi to collect the annual tribute, he sent with them the long robes of red silk (da hong pao) that were his exclusive right to wear. These were to be draped over the bushes as a sign of imperial favor (or, alternatively, to protect them from wintry weather).

From these three 'mother' bushes, we are told, came four 'son' bushes. Many, many others have since been propagated in turn, from seed or by cloning; but these seven originary bushes still flourish on the side of the yan where those gentle monks first gathered their leaves. So precious and so pampered are these plants that only a few grams of leaf are plucked from them. Indeed, to give them a rest, nary a leaf will be plucked in the year 2007. The 2008 pluck will be that much more of an event, when it occurs.

Unable to wait another moment, we asked Mr Zhou to drive us to see the fabled Da Hong Pao bushes. This was when the real meaning of 'shan' became evident: soon it was clear that the car was heading steeply uphill. The scenery became dramatic, then breathtaking. If you have any doubt that you are on holy ground, this is dispelled by the sight of an enormous Buddha of carven stone, lounging (and laughing) at a bend in the road. The Buddha is tended by a small enclave of monks off to one side. This is not the monastery in the Da Hong Pao story; that is farther up the mountain even than where the seven bushes are. But these monks' presence, and the towering bulk of the laughing Buddha, are a reminder that spiritual folk have since time immemorial retreated to high places to think and pray and meditate.

The Buddha statue itself is actually a recent addition. What is much, much older is the staggeringly huge character 佛 'Fo' -- i.e. 'Buddha' -- that has been chiselled and gilded into the sheer rock-face behind him. It looks as though the hand of some Titan had reached down from the Empyrean and inscribed the character, with a brush dipped in molten gold, onto the side of the yan.

As with all such extraordinary things, there is a story behind this. Apparently the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722 CE), a good and beloved ruler who liked to travel his realm in disguise so as to observe his people incognito, observed the shape of the outcropping of rock at this point, and discerned in it the shape of the Buddha. Accordingly, he later caused the gigantic 佛 'Fo' to be inscribed into the rock.

Maybe it is lack of spiritual insight, but -- try as I might -- I could see no resemblance between the rock and the Buddha. Unless the rock in question were actually another, pudgy outcropping, to our left as we were looking at the statue? It's difficult to say, but if you use your imagination as you look at this rock formation, you can see a big belly with a head atop it ... sort of.

In any case, from the Buddha Rock we continued our drive up to the parking area where we had to leave the car and continue on foot. This was when I really began to feel the intense humid heat of Wu Yi Shan. I cannot imagine making this hike in July or August, when so many Chinese do it. Much less could I imagine being one of the poor porters who carry sedan chairs up and down the mountain for ¥240. This may be a hefty sum to them, but such grueling work deserves much better pay. They were even more drenched in sweat than I was as they passed us carrying their haughty passengers down the path, like a scene out of The Painted Veil. But in any case, this was a trek I felt I needed to make on foot. I wanted to be able to stop at will, to breathe the air in deeply, to listen to the cicadas buzzing and the birds warbling against the peaceful sound of the mountain stream that flowed down alongside the foot-path. To experience all of this at my own pace, among the greys and blues and intense greens of the ravines. And, yes, to take pictures of it all for you, gentle reader. Though you may be reading this on the other side of the world from Wu Yi Shan, I want you to see it through my eyes. To get the fullest effect of the moment, you will need, not a cup of tea, but a cupped handful of the clearest, coolest mountain spring water. I took one such from the stream, and it was pure and sweet. Perfect, one might say, to use for brewing tea.

Here and there along the path up the mountain one can see, on the vertical rock faces, large hanzi beautifully inscribed. These are painted in, not with gold like the Buddha's 'Fo,' but in red paint which is carefully restored each year by calligraphic experts specially chosen for the task. These inscriptions relate to the very specific experience of drinking yan cha. One, for example, says 韻巖 [yan yun] -- a thoroughly untranslatable half-rhyme that itself speaks of the 'rhyme' [yun] or long, complex aftertaste of a good yan cha. Another one, equally, idiomatic, reads 晚甘侯  [wan gan hou], where wan means 'late,' gan means 'sweet[ness],' and hou, 'marquis,' stands for things fine or noble. Essentially, this phrase refers to the gradual sweetness that occurs as one brews successive infusions of a high-quality DHP. (The aptness of these inscriptions is brought home to you, as you walk up the path, by the rows of carefully-tended tea bushes -- Rou Gui, Fo Shou, Da Hong Pao, and even a few Bai Ji Guan -- planted here and there. All this outpouring of wild natural beauty is carefully nudged toward a focus on the cultivation and enjoyment of yan cha.

The path wound up the mountain in twists and curves, sometimes crossing over the stream, sometimes going up steps carved into the living rock. Eventually we came to a stone gate which led us into a small canyon planted with Da Hong Pao bushes. Here we passed a very old pavilion, built into the side of the yan and labeled 茶方 [cha fang 'tea spot'] and an old set of bee-hives in another small covered wooden structure.

And then we saw them. The bushes. They looked just as I had thought they would, from countless photographs, except that I had not realized just how inaccessible they are. One actually needs to climb a ladder in order to reach them. It is clear that they are very carefully tended, though apparently they do not need to be watered by hand, as the porous stone of the yan itself provides constant moistening (and minerals) to the soil in which they grow.

There they were, the pride of Fujian, just growing and being bushes. There was no fanfare of cymbals, no offerings of incense, certainly no silken cloaks, scarlet or otherwise. But there was no sense of anti-climax to our arrival, either: rather, a sense that these historic and irreplaceable bushes are being quietly cherished and protected in the safety of this natural cradle where they were born.

There is a platform, with stairs down and further up the mountain, from which one can view and photograph the bushes from a variety of angles. We surveyed the whole little canyon from there for a while, and then retired to a cha fang on the opposite side, facing the mother bushes (not the old one, which is on the same side as the bushes and the beehives). Here, naturally, they served Da Hong Pao and other yan cha -- and by 'served' I mean that one of their staff would brew and serve it to the customers. So we sat down on benches at a table from which we could look at the mother bushes, while we drank excellent tea and talked about the whole experience. As is common with such performances, there was a detailed commentary from the young woman serving the tea, culminating with an offer to sell us some. Sometimes these sales pitches can involve quite a bit of pressure; this one included a pledge that theirs was the very highest-quality Da Hong Pao on offer anywhere, at a 'fair price' that would prove to be lower than anywhere else for this particular tea. ('Anywhere else,' in this particular context, of course meant 'down in Wu Yi town,' i.e. 'when you've gone all the way down the mountain': in other words, Last Chance To Buy This Tea. A clever ploy.)

I have already said that the tea was quite good. But it seemed to me that Ms Cai's had been at least as good, and had cost less than this asking price. What to do? Warren warned that prices in such places are always -- always -- inflated, and that we could surely do better elsewhere. But look, pointed out the young woman, The box has the company's seal on it. And we represent that company here (first mention of that detail!), so we would not try to cheat you .... What to do, what to do? What snapped me out of my reverie was when she brought over yet another canister of tea -- this one made of silver-colored metal, heavily engraved and housed in a velvet-lined boxwood case. The cost was obscene. Two-thirds of it, as Warren correctly observed, was for the packaging. Moreover, it was all sealed up, so there was no tasting the actual tea inside it before making the purchase. I decided to wait and see what awaited us down in town.

Casting a final, farewell look at the mother bushes, we began our descent from the canyon. As we walked, a fine mist of rain fell on us briefly. One can see, in a very short period of time, why this is such a lush growing environment for green plants. The brook flowing down along the path was clear as glass, so we could see the fish swimming alongside us; again the soft sounds of birds and cicadas and burbling water combined to provide a gentle background music to our walk. The carved inscriptions and the small stands of tea-plants looked different, somehow, on this side of our experience in the high narrow canyon of the mother-bushes. It felt like an initiation.

By the time we reached the parking-area, all the sedan-chairs and their porters were gone. Evening was falling: time for supper. Could Mr Zhou help us find a restaurant that specializes in the particular delicacies of the Wu Yi region? Indeed he could. In short order he took us to the 農山莊 (Nong Shan Zhuang, 'Farmer's Villa,' TEL 0599.5234117), a huge inn that looked to have been fairly recently built. We were seated, in our own private dining-room, at a large round table that would easily have accommodated eight or ten people. The menu arrived, and the list of plates was not only long, but exotic. As we were to see in a number of other establishments, they offered bear-meat; in addition to this, there were several that raised my eyebrows still further: leopard (a euphemism for 'cat-meat'?) and jackal (dog?). Nikky teased me with the prospect of an Eight-Snake Soup, but in the event we opted for somewhat less exotic fare. Still, much of it was wild, and all of it was extremely fresh. Stir-fried Wild Boar, Steamed Wild Greens, Stir-fried Wild Mushrooms, Scallion Pancakes, and Bamboo Chicken Soup with ye hong gu Mushrooms (the 'bamboo' here referring to the chicken's having lived in a bamboo grove -- not in a bamboo cage). The stir-fried mushrooms alone would have been worth the trip, but everything was quite delicious. (The one exception, ironically, was the tea, which was so watery and non-descript that neither Warren nor I could even identify the type.) The total cost, once again, provoked Nikky's stern disapproval; it was roughly comparable to that of a Chinese restaurant in the US, and so I suffered no sticker shock, but Nikky felt the price was so exorbitant that she sat with the bill and carefully checked their arithmetic before approving it.

By now we were all more or less spherical in shape, having eaten enough for several dinners each. But the evening was far from over. Mr Zhou offered to take us to see how members of his own family produced Da Hong Pao tea. This was the first I had heard about his family's involvement in the tea business, but in a region that is so heavily invested in tea, such news should never be surprising.

We got back in the car and drove to a quiet residential part of town, where we were led through a garage-like area -- which had an open well of water in it -- to a cluster of very plain rooms, walled and floored in cement. Here we met Ms Yu Li Ping, whose card bears the logo of 天子神韵 (Tian Zi Shen Yun, 'Son of Heaven [= Emperor = Imperial] Divine Yun'), where yun looks once more to be the 'rhyming' notion of complex, lingering aftertaste associated particularly with yan cha. Ms Yu, a demure and charming young woman whose family has been making Da Hong Pao for four generations, led us through rooms where we were able to view the equipment and process they use for oxidizing, pan-frying, rolling, and baking the tea. The latter is perhaps the most delicate step in the process, and in Ms Yu's house it happens in a room all its own. In contrast to the other rooms, which have modern electrical equipment, this room had nothing in it (apart from the cement itself) that could not have come from three hundred years ago. When we walked in, the temperature was almost like that of a sauna. Along one wall were several circular pits, built of bricks and cemented directly into the floor, in each of which -- covered by a fine grey ash -- slowly burned the embers of a coal fire. Over each pit was a basket full of Da Hong Pao. The smell in this room, maybe 20 x 20 feet in size, was absolutely intoxicating: that unmistakable aroma of Da Hong Pao, but especially lively and fresh. My immediate thought was: I could sit all day just breathing this air.

This particular tea is made only once a year, explained Ms Yu, so what we were seeing was actually the re-baking of tea from previous years. She picked up a basket to show us how, in the fire-pits, the embers were kept covered with the ash, so as to prevent their burning too hot. She stirred the leaf in the basket, causing a fresh gust of tea aroma to waft into the air. Holding up a basket of some of their 2005 harvest, she asked: Would we like to taste some of this brewed? You bet we would. She scooped a couple of handsful into a metal tray and took it with her into another room, on the same level of the house, in which were several chairs and stools grouped around the type of elaborately-carved wooden tables favored by vendors in China. Here we sat down and watched her brew the tea, gongfu-style, decanting from a gaiwan into a serving pitcher. Each of us received a tiny tasting-cup of the liquid. We slurped it back, aerating it well so as to maximize the flavor. The wan gan hou began to spread across the palate and down the throat.

Almost immediately I had the thought, 'I am so glad I did not buy that tea up in the canyon earlier.' This tea was markedly superior to what we had been served that afternoon: fresher, more complex, and with a longer finish. The yan cha saying that Ms Yu had quoted to us, 頰齿留香 ('cheeks, teeth keep fragrance'), really came home as I drank cup after tiny cup of this tea. The aftertaste was tenacious, and well-being spread with every sip. As we drank, Ms Yu showed us photos of the family farm where this tea was grown: this was zheng yan cha, she emphasized -- 'real' or 'authentic' yan cha, i.e. actually grown within the central growing region of Wu Yi Shan. From the photos it was evident that the family's land holdings were not enormous.

Ms Yu's tiny daughter, perhaps three years old, ran into the room, hurled herself into her mother's arms, chattered away in Chinese, and then set about brewing an infusion of the tea herself. I marveled as she expertly manipulated the gaiwan (her mother handling the kettle of hot water), poured the tea into the sharing pitcher, and then poured out several cups of the tea, including one for herself. Ms Yu asked her if she knew what this tea was: 'Da Hong Pao!' said the little girl with emphasis, and everyone laughed. She watched me with huge dark eyes, then ran out of the room, returning with a tiny packet of fisted wu long cha. 'Tie Guan Yin,' she announced with a smile, and pressed it into my hand. Could I have been any more charmed? And: is this the fifth generation of the same family's tea work, getting an early start?

Then Ms Yu asked, 'Now, how about tasting some thirteen-year-old Da Hong Pao?' It took very little convincing to get us to assent to this. Of course we knew that what lay behind this display of tea, tea-manufacturing, and tea-brewing was the hope of an eventual sale; but I had put off some buying earlier for the hope of a better tea, so what if this turned out to be it? Bring it on.

The leaf was (if anything) blacker than the dry leaf of the 2005. Its color caused Ms Yu to comment on the name of the type of tea: wu long, 'black dragon' (she parsed the 'dragon' part as a reference to the long serpentine shape of each leaf). The average 2005 leaf was visibly longer than the average 1994 leaf; Ms Yu herself pointed this out, as a guarantor of the greater age of the latter (it is the repeated handling, she said, that tends to cause a bit of breakage at the delicate tips). I wondered silently how this might affect the flavor of the infusion. But I also knew that I was about to find out.

Ms Yu set about brewing the 1994 tea in just the same way as the 2005: gongfu style, with plenty of leaf in the gaiwan, and surprisingly short infusions. As before (and as universally done in Fujian, it seems), she wet the leaf for a brief rinse, which was instantly discarded, but then also discarded the first infusion. The second infusion was poured into a sharing pitcher and then shared round amongst the five of us (Mr Zhou, Nikky, Warren, myself, and Ms Yu).

Talk about a complex flavor experience! This tea was nothing less than extraordinary, and absolutely required the passage of time for the full unfurling of its flavor spectrum. By 'time' I mean several seconds for the first phase of tastes and aftertastes; and perhaps another half-hour for the full 'yun' or echo of the actual tasting process. A remarkable part of the first phase came at about the second or third second after ingestion -- a sensation that I can only describe as a kind of 'flush' up into my sinus cavities, and (or so it seemed) even further into my head. To the extent that I experience cha qi from powerful teas, I tend to experience them in the belly and chest: a Hindu might say, in the third and fourth chakras. But this tea went straight to the fifth, and from there to the sixth. It would be interesting to have a long gongfu session, drinking many infusions of it and concentrating silently on the experience, to see whether one could take it higher -- and what would then ensue ...)

Frankly, I had been prepared to be a bit underwhelmed by this tea, and to have to find a way to be complimentary about it without losing integrity. In the event, I had only to try and describe exactly what was actually happening to me. Ms Yu glowed with pride and appreciation. After several rounds of the tea, I did not wait any longer to ask how much it would cost for these teas. They were considerably better value than what I was offered at the cha fang up in the canyon: as I realized this, I silently thanked Warren for his prophetic warning. Not that I could afford to buy much of either one! But I did not want to leave China without at least a taste of each of these teas. And when I go back to Wu Yi Shan, I will do my level best to get some more.

Ms Yu measured out my required amounts out of the trays she had brought -- right before my eyes; no bait-and-switch shenanigans here -- and had an assistant shrink-wrap the packets immediately. She gave us her contact information (tel 0599.520.2613), then we shook hands all round, and had Mr Zhou drive us back to our hotel for some much-needed rest. One of the fuller days in recent memory.

-- corax

[to be continued]

In the Land of the Black Dragon: A Voyage to Fujian [i]

It is impossible (though this may soon change) to travel directly between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China [PRC]; currently one must use Hong Kong as a gateway. But in order to enter the PRC, Americans must arrange for a visa, regardless of whether they will be arriving directly from the USA or via another location. (This was not necessary for my short visit to Taiwan itself; nor for Hong Kong.) Moreover, the PRC visa -- which is obtained in the USA at the Chinese Consulate -- must be affixed to a passport that is not set to expire within six months of one's arrival in the PRC and 'has blank pages' [sic]. Visa arrangements take time and money. Do not assume that the Consulate will accept a credit card or personal cheque, and -- if you pay cash -- do not assume that they will mail your passport back to you when the visa has been prepared. (I had to make an extra trip to Chicago to retrieve mine.)

Happily, all my papers were in order long before my departure to Taiwan, so when it became possible to visit my tea friend Warren Peltier, who lives and works in Fujian, I jumped at the chance. (You may remember that Warren was cyber-interviewed for this blog last December.) Warren writes online as 'Niisonge', and has long been one of my 'go-to' guys for things tea. If I were assembling a Faculty of Tea, Warren would come in at the rank of tenured professor.

To travel from Taipei to Fuzhou via Hong Kong, I had to arrange a connection between Cathay Pacific and China Eastern Airlines. All of this passed smoothly, and I arrived in the evening in Fuzhou. After a lengthy bus-ride of their own, Warren and his girlfriend Jing-Xia, whose English name is Nikky, met me at the airport. I could not have asked for more solicitous or helpful traveling companions. They anticipated and provided for my every need, both small and great, showered me with tea gifts, and helped me make arrangements for travel and lodging within the PRC that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible for me to make.

We went from the airport to our hotel in the center of Fuzhou -- the Jinhui Hotel (address: 492 Hualin Road, Fuzhou, Fujian; telephone: 0591.8759.9999; email; cash or credit cards only). Stopping only to drop off our bags, we hit the ground running: we headed straight for the Fuzhou wholesale tea market. Set up in row upon row of storefronts, in the Wu Li Ting area of town, the market is open until about 9.00 pm. Each store has its own stock (and presumably each wholesaler has developed h/er own relationship with tea farmer[s] -- very possibly relatives of theirs -- who supply them with leaf to sell). Some shops (店 dian) focus principally on the sale of leaf (茶叶 cha ye), while others concentrate on tea-ware (茶具 cha ju). Many have both. Not surprisingly, the cha ye dian of Fuzhou primarily furnish the product of Fujian province -- which is to say, oolongs (south Fujian specializing in Tie Guan Yin [TGY] of various ilk, and north Fujian in 岩茶 yan cha -- 'cliff' or 'rock' tea such as Da Hong Pao [DHP] or Bai Ji Guan [BJG]. The other tea that I saw stocked in considerable quantity in these shops was pu'er. This probably ought not to be surprising, considering the current China-wide craze for this tea (see Lew Perin's recent Yunnan travelogue, which has much to say on the topic). But its essentially foreign provenance was evident when we asked one vendor about her stock. She solemnly informed us that shu pu'er was much more valuable than sheng pu'er. (Her prices were quite high as well.) One would like to chalk all of this up to very youthful inexperience.

We spent the evening poking into a number of shops; relying (as one tends to do) on a combination of sensory input and intuition, we decided to do a little buying in one particular shop: Pin Xian Tea Calling. By the time we arrived, the person minding the store, Ms Cai, was getting ready to close, but she happily stayed open and showed us her fairly extensive stock of tea-ware. Much of it was not from Jing De Zhen, which is probably the town that produces the largest volume of porcelain in the PRC, but from De Hua. Ms Cai proudly advised us that De Hua porcelain is actually better than Jing De porcelain -- 'the best in China' -- and indeed the De Hua pieces she had on offer were visibly finer than the others.

We browsed and selected a few pieces, and then came the inevitable next question: Would you like some tea? We had just sat through some unimpressive rounds at other shops, so we begged off -- or tried to do so. Ms Cai was having none of that. Nor was she proffering any of the TGY that is so common in the commercial storage-freezers of Fuzhou: no, she had some really excellent DHP, from up in Wu Yi, that we really must try.

We did not let on that we were headed precisely to Wu Yi Shan on the morrow: Ms Cai was so proud of her wares that this would have deflated her. And as even lower-grade DHP is something of a prestige tea, to be offered this in a shop is a token of some esteem. (It is also, of course, a sales-gambit -- it means that the vendor infers that you can afford to buy a prestige tea and are likely to do so.) By this point I was already a bit jaded by the constant refrain of 'try this tea!,' and as I was already buying a creamy-white De Hua sharing pitcher, I did not feel undue pressure also to buy tea.

But the tea was good. Better than anything else we had yet sampled that evening. After a bit, Ms Cai stepped aside and let Nikky take over the brewing. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, since Nikky had protested several times that she 'doesn't like tea!' (and didn't really want to spend the whole evening just tea-shopping). But Nikky, as I was to discover again and again over the course of the next couple of days, is full of surprises. She asked for fresh hot water, briskly washed the tasting cups, expertly arranged the equipage before her at the wooden serving table, and began brewing. Under Nikky's agile fingers, this Da Hong Pao began to release nuances we had not yet tasted.

Ms Cai's price was unexpectedly low for a tea of such quality. So I bought a small amount (not much, as I was heading to the very source the next day). We parted on very happy terms, and I recommend Ms Cai and her establishment to you, if you should find yourself in Fuzhou (tel 8367.6660). My sense is that Pin Xian Tea is a sizeable company, and Ms Cai's business card includes their web address (, but the shop is a small and modest one, of a piece with her prices.

From the tea market we took a cab to a tea house (茶馆 cha guan) where, as is the fashion in Fujian, you can arrange for a comely young lass in a silk cheongsam to brew you some oolong(s) in a room of your choosing. The settings vary across a spectrum -- some furnished with lacquered (high) table and chairs, others lower to the ground and with a more Japanese feel. This place was fairly bustling, even though it was almost 11.00 pm by this time, so the selection was limited. Warren had brought some tea along with him, and wanted to do the brewing himself. The hostess, who was all set to assign us to one of her girls, balked at this initially, but eventually allowed it. So we settled down for a few rounds of gongfu cha.

It was not long, though, before my eyelids began drooping (never mind the caffeine), so eventually we headed back to the hotel. It would be an early morning, I knew, and a long train-ride to Wu Yi Shan; Warren and Nikky had wisely chosen us a hotel directly across the street from the railway station. After a brief chat about books, I fell (as they say) into the arms of Morpheus.

-- corax

[to be continued]