Monday, December 21, 2009

Tea and the Internet Revisited: A New Iteration


As previously noted on CHA DAO, 'The internet seems to be infinitely elastic; it has the protean capacity to remake itself, apparently endlessly, and to recapitulate and even subsume everything that it had been previously.' Metaphors like 'virus' may tend to make us forget, however, that this is not a natural, organic, or spontaneous occurrence: changes on the internet happen because humans write new programs, or update existing ones.

Anyone who has updated the operating system on their own computer is at least occasionally aware of this. But in the case of internet-based functions, the coder(s) may be so invisible that we lose sight of the fact that -- hitherto at least -- computers do not produce their own major applications. These have to be conceived of and executed by humans.

Without a doubt one of the most important tea-related computer applications, to be found online or off, is Babelcarp -- the 'Chinese Tea Term Translator.' As awareness of the importance of China and Chinese culture grows in the west, online Chinese/English dictionaries continue to proliferate -- Xuezhongwen and nciku being two particularly useful ones. Cyber-translators such as Google Translate and Yahoo's Babelfish have come a long way since the latter was first introduced by altavista. But none of these does for the user what Babelcarp does, which is to focus specifically on tea-related terms -- using both English and Chinese (the latter in both traditional and simplified hanzi as well as in English transliteration, both hanyu pinyin and Wade-Giles). The transliterated forms even include the tone numbers for Mandarin pronunciation -- a vitally important aspect of the spoken language. And, of course, the English definitions are carefully wrought, often including cultural and geographic details relevant to an understanding of the term.

My friend and colleague, Lew Perin, is the designer and owner of Babelcarp. He combines a broad education with meticulous expertise in information technology, long and careful study of Putonghua, profound knowledge of tea and tea culture, and -- that rarest and most valuable of traits -- a good heart. He has kept Babelcarp in a state of more or less constant improvement since its inception in 2002. Like all the best programmer/developers, he is always looking for user feedback on how to make Babelcarp better.

Recently Lew unveiled an important update to the very mechanism of the Babelcarp database. When I asked him to provide us with a summary of what this entails, he offered the following explanation:
What's new is this: Babelcarp has always worked with items consisting of a phrase (in Pinyin and/or Hanzi) and its definition. The way Babelcarp has always worked, when you get the definition it's cross-referenced via links to other items mentioned in the definition. Now, for the first time, you also get links that go in the opposite direction. That is to say, if you call up item A and there are other items in the database, say, B and C, whose definitions point to item A, you get links to B and C as well. This makes it much easier to navigate the map of Chinese tea knowledge in the Babelcarp database. I'm sorry, but I don't know the maximum number of degrees of separation between Babelcarp entries.
I encourage you to play with Babelcarp: see how it works and what it can tell you. Chances are that you, like many other users, will find yourself losing track of time as you hop from one item to another. Before you know it, you will have given yourself a mini-tutorial in Chinese tea culture. In its rhizomatic allure, Babelcarp is a microcosm of the entire World Wide Web: its usefulness is enormous, and growing all the time. And, again, it instructs us in how even (especially?) the most seamless and efficient computer applications have a human face behind them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Coffee, Tea, Chapel Hill

In which a piece of correspondence between two friends who have had a mild tiff may inform the reader about drinking tea in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

15 December 2009

My Dear A -------,

Sorry again about Friday. Yes, okay, hypersensitive, but if you wouldn't argue for argument's sake without noticing you've annoyed people, maybe they wouldn't get so huffy. And of course I'll call it even if you will. Here is what you asked for, meanwhile, namely "What is it with this tea thing?" And, "If not here, where?" It turns out that the places I'd send you for tea are all in Chapel Hill.

You forget we were coffee drinkers together twenty years ago. I was in the kitchen that morning you shuffled in, grumpy, wanting coffee you knew we’d run out of, and you saw Bill slumping at the table over a cup of something hot. You opened your eyes and asked greedily, hoping against hope, what it was. He glared up at both of us, and in a flat, depressed voice laced with disgust, said ... “Tea.”

For thirty years I heard that voice, whenever a lady passed me a fragile, cup-and-saucer-balancing-a-teaspoon contraption that I accepted gracelessly, a penguin in Keds, every time that weak and acid wash was improved by neither milk nor sugar, every time Southern iced tea fell short, wailing, of its bittersweet potential. When my wise, laid-back friends built campfires in the woods and boiled peppermint, I balanced tactfully on a log, thinking of hot showers and coffee. And three years ago when I found I couldn’t handle coffee anymore and had to substitute tea, it felt like the light of life was dimming ... no more scotch, no cigarettes, no late-night dancing. No gleaming edges, no infinity. Damn.

So, yes, I'm drinking tea. Part of my incoherence Friday was because I didn’t come by tea honestly. It came to me while I was grousing about losing coffee. I was consoling myself with black teas that were potable enough, but still, grouse, grumble. My meeting tea was like a dream of Caliban come true: mutter, curse, grumble ... Somewhere amid the profanity and in public I uttered the word “oolong” in full ignorance, and it happened to be heard by a friend. A good, true, old friend, one who is also a knowledgeable denizen of the Tea World and an ardent, charismatic teacher -- and generous beyond belief. “Oh, oolong?” he exclaimed, “Tell me what kind of teas you’re drinking; what do you like? You must reserve judgment on oolongs. Let me send you some tea.”
Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about my ears, and sometimes voices ...
He sent tea in boxes: oolongs and tiny porcelain cups. Elegant wooden tea tongs and clay pots that rang like chimes and came to warm life in my hand. A flowerlike, clear glass pitcher, and a fruitlike, barky oolong whose ghost of smoke was delicate like old rice paper and as elegantly caramel.
... And then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, and when I waked,
I cried to dream again ...
There came pages of written instructions, precise yet not intimidating, accompanied by painted blue figures afloat on a shell-like, porcelain gaiwan. Companionship, expertise, discovery, and oh, "Here, you’ll also need a small kitchen scale, and this isn’t just decorative, no, it holds the dry tea leaf." I had only to gasp my thanks and learn to boil water. It was not fair. There came a bi luo chun whose intense, newness-of-life taste floated a molecule at a time in seas of pale pearl green. Another box arrived, and for days darjeelings flowered and leathery keemuns breathed horses and sandalwood, cocoa and tobacco ...

The tastes were intense, tastes to vie with those that lead to the worship of coffee mugs. They were nuanced. They moved. They embodied the hills they grew on, the towns where they were fired. "Oh," I thought; "'Delicate' is not a euphemism for 'watery'? 'Subtle' is not code for 'Ignore this if you are drawn to power and clarity'?"

All this was a little hard to describe right there in the mall Friday. That stuff they were giving us had little to do with taste or tradition. It was not the best example of tea. That was a warm, interesting variation on its neighbor; there is a place and time for macadamia nut and coconut in a cup of something warm, but that isn't what makes coffee exiles light up and quit whining. The color-coordinated teaware sets a peaceful and exotic mood; the shelves of labels are delightful to behold. Yes, of course you're right -- they are selling a trend. And if that particular outfit doesn't sell better tea (gyokuro not dusty black, oolong not boring, Ceylon that differs from Assam), then -- well, whatever. You're right, but while you were scoffing at a fad, and me, I was not just being defensive. I was upset with the place because the hype is so far out in front of what they are selling, not because the tea is indifferent. Selling mood over substance can be misleading, not just hype; sell average or poor X in a nice, pricey cup from a specialty X shop, and buyers think that’s the last word in X. Witness your witty but cruel taunts in the car all the way home.

For a basic introduction (no, I am not mailing you boxes of anything, not after Friday), try 3 Cups, the specialty wine/coffee/tea shop here in Chapel Hill; they define themselves by careful selection, hand crafting, sustainable growth, family tradition. You can buy a cup of coffee. If you try tea there instead of buying some to take home, beware the coffee-saturated air; do not laugh at me about this until you re-live that argument you pitched last month about bacon indoors v. bacon outdoors. Do collect every little circular they have with the word “tea” on it. They are still working on their tea selection, but the written information they put out for their customers is as good a “This is Tea” as I could wish to find. It is written in coffee and wine language. To the North Carolina customer interested in authenticity and quality, they say:

“Water -- Because of its milder and more subtle flavors the quality of the water you choose for tea is far more important than it is for coffee. Traditionally spring water ...”

“All teas start out green. And in the Chinese and Japanese traditions ... To make green teas, you steam the leaf right after plucking ... While their flavor range is vast, they are always subtle and delicate.”

“A good teapot is a beautiful thing. It allows the tea leaves to fully expand but also makes it easy to remove them, all the while keeping your tea nice and hot. The best all-around is ...”

“Use 2 to 2.5 grams of tea for each 6 ounces of pot capacity ... A minute less yields a milder tea with, possibly, more delicate aromatics; a minute longer yields a gutsier cup with more bite and persistence, especially useful for black tea with milk. Experiment!”

“Oolongs ... vary from nearly green to reddish brown, with a hundred recognized microtones in between ... Flavors range from floral and citrusy to peach-like and woodsy. These are the rosés of tea ...”

So, they are not afraid to start you at the beginning, right here at home. They stock decent tea in a representative range and list tisanes and scented teas separately from the others. They do not, like everyone else in town, hand you a large French press with a coffee cup and leave you to the distracted mercies of a barista. You can sample anything you’re curious about at 3 Cups in the company of someone who has tasted the tea. They serve in the Chatsford pot described in their literature, and with a small timer for those who care to use it. And, given their commitment to excellence, their tea is due to improve. The first eight offerings on their printed list are: “Pai Mu Tan Imperial, Himalaya Green, Dragonwell First Grade, Gyokuro Asahi, Choice Formosa Oolong, Green Dragon Oolong, Jade Pouchong, Royal Golden Yunnan.” If you buy some tea to take home, if you’re still curious after that, let me know.

I wish I could direct you to a Chinese tea house. You would go happily. It would make its own introduction for you. You have always mocked pretension but grown quiet when entering true places. Lacking one of those, consider Caffe Driade, one of your favorite coffee places, the small, the hip, but Italianate pastoral. Lovely on quiet days, the wooded terraces around it are also the only places I know in the Triangle area where one can drink tea without the smell of coffee or car exhaust. Meet me here. We will sit outside on one of the stone terraces under gold and grey, sunlit trees. You can drink coffee, or tell me whether you bought anything at 3 Cups. I will listen and try their Young Hyson again in the clear, winter air. The tea will come in a press, and you can roll your eyes while I scowl and try to play with the brewing time. The barista's recommendation of four minutes is not good. Pouring it off after a minute or two minutes does not work with this amount of leaf. I'm working my way up. A third time I may get the hang of it. But the teacup will be a lovely, handmade yunomi in shades of dark blue that enhance the green color of the tea. The first eight items on their tea menu are usual suspects, including scented teas, but another eight are "China Green, Gunpowder Green, Organic Genmaicha, Organic Jasmine, Dragonwell, Young Hyson, Sencha Hana, and Cameroonian." If only there were a Chatsworth teapot here.

The third place to go for tea is the only one where I see you inhaling for the joy of it, the gourmet food place, A Southern Season. People don't always know it started out life as a coffee roastery before it grew. It's impressive, the way it fills that department-store-sized space with warmth and sparkle. You always make it a point to use the coffee-scented street entrance, I notice, and not the mall entrance with its mere wall of chocolate. Vietri, bakery, deli, wine, cookware, flowers, beer, bar, specialty salts, a riot, really, and even in the store’s small phase I never paid attention to its tea selection until the day when small yixing teapots -- the first I had ever seen -- appeared on the tea shelves. The pots were small and decorative. They are replaced now in the larger store by larger yixing, mostly still decorative, which sit among Chinese storage urns, matcha whisks, English pots and steeping cups, islands and walls of boxed and tinned teas, coffee mugs, kettles, and tea strainers, from boutique trendy to a small gong fu set with its bamboo tray, and a white porcelain taster’s set. At table height at the tea counter sits a range of tea that runs from white, yellow, green, oolong, and gold, to decaffeinated, tisane, and flavored. These are displayed in clear cellophane bags for temptation’s sake and are everyday good, at everyday prices.

On the wall behind the tea counter are large silver cannisters containing a range that runs from white, yellow, green, oolong, and gold, to aged oolong and pu’er. At the counter itself I always find someone who knows the teas and enjoys giving advice or information: “Try a Kenya Mountain Estate for the Firdowsi lover who drinks his tea Iranian style.” “Back the heat down, way down, further down; I think you will enjoy this gyokuro.” For me, one day, wondering about the nature of an aged oolong, the manager of the department advised me about the smoke-to-depth proportions and, when I wavered, pulled out a refrigerated sample of it and brewed some on the spot. She shared some observations on its vanilla and currant and the peculiar flavor of its overlying smoke.

These are teas that could tempt a coffee drinker. They vye with coffee in a bustling market of a place, chosen, it seems, to open up strongly in a 6-8 ounce cup, Western style, but they don’t fall short, and they don’t misrepresent. They pique, they invite. Eight among those I have tried: “Monkey Picked Tie Guan Yin, Premium Yunnan Gold, Ujo Gyokuro, Buddha’s Hand Oolong, Four Seasons Oolong, Mokalbari Estate Assam, Wild Forest Oolong, Royal Courtesan Dong Ding.” You can pick up an ounce or two of tea next time you're in buying beans.

What's missing in Chapel Hill, though it has Chinese teas for sale, is Chinese tradition. I can't help wishing for a tea house, where simple light would bring a glow to the elegance of eggshell teacups. The dry leaf would rustle amid the ring and chime of porcelain and fine clay and then the music of bubbling water. Treated as they were raised to be treated, seventy-two finely shaped tea leaves in water would swirl in quick exuberance, dance apart, and then gently settle down in their cup. In a space where they are met halfway, they will taste spring-fresh or as crafty and poignant as an entire autumn mountainside, with toasted nut, peach scent before the peach is ripe, or pear; bark smoke, wood smoke, or summer rain hitting stone and iron on a balcony. There is artichoke-stem or crabmeat rich, sometimes a hint of butter. The different flavors move, settle and blossom in different places in the mouth. In sweet, salt, bitter, and sour they will tease, promise, and echo. There is often an after-perfume that I grope to name while compulsively holding empty cups to my nose, unable to let go, a nearsighted child with a sea shell: was this the bottom of the bowl after sweet cereal was gone? the mild half of cooked orange? that air that wafted through the house while cinnamon bread was baking?

-- But that could be another letter, and I have gone on too long. Here's what we have, since you ask, and I promise to forgive you for laughing. Call me when you're back, and we'll have coffee soon -- or tea.


~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

EDITOR'S NOTE: With this post we welcome REBEKAH, an esteemed colleague and friend whose creative work is as learned and nuanced as her scholarship. She makes her home in Chapel Hill, which has been celebrated by BON APPETIT as 'America's Foodiest Small Town'; it should perhaps not surprise us that tea culture has begun to take root there as well. Our warmest thanks to Rebekah for this glimpse of it.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Flavors of Menghai Pu'er: The Nature of Recipes #7542 and #7532


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our own Geraldo is, despite his modest disclaimers, one of the nation's foremost authorities on pu'er tea. And he is as generous as he is learned: when I wrote asking him to expatiate a bit on the difference between the flavors of these two famous Menghai pu'er recipes, he offered a good bit more -- which, with his express permission, I now share, gentle reader, with you.]]

The Menghai Factory in Yunnan province is, of course, one of the best known and most highly esteemed of all commercial pu'er makers. Their tea cakes, like those of a number of other pu'er tea manufacturers, are routinely designated by numerical codes; while these may seem obscure to the casual onlooker, they actually tell a specific tale about the history and profile of each tea. Each part of the code signifies something specific.

As (comparative) cases in point, let us consider Menghai's famous recipes #7542 and #7532. The first two digits of each number tells us that both of these recipes were first developed in 1975. The final "2" in each signifies Menghai Factory itself. The penultimate digits -- 4 & 3 -- denote leaf grade, which can be a confusing term to the uninitiated; "leaf size" is, I think, more accurate here than "leaf grade." That is to say, in theory there could be a wonderful Grade 8 and an awful Grade 2. But the average size of the leaf in 7542 is a little larger than the size of the leaf in 7532.

Both of these cakes are mass-produced, blended bing chas. Both are inexpensive in their first year of existence, and then quickly increase in value. Because these bing chas are common and inexpensive in their earliest years, non-Asians often disregard the cakes as collectible pu'ers. But they both have proven track records over the years. #7532 is a little more expensive than #7542.

These days, much is made of the virtues of single-mountain pu'er cakes. But I most love the complexity in aged pu'er, and I believe blended leaf contributes to that complexity. I would have to check the actuality of this, but I think most of the famous aged Menghai bings from the seventies and eighties are #7542. These rare, often nicknamed cakes may differ because of the particular environment in which each was stored, and they have different names given by collectors.

Because pu'er cakes are agricultural products, the productions will vary from year to year, based upon all sorts of variables in nature. Moreover, some pu'er enthusiasts believe there has been a slow migration away from the original 1975 flavor -- reflecting a supposed industry change from a 'drink-later' to a 'drink-now' marketing approach, even for sheng pu'er. As a huge understatement, one can suggest that not many people writing in English tasted a #7542 or #7532 bing cha back in 1975. In fact, I do not think many people writing in any language tasted those cakes in 1975. Thus, it would be difficult to ascertain whether there is veracity in the flavor-migration opinion. I do worry, however, that the quality of the water used in pu'er production has changed much for the worse; but this would be true for almost all pu'er, not just for these two Menghai recipes.

Taste is a matter of taste, and here is my idiosyncratic opinion. Properly aged, Menghai #7542 evolves into a woody, spicy pu'er with strength in the lower notes. #7532 might be a tad more pronounced than #7542 in the upper notes. I love them both, but I might love #7532 just a little bit more.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tea: From the Kitchen Cupboard to the Medicine Cabinet

Should tea be a required item in our first aid kit? Tea does have many known health benefits. Lately with the craze over H1N1 influenza, I asked myself, could tea help prevent flu or colds; or at least help ease the symptoms? Worried about getting H1N1 myself, I desperately scrambled for serious answers to the question.

Upon further research I found there is a whole body of study; called Tea Therapy in China. I consulted books on the subject, searching for flu treatment and found:
Tea as a result of its many components can be used to treat colds and flu. Caffeine and theanine in tea have a mild diuretic effect and help detoxify the body. Tea polyphenols have bacteriostatic and disinfectant properties. Catechins aid in curing migraines and headaches. Vitamin C boosts immunity and is an anti-infective agent. So there are many good reasons to keep drinking tea, especially during this cold and flu season.

In China, I should point out medical practice and hospitals unlike in North America, place particular emphasis on herbal remedies (including tea) alongside western pharmacological medicines. In Fuzhou’s Provincial Hospital 省里医院 for example, there is a western pharmacy and a separate Chinese medicine pharmacy located on the main floor of the hospital. And whenever I get sick in China, doctors sometimes prescribe Chinese herbal medicine over western medicine, which seems to be quite effective.

Can tea really aid in curing colds and flu or any ailment? Believe what you want. I have to admit, I drink tea regularly, but I still get colds and flu (mostly from close contact with infected people: darn those co-workers!)

The Government of Canada, being quite thoughtful folk, printed a colorful booklet titled Your H1N1 Preparedness Guide. The Government tells me to keep tea on hand should I get sick. Good advice.

They also say I should stay home until all symptoms are gone. Ok I confess, I used to go to work with a cold in stealth mode. In China, I used to take 白加黑 cold medicine. Cleared up all symptoms of the cold, and I felt totally normal (but still was infective to everyone else).

Of course, infections are serious. So serious, companies are stepping up efforts to prevent infection in a variety of settings; such as healthcare-associated infection. Everyone needs to do their part in reducing transmission and infection to others.

Times have changed. Now, we can’t seem to live without hand sanitizer. Even my local town police, being so friendly, during roadside spot checks give away a free bottle of spray hand sanitizer to each driver.

Yes, I got my H1N1 shot at the local vaccination clinic; which was more like a community festival than a clinic. Everyone showed up as soon as it was open; chatting it up with the nurses joking and laughing with each other; and just taking up so much time. People actually have things to do (like me); not try to stall and deliberately go to work late – those slackers! I probably knew about half the people at the vaccination clinic. My nurse was actually my cousin’s wife. She swabbed my arm with alcohol; and then, I never felt a thing! I had to ask her: “Did you inject me?” She said: “Yeah”. Lucky me. The guy at a neighboring station screamed out: “Ouch!”

Ok, so I got the H1N1 vaccination – finally! I thought I would have to wait until the end of December or maybe never to get it; exactly why the H1N1 Guide was printed: in case we never get vaccinated on time! But that doesn’t protect me or anyone from seasonal flu or colds.

What to do when you get a cough from a cold? Maybe we should look in our medicine cabinet for that box of tea we store in there.

Chinese Cough and Cold Remedy
Here’s a recipe using tea as a simple home cough remedy; which I find does ease my cough somewhat:

2 tea bags (black tea – any brand)
1 pear (preferably Chinese pear, or Fuyu pear, but any pear will do)
1 liter of water (or less)
Sugar (white or brown) to taste

In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil.
Peel and core the pear. Slice in half, lengthwise.
Add pear and tea bags to boiling water. Boil for 5 minutes or so.
Add sugar to sweeten.
Ladle the tea into a cup and drink to ease your cough. You may eat the pear when finished drinking tea.

Tea does have many health benefits. But it is not a panacea. Tea should perhaps best be consumed for its relaxing effect on the mind and body – and that’s it. If, in drinking tea, there are some anti-aging, anti-stress, cancer-preventative, heart disease preventative properties, consider that a bonus. Just enjoy tea for what it is, a relaxing, stimulating, and warming cup for the soul. Leave medicine and serious health matters to medical professionals. But don’t forget to stock your cupboard with tea.

STEEPED IN HISTORY: A Tea Exhibit at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History


If you are in the Los Angeles area -- or can get there before the end of the month -- it would be a terrible shame for you to miss the tea-related exhibit at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. The exhibit, 'STEEPED IN HISTORY: The Art of Tea', has been guest-curated by Beatrice Hohenegger, author of Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West, which has already been reviewed in CHA DAO. The book itself was a tough act to follow, but Hohenegger has certainly done it again with this latest achievement. Three years in the planning, STEEPED IN HISTORY brings together a number of rare, beautiful, and historically significant artefacts -- across a remarkable spectrum of variety -- to illustrated the intricate, sometimes nigh-incredible history of tea-drinking on this planet.

It would be difficult to imagine a more inviting exhibition space than that at the Fowler. Located on the north campus of UCLA, it both bespeaks the university's commitment to museum culture, and proffers a venue where town can mingle congenially with gown. A central courtyard, essentially a postmodern reinterpretation of the Renaissance Italian cortile di palazzo, offers seats by a fountain where one can periodically relax and take the sun, as an antidote to Stendhal Syndrome. The building that surrounds this has space for two large shows at any given time, plus a museum store.

STEEPED IN HISTORY begins as it absolutely ought to begin: with a table full of different types of actual tea. From the very first moments, the visitor can see dishes of dry leaf, of various sorts, from green to oolong to red/black to pu'er, and (if no one is looking) actually take a sniff of them. Against the glowing backdrop of the exhibit's poster, the table proclaims that everything that is to follow is for the sake of these wrinkled, dried leaves, and their human consumption. All the commerce, all the coercion and war, all the dreams and enjoyment and desire -- all of these motivations have flowed through millennia of human history for the sake of something we grow and prepare and drink.

Hohenegger's arrangement of the exhibit is a triumph. Broadly historical in its strokes, it ranges across space and time, but also across the human arts and crafts -- ceramics, metallurgy, cabinetry, textiles, painting, sculpture, even architecture -- in order to illustrate how far-reaching has been the impact and the appreciation of tea. A matrix organizing the material of this exhibit would have to be at least three-dimensional: chronological, cultural, categorical. And that would not even begin to organize the types of tea entailed, their methods of preparation and enjoyment, or the ways in which people have reacted to the need for tea (aesthetic, spiritual, dietetic, sociological, political). But all of this is represented in the several exhibition rooms of STEEPED IN TEA. Please join me now, gentle reader, for a virtual stroll through these rooms.

China, The Cradle of Tea Culture

As one leaves the antechamber, the exhibit turns its focus -- as of course it must -- with China. Even here, however, one feels the impact of cross-cultural sharing: a breathtaking portrait of 神農 Shen Nong, the mythical discoverer of tea, is actually not Chinese but Korean in provenance. This portion of the exhibit collects a sumptuous selection of rare and ancient porcelain teaware, dating from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries; the exquisite Song-dynasty chawan, executed in Qingbai porcelain, is by itself worth the trip to the museum. A group of scrolls and watercolors in this room illustrates the commercialization of tea in China.

The Way of Tea in Japan

This portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the great efflorescence of interest in tea during the Heian period in Japan (794-1185 CE). Hohenegger has been very careful here both to demonstrate the far-reaching debt that Japanese tea culture owed to China's, and to honor the Japanese tradition in its own right. Artefacts in this section evince the particular delicate aesthetic of Japanese tea-related arts, and an entire tea-room (of the type designed for the traditional cha no yu) has been constructed inside the exhibit. Clean-lined, austere in its simplicity, serene in its uncluttered elegance, it represents the removal to another world where one can spend time contemplating a beautiful calligraphic scroll or a cunning tea bowl, enjoying the company of friends and bearing in mind that this exact moment will never come again.

Tea Craze in the West

One could easily devote an entire show to Chinese and/or Japanese tea culture, but to do so would fail to tell the story that Hohenegger intends to tell here. The next unit of her exhibit ponders the ways in which tea culture began to 'go viral' in the seventeenth century, from Orient to Occident. In some ways, the next section of the exhibit is the most variegated -- and virtuosic -- of the whole. In it Hohenegger has grouped a fine collection of ceramics, metal teaware, furniture, printed documents, and paintings, that together chart the exciting (and sometimes bewildering) progress of tea and tea-drinking from Asia to the western hemisphere, beginning in the Netherlands. The exhibit documents the way in which this orientalizing practice became, among other things, a status symbol for wealthy Europeans. In this section we find more eye-popping porcelain as well as sumptuous objects of teaware fashioned in precious metals.

The politics of tea also rears its head in this segment. Events like the Boston Tea Party used tea as a symbol of oppressive taxation; what is not widely known is that there were other similar 'tea parties' in the same period, such as the so-called 'Annapolis Tea Party' of 1774. Hohenegger has succeeded in tracking down -- and obtaining for this exhibit -- a rare 1896 painting by Francis Blackwell Mayer, The Burning of the Peggy Stewart, that dramatizes this event.

Another American-Revolution historical tidbit that relatively few seem to know is that Paul Revere, he of the famed midnight ride, was a very skilled silversmith. STEEPED IN TEA includes a fluted silver sugar urn by Revere that I found mesmerizing -- as much for its beauty as for the hands that wrought it.

Tea and Empire

The final movement in this symphony of tea culture is at least partly in an elegiac key.
The story of 'tea and empire' is a sad one, including as it does the tragic history of the opium trade, and the massive numbers of Chinese who were enslaved to this addiction -- by a Britain hungry for more tea. This is the place where the tale of India comes into its own. 'Tea and Empire' includes more teaware, of course, but also an intriguing collection of posters, prints, photographs, and maps that make the sobering point about tea as a fulcrum of imperial power. Hohenegger is, however, unwilling to let the visitor depart without a smile on his face: One of the last items one encounters is a poster with the caption MAKE TEA, NOT WAR. A serious message with a light touch.

~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

What makes STEEPED IN HISTORY such a pleasure to experience is its all-too-rare combination of meticulous scholarship with an acutely human appreciation of the beautiful and the enjoyable. Hohenegger, a trained historian, understands the need for factual accuracy, but -- and she shares this trait with all great historians -- that goal never eclipses or derails her sense of the lovely, the moving, or even the humorous. These vibrant traits shape and inform the entire exhibition. It is expansive but not exhausting; copious without being cramped or fussy. The physical progress of the walk through the exhibition space flows naturally and invitingly. And the depth of its interest is such that, upon completion of an entire viewing, one wants to go through the whole thing again. I do not know if it will be feasible for the exhibit, or some form of it, to travel to other museums after this show closes; but any museum looking for unusual and worthwhile material would do well to host it.

Beatrice Hohenegger is to be congratulated for a magnificent achievement in this exhibit. The Fowler itself is to be blessed for the care it has devoted to presenting the show in jewel-like fashion, but without preciosity or the slightest hint of kitsch. I myself would like to extend thanks both to Beatrice and to Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Fowler, for the warm welcome they extended me when I came to view the exhibit, and for their generosity in furnishing information and some of the illustrations in this essay. All images here are either used by their permission, or created by myself.

~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

Outdoor poster for the exhibit. These were hung not only across campus, but on street lights in Los Angeles.

'Picking the Tea' (From a set of Twelve Studies of Tea Production) China, circa 1805. Gouache on paper. © 2009 by The Kelton Foundation.

Tea chest. Japan, early 20th century. Wood, exterior paper decoration, tin lining. Private Collection.

Tea bowl, Kyoto-Ninsei School. Japan, late 19th–20th century. Ceramic, glaze. Collection of Robert W. Moore.

Artist unknown, possibly Richard Collins (England, d. 1732). Man and Child Drinking Tea, circa 1720. Oil on canvas. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The Middle Clipper Ship Derby in Hong Kong Harbor. China, circa 1860. Oil on canvas. Peabody Essex Museum.

Detail of the Japanese tea room, showing the equipage used for the cha no yu.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

View with a Teapot


I wait a whole year to see the view in October from the sunroom windows. The oak, sassafras, and lone maple trees by the pond turn various shades of yellow from buttery to golden to amber. For a few days you live in Lothlorien, the whole room bathed in golden light of various shades. Even without the sun, the light in the room is golden. The view seems to glow and the layers of color add depth and richness to what you are seeing. It comes on quickly and lasts for only a fleeting few days depending on weather and wind. As enchanting as it is, I am not sure the eyes would stand this view for more than a few days to a week, the intensity of color is so pure.

During summer months our sunroom is bathed in a green underwater light. For this brief time in October we live in a golden world. Then there will be one startling morning when I look out and can truly see the condo pond out back. The leaves will have thinned dramatically, and then we begin to notice the beauty of the bone, the clean and sparse structure of the tree branches, a different kind of beauty. At night the moon will snag in the branches of the oaks. Enchantment returns after first snow and the pond is rimmed in white. On a night of a winter full moon, the trees will cast long black shadows on the snow. But for now, it is a golden world.

It's not unlike savoring a cup of tea. The view is never quite the same from year to year. There are shadings and nuances of color change. Some years the view, like a certain beloved tea, will be rich and mellow. Others years some vital point is missing and the view, like tea, might be thinned out slightly.

Like savoring a cup of tea with pervasive aroma, this view stops me dead in my tracks to pay attention to the moment. The pleasure is enhanced by its fleeting nature. The tea and the view will not necessarily be the same the next time I experience it. All I can do is pay attention now to what I see, smell, and taste. There is no perfect time during a day to wait take this all in. This may be the perfect moment in a day which intrudes heavily and with many negatives designed to distract me from what I am seeing, tasting, feeling, experiencing. For now, it is a golden world.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Kudos for CHA DAO

I am delighted to report that the DAILY REVIEWER has polled readers and selected its 'Top 100 Tea Blogs' -- and that CHA DAO is on this list. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate all my stalwart contributors for making CHA DAO what it is -- and to thank our readers, who after all are the reason we do it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Yauatcha, London


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third instalment in UK correspondent Aeyal Gross's series on 'The Best Teas in London.']]

A set of blue glass doors welcomes the visitor who arrives at Yauatcha, which is located at the heart of London’s Soho. When one enters through these doors, a tempting display of pâtisserie is seen on a long counter just to the right of the entrance, while straight ahead lies a beautifully designed tea room, with an open tea-brewing area. Blue glass panels separate the dining room from a semi-transparent, semi-opaque area where dedicated chefs work on preparing a wide selection of dim sum.

The previous entries in this series on The Best Teas in London took us to TeaSmiths, a tea room and tea bar where one can also buy tea and tea ware, and to Postcard Teas, a tea shop where one can also have tea. Yauatcha is in a different category yet again: It is London’s best restaurant for tea lovers. But it is not only a restaurant. While the lower-level dining room, with its starry ceiling lighting, serves as a restaurant (which deservedly won a coveted star from the Michelin Guide), the street level, while serving the full restaurant menu at dinnertime, serves as an all-day dim-sum teahouse.

These, then, are the three pillars on which Yauatcha stands: Tea; Chinese cuisine, with an emphasis on dim sum; and French pâtisserie, prepared here with an Asian accent. And one can hardly think of a happier ménage-à-trois, or perhaps I should say mange-à-trois, than the one celebrated here, especially given that all three components of this triangle are of excellent quality. Tea and dim sum being a match made in heaven, London tea lovers and visitors to the city can hardly think of a nicer place to come for lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, or just some fine tea and dim sum at any hour of the day.

The teahouse menu at Yauatcha features about seventy teas. There are about twenty-five oolong teas (labeled here as “blue teas”) from Taiwan and China, joined by two green teas from Taiwan, five different kinds of Pu'er teas, and a few white, black and flower teas. In addition to the Chinese and Taiwanese teas, there are about a dozen types of Darjeeling teas, plus a few black teas from other areas in India and Sri Lanka. The teas can also be purchased to take home. The restaurant menu includes a smaller but still excellent selection of the teas, including representative examples of the various teas that would go well with their food.

The Taiwanese and Chinese teas are sourced for Yauatcha from growers by Taipei-based Master Kung, who serves as the restaurant’s tea buyer and consultant. The Indian teas are sourced by Yauatcha directly in India. The restaurant, like its sister restaurant Hakkasan, a London Chinese restaurant also awarded the Michelin star, was founded by one of London’s leading restaurateurs, Hong-Kong-born Alan Yau. Yau is the brainchild behind some of London’s most exciting dining concepts. In 2007 he sold the company that owns Hakkasan and Yauatcha to the Abu-Dhabi Investment Authority, but he remains a minority shareholder and CEO; the general manager of each of the restaurants still reports to him.

Each day since its founding in 2004, Yauatcha has served afternoon tea, following the traditional English formula of sandwiches, scones and cakes. Here the latter includes a wide selection of “petits” versions of Yauatcha’s superb cakes, homemade cookies and chocolates, and exquisite macarons, as well as some fresh exotic fruits. Alternatively, in Yauatcha’s “Oriental Afternoon Tea,” the sandwiches are replaced by a selection of dim sum. Each of these services provides quite a serious sugar rush, and can easily be shared by two. And if one is not in the mood for so much sugar, one of the nicest, most enjoyable, and most civilized ways I know to spend a few hours in London is by enjoying one (or a few) of Yauatcha’s excellent teas with some dim sum selected à la carte, with a few macarons to follow. Readers who adore macarons as much as this writer should take note that the macarons here compete with the London branches of the Parisian pâtissier Ladurée for the title of being London’s best. Some of them, such as the matcha lime, chocolate jasmine, and blue tea macarons, are themselves infused with tea tastes.

When I met with Windy Ling, one of Yauatcha’s head waitresses and head tea trainer (and thus one of the persons in charge of training the staff on brewing the teas properly), I asked about her own favorite tea. Without hesitation she chose the High Mountain Fo Shou, an oolong from the Fo Shan Mountain in Chiayi, Taipei, Taiwan. This is an excellent, very aromatic tea. Teas of this grade are prepared at Yauatcha in a gaiwan in the gong fu cha method, with the first few brewings prepared by the server, always using eight grams of tea in a brewing gaiwan. The server then instructs the customers on how to continue on their own, thus initiating them into the rudiments of the Chinese tea ceremony. All teas priced at 10 GBP and above are served in this fashion; the cheaper teas on the menu will be also served this way if the customers so requests. Otherwise they are served in a teapot in a single larger serving. Interestingly, the liquor served in the teapot is itself actually the result of three consecutive brewings: all teas served in a teapot are brewed in a glass pitcher where eight grams of leaf are brewed three times for respectively 12, 12 and 8 seconds. The pitchers have an upper chamber where the tea leaves are steeped, and a lower chamber to which the water is flushed after each brewing, so the liquor at the bottom of the pitcher is really a blend of three infusions. This method -- which we might consider a sort of deconstructed gongfu process, as it simultaneously effaces and reveals the effects that those three infusions would otherwise have played out over time -- does create a delicious brew. The few very expensive teas on the menu -- the ones (like the 35-year-old Pu'er) priced at 20 GBP and above per serving -- are served in what the staff refers to as the higher-class Chinese tea ceremony, in which the tea is served in very small aroma- and tasting-cups. All their Chinese teas are prepared at the temperature of 86°C, which seems to me a good benchmark temperature for most teas. Only when it comes to the Indian teas does Yauatcha follow the English tradition of steeping (and leaving) the tea leaves in the pot. But given the nature of the cuisine, it is principally for the Taiwanese and Chinese teas that one is likely to come here.

Two of the excellent teas on the list are Tie Guan Yins from Anxi County in Fujian. One of them is beautifully aromatic and light, while the other is an excellent representative of the darker style of roasted oolongs. Both of them go excellently with the dim sum, the high-roasted version working better with the heavier dishes, but really it’s hard to think of a mix-and-match that will not work here. The long dim-sum list includes excellent Shanghai Dumplings (in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions), exquisite Asparagus or Mushroom Cheung Fun, Shiitake and Duck Rolls, Bamboo Mooli Dumplings, and much more, all of them highly enjoyable. The full restaurant menu includes additional Chinese dishes such as excellent Congee, tempting chili sweet Kung Pao Chicken, and delicious stir-fried Chinese green vegetables, such as Gai Lan prepared with ginger sauce.

I have enjoyed Yauatcha’s Dragon Well (Long Jing) tea several times, both at the restaurant and at home, and have found it excellent, with very good and fresh aromas and taste; so I was curious about the relatively small selection of green teas on the menu. The green and the flower teas (both the Jasmine and the Orchid teas available here are also excellent) are actually the most popular among most customers, but the wide selection of “Blue” or Oolong teas, justly considered here to go so well with Yauatcha’s food, also entices customers to venture beyond the familiar.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

Alan Yau had the vision to open a modern Chinese teahouse in the heart of London. His success has provided us with one of the best tea places in London, and a teahouse that each city should envy. Indeed, as Yauatcha is now part of a global business, the option of opening branches in some other major cities is now being explored, as has already occurred with sister restaurant Hakkasan. Yauatcha is a complex place to maintain at the high standards it currently keeps, as it requires a variety of talents: very well-trained Chinese chefs who can turn out excellent dim sum; excellent French pâtisserie chefs; and servers who are well-versed in tea and its proper preparation. Another option being explored is to expand the market presence of Yauatcha’s own tea brand, which is currently being sold only in the teahouse in Soho.

As it stands now, Yauatcha is the tea- and dim-sum house par excellence for London in the 21st century. It still remains to be seen whether an attempt will be made to replicate it in other cities, and if so, how that will work. Meanwhile, no tea lover should miss out on visiting and cherishing this beloved place. Every time I come here, be it for a light lunch, some afternoon tea and dim sum, or for dinner with guests from out of town, my party and I leave wanting to return soon.

15-17 Broadwick Street
London W1F 0DL
Tel 020 7494 8888

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Our Neighbors to the North


Montreal City Hall. Photo: David Iliff for Wikipedia

As July turned into August in New York, my wife and I headed north for a week in northern Vermont and Montreal. For most of the trip, tea wasn't at the top of the agenda, but it turned out that there were several tea experiences to be had before we returned to what Geraldo calls the Big Teaberry.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

We spent a couple of days in Burlington, Vermont, which is the place I usually think of when I consider the possibility of ever living in a small city. Burlington is nice all year round, but it has a special glow in summer. There we were able to see what Dobra Tea, the company that has helped spread tea culture in the Czech Republic, might be able to do on this side of the water. I liked it a lot. It's a relaxing place, pretty in a non-fussy, small-B bohemian way. Their manager (or is it franchisee?) Laura is hospitable, and knows a lot about tea. The selection of teas is wide.

Church Street, Burlington, Vermont. Photo: M.F. Wills for Wikipedia

I decided to drink Fenghuang Dancong. Laura was happy to let me brew it in a nice Yixing pot, pour into a lovely cup, and refill the pot myself from a kettle warmed by a candle beneath it. I don't think there is currently any place in New York City that will let a customer do that. The leaves were good for three steeps easily. I must say, though, that there weren't enough leaves to do real gongfu -- it was essentially big-pot style. I don't remember the price, but it wasn't much. I think if I moved to Burlington I'd try to work out an arrangement with Laura to pay more and get more leaf!

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

In Montreal, we had an invitation from Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis for an oolong tasting there.[1] Camellia Sinensis has two shops in Montreal; we visited the one in the Quartier Latin, a neighborhood that reminds me a bit of the East Village in New York. It's essentially three things: a place to buy tea leaves and equipment; a place to drink tea; and, by appointment, a place to taste ten or a dozen different teas in a category at once. We didn't really try "normal" tea drinking there, but the surroundings look comfortable and harmonious. As a bricks-and-mortar place to buy leaves, I really haven't seen its match. They are really deep in both Chinese and Indian teas, and some of their teas are priced comfortably for everyday drinking. I talked at length with two of their employees (neither of whom was an owner), and both knew a lot about what they sell.

Rue St-Denis, Montreal, in the Quartier Latin. Photo: Gene Arboit for Wikipedia

For us, the main event was the oolong tasting. Our host Jonathan and we sat in a peaceful room with nothing but ten teas and some unobtrusive music for an hour and a half (the session was theoretically for only an hour, but Jonathan was in no rush.) When I saw the teas lined up in ISO standard tasting sets, my heart sank, for I remembered the way Indian tasters use that equipment to torture Darjeelings by pouring on water at a full boil and steeping for five minutes. But Jonathan knew what he was doing: the water wasn't boiling, and the steeps were much shorter than five minutes. What this session did have in common with Indian-style tasting was that each tea got the same treatment. Each brewing vessel got decanted into a big handleless cup, and we would spoon the liquor into our small individual tasting cups.

Marché Jean-Talon, Montreal. Photo: Gene Arboit for Wikipedia

There were oolongs from Taiwan, Anxi, Wuyi, and the Phoenix Mountains, some new and some aged. They were all worth drinking, and some were pretty remarkable. But the most important thing about the experience was not the specific teas: it was the opportunity to compare so many teas at once with the support of pleasant surroundings, good companions, and the absence of any distractions. There is a sense in which the teas spoke to each other: they took on vivid identities the way people do in a conversation.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal. Photo: Tango7174 for Wikipedia

Down by the river, Montreal has an old quarter where pre-20th century architecture is better preserved than in any other North American city I know. While wandering around that neighborhood, we stumbled upon something totally unexpected: a traditional Chinese teashop/tearoom. Ming Tao Xuan is a pretty, serene place with many kinds of teas and teaware, some of which -- Yixing gaiwans! -- are very hard to find in the West. Like Dobra, they were willing to leave me alone with a gongfu setup: Yixing pot, fair pot, tasting cup, aroma cup, tea tray, and a well-designed hot water carafe. I could have stayed there for hours, I suspect, without being harried. Unfortunately, the Tieguanyin leaves, though reasonably plentiful, were pretty much played out after two steeps. I think I'll try Ming Tao Xuan again the next time I'm in Montreal to find out if I was just unlucky with that TGY or, maybe, I left my taste buds at the hotel by mistake.

~~~~~ Addresses ~~~~~

Dobra Tea
80 Church Street (entrance around the corner)
Burlington VT 05401
Tel 802.951.2424

Camellia Sinensis
351 Emery (just west of St Denis; also a shop in the Marché Jean-Talon)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Tel 514.286.4002

Ming Tao Xuan
451 St Sulpice (near the Notre-Dame Basilica)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Tel 514.8459448

~~~~~ Note ~~~~~

[1] Let's do the disclaimer now. I count Kevin Gascoyne as a friend, and the tasting session was gratis, but such tasting sessions are a regular service there, and I've paid full retail whenever I've bought tea leaves at Camellia Sinensis.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Proud Moment


I am exceedingly proud to report that CHA DAO has been ranked among the 'Top 10 Tea Blogs That Aren't Trying To Sell You Something,' a list by Daren Spence at Of his rationale in choosing those ten sites, Daren says, 'I selected the following blogs because tea has become big business and as such tea companies purporting to be your friend are actually trying to sell you something. The following blogs (in alphabetical order) simply celebrate tea in all of its slightly quirky glory. Enjoy!'

Of CHA DAO specifically, he remarks: 'This blog is dedicated to the musings of a number of tea aficionados with a shared love of all things tea. Although the blog is undoubtedly accomplished in terms of depth of knowledge, it is more a forum for the discussion on the joy and beauty of tea and is nowhere near as stuffy as some of the other more high-brow tea blogs.' I could hardly be more pleased, as this is very much my vision for what CHA DAO can and should be.

Here's a little bit about Daren himself:
Daren Spence owns, an online and bricks and mortar tea business attempting to do things a little differently. His previous life as an accountant did little to prepare him for starting a tea business but he and his wife decided to pursue their passion for tea and have a go regardless. They opened the doors of their tea shop near St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 2007. He also writes (sporadically) about the trials and tribulations of running a tea business in his blog Teaconomy - Tales from the Teashop.
Hearty thanks to Daren for his kind words about all of us at CHA DAO -- congratulations on his recent wedding -- and best of luck to the happy couple as they forge ahead in the world of tea, particularly in this uncertain economy.

Plaudits, too, on the conscientious way in which they are pursuing their enterprise: I note with further pleasure that they are in the process of joining the Ethical Tea Partnership; the coffee they serve is Rainforest Alliance-certified; and their hot chocolate and sugar are fair trade. While it's true that we at CHA DAO do not sell anything, it is equally true that we are deeply interested in what is involved in buying tea and its accoutrements. And in a world gone mad in so many ways, those are just the directions in which tea vendors today ought to be moving.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

What's Your Poison? (Continued)


[[This is the continuation of an essay, Part 1 of which can be read by clicking here.]]

As we noted earlier, there is considerable demand for artificial sweeteners that will provide the sweet taste of natural sugar without its calories or other health complications. That turns out to be a tall order: [1] no, or very few, calories (sugar has 18 kcal per teaspoon); [2] no adverse effects on the consumer's health; and [3] tastes like sugar. The consumer, coming as s/he does at the end of a long chain of interactions -- chemical, dietary, legal, and commercial -- with the product, is likely to take the first two items more or less for granted, and to focus on the third. And this in turn will have its own commercial ramifications, because if the product doesn't taste convincingly like sugar, it is doomed to failure.

But what does sugar taste like? This is not as easy to answer as it might initially seem, but most people would agree that refined cane sugar has a 'clean' sweetness: it doesn't give the sense of having been flavored with anything else, and it leaves no aftertaste behind (beyond a lingering hint of that very sweetness for which it is being used). It is this simplicity -- and the immediate, enduring attractiveness of that taste -- that 'addicts' people to table sugar. Sometimes one may crave other types of sweetness, and at such times one will opt for molasses, brown sugar, maple sugar, or the various honeys; but the default 'flavor' for sweetness seems always to be that of plain sucrose. Thus, the most successful artificial sweetener is likely to be one that most convincingly imitates the taste of sucrose itself.

(The other major commercial source for sucrose, besides sugar cane, is the sugar beet; despite industry protestations to the contrary, it appears that cane sugar is superior in flavor to beet sugar.)

A whole series of such artificial sweeteners has paraded through American (and thus through global) culture over the past several decades. Saccharine was discovered in 1878 by a man working on coal tar derivatives; in the 1960s and 70s there was considerable research into the possibility that saccharine might be carcinogenic. The argument over this has raged ever since, but products containing saccharine were for a time required (in the US at least) to carry a health warning not unlike that on packets of cigarettes. (Saccharine is known in the US under various brand names including Sweet 'n Low™.)

During the early 1960s, when many were looking for a viable alternative to saccharine, the use of a sweetener known as cyclamate became extremely widespread in America. Cyclamate had been known since 1937, but it was the mid-century anxiety about saccharine -- and the very convincingly sugar-like flavor of cyclamate -- that propelled the latter to tremendous popularity. In one of the great ironies of gastronomic history, cyclamate was also identified as a carcinogen, and actually banned by the FDA in 1969. (Cyclamate was known in America under the brand name Sucaryl™, which is still available outside the US.)

Meanwhile, of course, scientific research and development continued unabated. In 1965 came the discovery of aspartame. The preceding uproars over saccharine and cyclamate led to an unprecedented eight years of the FDA's testing this new substance, after which aspartame was pronounced unequivocally safe. But this status was not to last long; challenges to that adjudication have continued ever since was first approved. (Aspartame is known in the US under various brand names including Equal™.)

The discovery of aspartame was followed by that, in 1976, of sucralose. Sucralose, marketed in the US under the brand name Splenda™, is touted by many as the safest of all artificial sweeteners, but recent studies have suggested that it may have adverse effects on the environment as well as on individual human health.

As of this writing, saccharine, aspartame, and sucralose are the three artificial sweeteners most commonly found in the US. They tend to be packaged, regardless of their manufacturer or distributor, in color-coded packets: pink for saccharine, blue for aspartame, yellow for sucralose. All of them are effectively non-caloric; none of them appears to contribute to dental caries or hyperglycemia; and none of them is entirely satisfactory. Generally speaking, people who use them seem to favor either aspartame or sucralose, and to evince an actual dislike for the other one (saccharine taking third place in this anecdotal evaluation).

There are also those who like none of these three artificial sweeteners. Such consumers, looking for a natural (i.e. non-synthetic) alternative, are likely to turn to stevia, a plant (related to the sunflower) whose leaves are naturally sweet. Stevia is extolled as the safest of all sugar alternatives, and there is some indication that the consumption of stevia may actually have a positive effect on insulin function; but it too has come under its share of scrutiny. It was actually banned in the US from 1991 to 1995; its use is currently banned in the European Union, Hong Kong, and Singapore. But apart from the safety issue, there is the problem that stevia simply doesn't taste convincingly like sucrose; many consumers indeed find its taste to be markedly unpleasant.

All the sugar substitutes currently available, as we have seen, have raised some degree of doubt as to their safety as a food additive; and no single one of them has succeeded in convincing everyone that it tastes just like sugar. So we are back to the quandary that faced us earlier: what to do?

Gustatory pleasure, nutritional enhancement, and disease prevention are all quality-of-life issues, although they vary in scope: the first is the most immediate of the three, whereas the other two are more longitudinal in their implications. Particularly where the issue is (or may be) the stimulation or prevention of cancer, one has to bear in mind that the results of ingesting carcinogens may not be detected for years. So, to a certain extent, the problems we have been confronting here involve a balance between present enjoyment and long-term welfare.

It looks as though the (initially) least attractive option might be the best one for the organism over time: backing off from all sweeteners, altogether. It's unattractive, of course, precisely because it recommends the severance of immediate pleasure; and our culture is one of not only immediate but constant, exigent gratification. As a society, we crave novelty. We want things bigger, more efficient, and above all faster. (Need I remind you, gentle reader, that America is the land of the drive-through Starbucks?) So the notion of deferral is by its very nature repugnant to our zeitgeist. Above and beyond that -- or perhaps I should say underneath and beyond -- is what seems to be some biological hard-wiring in the human being, from neonate infancy, to crave sweetness. (Is this related to the sweetness of breast milk somehow, with its vital nutrients?)

But cha dao, the life of tea, offers small and large ways of reordering one's pace, one's priorities, perhaps even one's worldview. Even if one is not ready to dispense with all sweeteners, or with all sweetness in the diet, it is possible to open a window (as small as one wants) on other ways of being. Even if you still love your hong cha sweetened, you might consider trying a tea you have never tasted -- an oolong or a green or white tea -- and drinking this without any additives at all. Be patient with yourself. Give your palate time to readjust, after the clamor of sugar and spice, to the quietude of a simple cup of tea. Savor it, in its clean simplicity. Allow yourself a moment to linger over the brew and become aware of the flavors in it. Eventually (but surprisingly soon) you are going to develop new registers of awareness. You will discover that the 'unsweetened' tea in your cup has its own subtle sweetness. It will whisper pleasure to your taste buds. After several small cups of a good da hong pao, do as they do in Wuyi Shan and sip a small cup of cool pure spring water. It will taste remarkably sweet to you. Over time you may find that this simple habit of sipping tea, and paying a little attention to it while you do, invigorates and illuminates your whole way of being in the world.

For further reading (thanks again to Suki for these links):

Dietary Sugar and Alternative Sweeteners

Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What's Your Poison?


The classic recipe for brewing tea, in the Asian traditions of the last several hundred years at least, has been breathtakingly simple: tea leaves and hot water. Indeed the Japanese name for their traditional tea ceremony, cha no yu (茶の湯), means, literally, 'hot water for tea.' And yet this is not universally the case -- not even in Pacific Asia -- nor was it always this simple: the history of tea has often included a dialogue about what to add to it, how, when, and why. Or, in some cases, why not: Lu Yu's recommendation, in the Cha Jing -- that you refrain from adding onions to your tea -- makes it clear that one of the fashions in Tang Dynasty China was to do just that. To this day, Tibetan tea drinkers famously add (rancid) yak butter and salt to their tea (po cha, 'butter tea,' or cha süma, 'churned tea') -- the tea leaves in this case being typically pu'er or some other post-fermented hei cha. In this way, cha süma becomes a significant source of calories and other nutrients.

Today worldwide, the two things most commonly added to tea are surely milk (or cream, though purists in the West object to this), and some sort of sweetener. The human organism seems pretty tenaciously hooked on consuming sugar: studies show that even newborn babies, just a few hours old, will drink more enthusiastically from a bottle of sugar-water than from a bottle of plain water. Doubtless it all has to do with the preservation of the species -- some hard-wired genetic instructions about the importance of stocking up on readily-available carbohydrates.

It's a pretty fair guess that most inveterate drinkers of oolongs, pu'ers, and greens rarely sweeten their tea. But it's equally certain that many of those who drink 'black' teas -- Ceylons, Assams, Chinese hong cha, and other fully-oxidized teas -- add some sort of sweetener to it. This is true in Asia as well as the West: Hong-Kong style 'milk tea', surely a legacy of British colonial rule, is nonetheless made to be drunk with sugar.

But there's always something, isn't there. In this case, it's that we have not yet developed the bodies that allow us to live entirely happily with refined sugar. One of the most assured results of modern science is that too much sugar has a baleful effect on our health -- causing dental caries, obesity, various digestive woes, and even diabetes. This knowledge hasn't stopped 20th- and 21st-century manufacturers from adding massive amounts of sugar to our food. (If you think 'massive' is hyperbolic, have a look at the website and then rethink the matter.)

Part of the problem, it seems, is the chemical form the sugar takes, and the way our bodies cope (or fail to cope) with it. A few names, definitions, and links for further reading:

glucose -- the simple C6H12O6 found in e.g. human blood
dextrose -- a stereoisomer of glucose
fructose ('fruit sugar')
sucrose ('table sugar') -- a disaccharide of glucose + fructose

Mono- and di-saccharides such as glucose (dextrose), fructose, and sucrose are so simple that they are metabolized very quickly; our bodies often cannot produce enough insulin to process them as fast as we ingest them. As a result, they tend to be metabolized to fat, and stored as adipose tissue -- again, sometimes overtaxing the pancreas in the process.

The deleterious effects of sugars on teeth are not only well known, but also clearly visible in the mouths of those who suffer from them. There are those in the scientific community who point to refined sugar as one of the possible culprits in producing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (for just a small sample of information, at lower and higher levels of technicality, click on this link and this link.

So: what to do?

Since the 1950s at least, honey has been touted as a 'healthy' alternative to table sugar. The basis for this allegation is, presumably, the presence -- in unfiltered honey -- of pollens, vitamins, and minerals; but the fact is that these occur in such small amounts that it is not realistic to think of honey as a significant source of such nutrients. To take one example: five tablespoons of honey contain only 1% of the US adult RDA of vitamin C.

'Hot tea with honey and lemon' has long been a comfort beverage and folk remedy in the West, for colds and sore throats. But chemically speaking, the sugar in honey is not drastically different from granulated sugar (fructose + glucose) -- and probably not a much more 'healthy' choice. In fact, its extreme viscosity might conceivably make it even more conducive to dental caries than table sugar.

Similarly disappointing news awaits those who had looked to agave syrup (or 'agave nectar' as it is fetchingly known in the industry). Diabetics and others had early hailed this as a natural low-glycemic-index food -- a sweetening agent, in other words, that [a] was refined from an item found in nature, [b] could be produced organically, and [c] was not a threat to blood-sugar levels. Alas, agave syrup is principally fructose, which appears to put its own set of stresses upon the body. Ironically, some say that it is even more dangerous for diabetics and hypoglycemics than refined white sugar.

So: what to do?

Many, discouraged by the health issues associated with (and the caloric content of) real sugars, turn to the option of artificial sweeteners. These are numerous and diverse, and their degree of success in mimicking the sweetening effect of actual sugar seems to vary with the individual palate ...

[[This is Part 1 of a two-part essay. To read Part 2, click here.]]

For further reading meanwhile (thanks to Suki for these links!):

Glossary of Sugar and Syrup Types

More on Agave Syrup

And Still More on Agave Syrup