Tea was discovered in China nearly five thousand years ago. It took several thousand years before the plant, botanical name Camellia sinensis, found its way to other parts of the world. Grown in approximately three dozen countries, from China to Argentina, Nepal to South Africa. Next to water, tea is the worlds most consumed drink. Not coffee.
There is approximately 1500 different varieties of tea, offering interesting and varied style’s, taste and colour. The character of tea, like wine, is influenced by the elevation of the garden, the soil, wind conditions and temperature, and of course, the quality of the plucking.
I grew up drinking Chinese tea, not coffee. I am trying to remember how and when I started drinking Chinese tea. It must be when I was about eight or nine. My mum always made a pot of Chinese tea and a pot of coffee.
The coffee was freshly brewed from grounded coffee beans by my late grandfather in his small coffee making shop. My late grandfather was a local coffee supplier to most of the “Kopitiam” (or coffee shops with several hawker stalls set up at the premise; ie, a Malaysian style cafe). There was no middle chain in the distribution. Direct from manufacturer to the “Kopitiam”, supplied fresh every morning before the “Kopitiam” opened for business. The coffee beans were imported from the British East India Company during the spice trade when Penang was a famous spice trading port. Those were the days.
As my late grandfather produced one of the best, strong coffee in Penang, we were never short of supply and daily received our own fresh grounded coffee. I tried drinking coffee once. But, my body somehow could not tolerate the strong caffeine associated in coffee beans. I got a bit sick. I tried drinking coffee again as I got older, but still cannot tolerate the caffeine in the coffee.
On the other hand, tea leaves contain a small dosage of caffeine depending on the type of teas and how they are processed.
I drink both Chinese and western teas.
There is the Blended Tea – a most commonly tea drunk in western country. The quality, character and flavour of a blended tea usually remains constant. The reason the blended tea is constant in flavour and taste is because they are specially tasted and selected by a “Tea Blender” to meet set criteria of the company. They are trained to taste tea brought to auction on arrival at the tea packaging factory, between 200-1000 teas in a course of a day!
There are few types of blended tea I drink at home. My all time favourite for an afternoon English tea is either a pot of Earl Grey or Lady Grey, with a nice bouquet of floral scent. A good cup of tea is meant to soothe the body and mind.
In the evening after a heavy supper, I would normally drink a cup of freshly brewed loose leaves herbal tea of either peppermint or chamomile. This herbal tea is meant to aid digestion and relaxation. I have both dried loose leaves bought from specialty shop in Hobart, and fresh leaves from my garden.
Dried Loose Leaves – Peppermint
Dried Loose Leaves – Chamomile
Fresh Chamomile flowers from my garden
There are different types of Chinese teas. They vary significantly in taste, flavour and scent depending on the plant, the location, climate, altitude and when the leaves are picked and processed. They are graded and priced according to their quality, like wine. The tea is classified based on how it is processed. There is the black tea, green tea, oolong tea and white tea.
Black tea – also known as fermented tea. The process involves the tea leaves being plucked, spread on tray and left to wither in air between 25-30 degrees centigrade. Moisture of leaf evaporates in the warm air leaving the leaves flaccid. Takes 10-16 hrs, depending on wetness of leaf. Next, withered leaf is broken by machine. Their natural juice, or enzymes are released and on contact with air will oxidise. Broken leaf is laid out in a cool, humid atmosphere 3-4 hrs to ferment, or oxidise, gently turned over throughout the process until all leaves turn golden russet colour and oxidisation (fermentation) is complete. After that, the tea is dried or fired. Done by passing the broken leaf slowly through a hot air chambers where all the moisture is evaporated and the leaf turns a dark brown or black.
The tea is not really black after brewing. It has a dark rose colour, a bit dry and stronger in flavour than the other tea. It is more oxidised than the other teas and contains more caffeine. I remember when I was a young boy, together with my elder brother, younger aunties and uncles, we would accompany our late grandfather for his daily morning exercise at 6am to the Botanical Garden. We joined him for a simple reason – a reward of big sumptuous morning breakfast of either “Bak Kut Teh”, “Chee Cheong Chook” or “Dim Sum” at a “Kopitiam” with a pot of “Pu-Erh” black tea.
Green tea – is a non-fermented or non-oxidised tea. This is a more common known tea among the western countries. The withered tea leaves are steamed and rolled before drying or firing. This is done to prevent the veins in the leaf breaking and thus stopping any oxidisation of the leaf. When brewed, green tea has a very pale colour and the wet leaf is often left whole. I find green tea a bit weak and light for me. I do enjoy a small cup after lunch.
Oolong tea – is a semi-fermented, or semi-green tea. This is my favourite type of Chinese tea. The process is similar to black tea, but the oxidisation period is cut down to half the time, about 1-2hrs, before it is fired or dried. It has a pale, bright liquor with a very delicate flavour. I can drink this tea at any time of the day.
My favourite oolong tea is “Ti Kwan Yin”. This tea is very special and comes from Fujian province. The name means “Tea of the Iron Goddess of Mercy” who is said to have appeared in a dream to a local farmer, telling him to look in a cave behind her temple. There he found a single tea shoot that he planted and cultivated. This is one of China’s most sought after teas. Its’ dark, crinkly leaves give a subtly, fragrant infusion that is best drunk without milk.
White tea – is the most expensive tea range among the four. It is very rare and produced on a very limited scale in China and Sri Lanka. It is carefully plucked before the new buds open, then withered so that the natural moisture evaporates and then dried. The curled-up buds have a silvery appearance and and are therefore sometimes referred to as Silver Tip. It is quite hard to buy white tea in Australia because it is not common and quite expensive to purchase. I have tried white tea a few times. It is smooth and delicate with a nice aroma.
When I had my boutique restaurant, Melaka, at Franklin I sourced and sold two types of White Tea. They were:
“Pai Mu Tan Imperial” also known as White Peony. This rare white tea is made from very small buds picked in the early spring, before the buds have opened and once they have been steamed and dried they look like lots of small white blossoms with tiny leaves which is why this tea gets it’s name meaning “White Peony”
“Yin Zhen” also known as Silver Needle. From Fujian province, this tea is made from tender new buds that are covered in silvery white hairs and it’s name means “Silver Needles”
They were one of the best Chinese teas I have drunk. However, I still choose the more commercialised Chinese tea of Oolong “Ti Kuan Yin” or black “Pu-Erh” tea range.
Then there is the “Fragrant Tea Ball” or “Tea Flower” marketed for trendy consumerism appetite rather than for a traditional Chinese tea drinker. The tea ball or flower is basically fine tea leaves string together into a ball with different flowers inserted in the ball. When brewed, best displayed in a heat proof glass, the tea ball opens to display a full blossom of the flower. The tea is green tea with a bouquet scent of the flower.
“Sunset Lily” – green tea leaves with red lily
Tea Ball – green tea leaves with jasmine flowers and globe amaranth
With Chinese tea drinking, I collected a few different tea pots and cups to go with the tea. Just like wine drinking, there are different types of wine glasses.
I used a porcelain tea pot set for common Chinese green tea drinking. I was told by a tea master in Beijing and Hong Kong that I should never use porcelain for drinking black or oolong tea, which requires clay tea pot – an art in Chinese tea drinking.
A common Chinese porcelain tea set
A traditional “Nyonya” (Straits Chinese) tea set
A traditional Korean art form Celadon tea set
An antique Chinese egg shell tea cup with lid and saucer
A true Chinese artwork – lotus leaf with frog
The small clay tea pot set below is my favourite to make a good black or oolong tea. The tea is usually brewed strong, which explains the small cups and tea pot, for making 3 or 4 serves. One should not drink too much in a single day because of caffeine in black tea.