Chinese tea has been an integral part of the Chinese way of life for thousands of years. Whenever you talk about ‘Chinese culture’, you won’t get very far without bringing it up.
Yet Chinese tea is often misunderstood by not just non-Chinese but even ethnic Chinese particularly post baby-boomers. If your parents don’t typically drink it at home, most probably your encounter with this delightful beverage is at a Chinese restaurant, tea house or tea retailer.
For the Chinese restaurant, the main focus is food, I don’t think that is in question. In the past (and it’s still the case in China), the moment you sit down, you are served tea. It’s a given, some places give you a choice of which tea but otherwise this is assumed to be part of the meal, just like peanuts (or other appetizers) and serviettes.
I doubt there is much of a hue and cry raised if I say that tea is peripheral to the meal, at least in the eyes of most restaurant operators. It is there to hydrate, wash the mouth, aid digestion so that the patron can eat or order more food.
Unfortunately if most of your experience with Chinese tea is restricted to these outlets, you are probably going to turn your nose up at this drink. Not surprisingly given the service staff are more concerned with the quality of the food then whether the tea is over-steeped, the water temperature is too high, the quantity of tea leaves is appropriate and if the tea has been brewed too many times.
This gives rise to the impression that Chinese tea tastes horrible, bitter, has a biting after-taste. Simply because the tea leaves used may not be of stellar quality or the brewing is entirely wrong.
At the other end of the spectrum, the tea house where tea is not merely served. Serving tea is a performance in itself. Hence it is elaborate, deliberate, even impressive and entertaining- just a tad intimidating and certainly not something you feel qualified to even venture into.
You might even think that this is the only way to brew Chinese tea, 18, 22, 24 (depending on which ceremony you follow) steps to enjoy your tea. More often than not, the performer adds a running commentary, peppered with obscure Chinese phrases that mean absolutely nothing to you in either its literal or idiomatic sense.
You then think that Chinese tea is reserved for special occasions when you can afford the time and temperament for an elaborate ceremonial ritual. The idea of doing this on a daily basis is pure madness.
Somewhere in between these two extremes are the tea vendors. More often than not, their brewing technique is straightforward and focuses more on effectiveness than entertainment. That is unless of course the tea vendor in question also operates a tea house.
Yet at the same time, to see the adroit, assured movements of the brewers, you can’t help but feel these moves are acquired through years of experience and natural endowment. Not really something that your klutzy self would feel confident in pulling off.
If you dared to ask silly questions like ‘how long should I leave the water to cool’, ‘how much tea leaves to add’, you get a vague answer that basically tells you it boils down to personal experience and personal taste. Entirely true except that being an utter novice, you have not the slightest inkling how to do that.
You end up buying the tea and making a mess of it at home. Embittered, you swear never to buy Chinese tea again.
Experiencing Chinese tea does not have to be elaborate, nor does it take year of experience to pull off. Everybody starts off somewhere- I feel insistence on slavish adherence to ‘regulations’ and turning off potential drinkers is more a capital crime compared with omitting some crucial steps in brewing.
Do you really need to recite the steps when you are brewing and knock over some utensils in your stress? Brewing Chinese tea can be simple and effective.
In some parts of China, Chinese simply drink tea (especially green tea) in tall glasses, without any utensils. The brewing is actually pretty straightforward and simplistic.
In recent years, Chinese enjoy their tea in more modern utensils made of glass or even plastics that simplify the process even further by coming with a filter or infuser mechanism that can separate the leaves from the water easily.
To enjoy Chinese tea, you really don’t have to be slave to traditions. Much of it has its value and does enhance the quality of its brew but if the sheer difficulty turns first timers off, wouldn’t you rather go for a simplified method that preserves the essentials but eliminates the bells and whistles.
Chinese tea does not have to be elaborate. Nor does it taste terrible or require years of experience.
All it needs is that first step, then you can pick it up from there.
Don’t let the myths and pre-conceived notions turn you off from this beloved beverage.