My childhood experience with tea in Long Island, NY in the 1960’s and 70’s seems a long way off. At first it was medicine, when a Red Rose or Tetley tea bag was steeped with honey as Mom’s remedy for a sore throat. It was never an afternoon refresher taken with milk or lemon in English bone china. But occasionally, it was the accompaniment of choice with take-out Chinese food [such establishments were so numerous that most strip retail plazas in Long Island contained one pizza parlor, one bagel bakery, and one Chinese take-out restaurant.] Predictably stowed in each take-out order was a little waxed paper bag with some packets of soy sauce, duck sauce, mustard, fortune cookies and tea bags with only Chinese characters on the tags. And whenever tea bags weren’t used with the meal, Mom stashed them in an amber canister jar on our kitchen counter. I can remember the precise sound of the heavy apothecary lid, ground glass sliding on ground glass, as she opened it for some “Chinese Tea”.
This tea was invariably a black tea, perhaps Oolong. Steeping was not about “how long” but about “how dark” – watching and stirring until the brew looked just right in a large white mug. Sugar was the obligatory sweetener of choice.
Years later, a Chinese-American college roommate who hailed from Flushing, NY introduced me to the pleasures of a Dim Sum lunch. In an enormous banquet hall filled with round tables covered with white linens, a boisterous crowd was chattering in an unfamiliar language with staccato rhythms. And navigating between the tables, young women steered stainless steel carts filled with baskets and plates of steamed and fried dumplings of remarkable variety. As the girls slowed their carts, the buoyant laughter around each table paused as favorite dim sum were chosen and chopsticks reached over to grab the steaming treasures from their tiny plates before they cooled.
The two of us were shown to one side of a round table set for eight with napkins, chopsticks, and small handle-less cups. Within moments of sitting down, an arm overhead lowered a tea server onto the table. Such utilitarian stainless steel vessels, lightweight and cheaply manufactured, were quite familiar to me from my Chinese restaurant experience so I immediately began to pour. To my surprise, rather than the dark liquor of Oolong tea that I expected to hit the thick restaurant-ware cups, a nearly clear liquid spilled forth along with a pile of loose tea leaves to boot. It was then I learned that this was not black, but a jasmine green tea. Just before setting the teapot down, the loose leaves had just been vigorously stirred into the hot water and it was necessary to wait a few minutes to let the leaves settle and the tea steep. I was confused but intrigued by this unusual new tea experience, not exactly sure what the jasmine green was supposed to taste like, with or without sugar. But I immediately took to the culinary marvel of the dim sum.
After repeating this wonderful experience numerous times, I began to realize that this very special tea, taken without sugar, was the perfect accompaniment to the dim sum dining experience. When first seated at a table free of dishes, the women manning the stainless steel carts filled with magical and mysterious delicacies would quickly arrive. And in the time it took to try to decipher the contents of the glutinous dumplings and make your selections (very little English language was understood and even less spoken), the tea would be ready. The first cups, although sometimes weak, were a delightful palate cleanser between courses as you waited to see a new cart, with steam rising from the stacking baskets, as it appeared through the swinging doors from the kitchen. As your stomach was filling with dumplings, so too the tea grew stronger and the teapot lighter in your hand as you poured. And if the exotic treat of these wonderful flavors made it hard to resist trying yet another plate of completely different dumplings, then you surely knew it was time to go when the tea was cold and the pot empty.
One of the lessons I took from this method of serving loose leaf tea in a teapot without a strainer was that for some teas there can be a very wide range for acceptable steeping times. Perhaps it’s a misguided Western notion to determine a precise temperature and steeping time for the perfect cup of tea, and to use a timer, a thermometer, and a strainer to achieve “perfection”. Perhaps we are intended to experience the full range using loose leaves in the teapot and small cups, starting with weaker tea and stopping when the tepid bitterness tells us we’re done.
[ photo credit: main post image by Vzaliva at www.flickr.com; restaurant by Noway at www.flickr.com ]