Seated by a vintage kimono suspended invisibly from the ceiling and sipping Organic Special Ginger Macha, I ponder the film, Slumdog Millionaire. What if Jamal Malik had been something other than a Mumbai chai-wallah, a Tea Boy? I never had tea-centric thoughts prior to submitting posts to T Ching, which led to drinking “real” tea fairly regularly. Tea now creeps into many things I do. So it wasn’t surprising to find myself mesmerized by The Path of Tea, one of only four purely organic tea shops in the entire country. Like the masala-style Indian film Slumdog Millionaire, The Path of Tea is a diverse, rich blend of various ingredients, located in a seemingly improbable place: Houston.
Owned by Thia McKann and her husband, Chris, the three-year-old The Path of Tea’s mission is “to provide you with only organic and fair trade artisan teas, and to create an atmosphere of tranquility and serenity where people can reconnect to a simpler time when conversation was an art and peace of body, mind and spirit were our main goals.” The McKanns have succeeded, I think, in building an oasis in Houston, a long-time but lesser-known mecca for alternative healing and lifestyles. Practices that are viewed as trendy and hip in Los Angeles have been mainstream here for decades, and this Japanese-style teahouse provides a meeting place for some of the area’s alternative health practitioners, like Dr. Joe Lindley, Thia’s best friend, who practices acupuncture, chiropractic, and nutritional healing.
In fact, it was actually Dr. Lindley who encouraged Thia and Chris – who were at the time living in New Zealand – to return home and open a teahouse. As a healer himself, Dr. Lindley knew the importance of having a place where health practitioners, their clients, and the public at large could come to de-stress, and his love of teas inspired Thia. So when the McKanns returned home, Thia overruled the English-style place her family encouraged and envisioned, and after a series of synchronistic happenings, the Kyoto-style The Path of Tea became a reality.
But these tea shop owners are not hippie dabblers or Hollywood entrepreneurs riding the wave of the latest tea trend. Thia and Chris, both Reiki Masters, along with their knowledgeable, friendly staff, do not pontificate or condescend as they explain the nuances among and benefits of the 250 different kinds of tea they offer for sale. Actually, the “feel” of the tearoom itself seems to chant caring, comfort, and tea wisdom, without words. It might be something about the welcoming, nurturing décor, and Chris’ hand-crafted wood accents. Perhaps it is the nondenominational “holy” names and symbols underneath the ceiling paint, or the vintage kimono on a hidden frame, suspended, as if giving a hug. The overall ambiance embodies one of Thia’s stated goals: “a place where everyone is accepted and honored for who they are.”
Voted the Best Teahouse in Houston for 2009, The Path of Tea exemplifies Thia’s assertion that “tea is about connection.” So in addition to a devoted clientele, the McKanns emphasize the benefits of community building while educating about the medicinal, healing qualities of tea. Medical students come in and swear the teas increase their acuity as well as their memories and test scores. In addition, Thia works with Houston’s world-reknown M.D. Anderson Medical Center, offering courses and workshops for medical students, cancer patients, and caregivers. She will be a featured speaker on tea’s health benefits at an upcoming national conference here in Houston. She extols the virtues of tea at “lunch and learn” sessions with guest holistic speakers like cardiologists, veterinarians, and others. And Thia created a special blend for the AIDS Foundation fundraiser.
One of Thia’s unique teahouse rituals involves selecting your own tea container from a handsome, eclectic array of hand-made cups and bowls artfully displayed on simple wooden shelves Chris made. I’m partial to the light green dragonfly motif cup almost as much as the one with the knotty Japanese cypress depicted in rough clay. The simple act of selecting your own cup, carrying it to your seat, and waiting for your custom tea order to arrive whets the senses. The short wait, cup in hand, is exciting, anticipatory, and relaxing all at once. Yin/Yang. Perfect. And when the aromatic tea arrives, with or without a burner under the pot, depending upon the blend, the experience is an olfactory Basho haiku. Overweening gush, embarrassing metaphor? I think not. To accompany your tea, try one of the lemon curd or pistachio treats, brought to your table in a bento box, and tell me that doesn’t heighten and enlighten your senses in that moment. The only way to find out is to visit The Path of Tea. You can select your blend at the sniffing bar, the only one in Texas, to find out just what the teas look and smell like. Bring some home, or if you live outside the area, order online.