When I was young, I used to love watching Chinese period dramas that involve an emperor drinking poisoned wine from a magic (usually sparkly) goblet and miraculously not die because of the mysterious properties of the goblet. Who would have thought I would encounter something similar to that in real life with tenmoku cups?
Tenmoku is a type of pottery made up of feldspar, limestone and iron oxide. Its name derives from the Tianmu (Heavenly Eye) mountain in China, where these iron-glazed bowls originated from. Their unique oil-spotted glaze comes about through a long firing process that affects the formation of iron crystals within the glaze. Interestingly enough, these patterns were originally considered as mistakes/flaws as the bowls were just meant to be a uniform colour, but a Song dynasty emperor took such a strong liking to these accidental abstract designs that tenmoku ware became elevated to a royal status in China. In Japan, it also has a revered place in the formal tea ceremony.
I wouldn’t have known any of this if Kenny had not invited me to a tenmoku panel tasting a few weeks ago. The interesting thing is that I got to know Kenny through Instagram (we tea people somehow find ways of connecting), and for the longest time, I would see him posting gorgeous photos of tenmoku teaware. It was quite exciting to finally see tenmoku in real life (some even from the Song Dynasty), and I could get lost admiring the complexity of gorgeous iridescent sheens of the various tenmoku pieces.
But we were also here for another purpose. Kenny is convinced that tenmoku enhances the taste and texture of tea, and he wanted to share that experience with us. We would drink tea and wine first from a tenmoku cup, and then a regular white porcelain cup. Since this is T Ching, I’ll just focus on the tea though the wine-tasting component also produced some fascinating results (one wine journalist said that if he didn’t know the wine was poured from the same bottle, he’d think they were two different wines altogether).
First, we had a Phoenix Dan Cong oolong tea. It was a lovely sweet tea that tasted good both in the tenmoku and porcelain cups. However, with the tenmoku, the tea seemed to increase in complexity and left a rounder, woodier aftertaste. Next up, we had a Rou Gui oolong tea, which I actually felt differed markedly between the two types of cups. In the tenmoku cup, the tea actually felt more astringent and had more pronounced roasty notes to it.
Of course, we were all intrigued – what was the tenmoku doing to the tea? Nobody really knows. Kenny offered a possible explanation by showing how these tenmoku cups are actually magnetic (he swirled a few around using magnets) due to its high iron content going under high heat. An active magnetic field may possibly alter the arrangement of tea molecules. There was some discussion on this with a scientist on the tasting panel, but I got rather lost in the sciencey words (something about epsilon phase?) and began to imagine how Magneto from X-Men would have a field day with tenmoku.
But wow! I feel so privileged to have had this almost magical experience. It’s interesting how an interest in tea eventually spills over to a greater awareness about teaware and how it can totally transform the tea-drinking experience.
Photos courtesy of Erwin Tan (www.shade.sg)