Tuesday, December 25, 2012

An Xmas tea party

Where I am, the Christmas mood is especially infectious. Unknowingly, through shopping and gifts exchange, I managed a modest candle collection which seemed very appropriate for short and dark days. I was slightly comforted with the passing of winter solstice and sensing that the days were growing a tad fuller with more energising sun rays.

With the festive mood kicking in, I rolled up my sleeves and got down to roasting some spice flavoured macadamia nuts and making some dark chocolate truffles which I intend to pair with a raw pu'er and red tea respectively.

As I went about heating my pot and tea cups, the swirls of hot vapour made the cha xi experience feel rather trance-like. My mood was especially lightened and my focus was drawn to the teapot and most attention was given to handling the tea leaves carefully then infusing it with hot water from the tetsubin.

By observing the capillary action at the spout, I know that the tea has infused well enough and is ready. The golden red colour of the infusion seems to shine through so prominently that the rest of the cha xi pales in comparison.

A bite of the truffle followed by a sip of this naturally fruity red tea, in the company of  Urbanus's jolly Christmas-themed song that paints a delightfully quirky nativity scene. Happy Holidays everyone!

Monday, December 24, 2012

**Merry Christmas**Fröhliche Weihnachten**圣诞快乐**

Merry Christmas in seal script 
Can you spot the reindeer, candle stand, snowmen and the acorn in hiding?

The likeness to a classic christmas theme in a writing system that was developed some 200 years BC is uncanny!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter Solstice 冬至

Tangyuan in raw pu'er tea
On this day, the 21st of December, many Chinese keep up with the tradition of consuming glutinous rice balls jam-packed with flavours like red bean paste, matcha, peanuts or sesame seeds, cooked in a sugary soup base made from ginger and sugar. I love this sweet treat that marks the shortest day of the year and technically speaking, you're supposed to eat the number of rice balls that concurs with your biological age. Of course this isn't a strictly enforced rule!

Using a smaller amount of raw pu'er flakes
As with all festive treats, the discomfort of overeating never fails to set in too early, too soon. In his blog, Teaparker suggested substituting the usual sweet broth with lightly brewed raw pu'er tea. A combination like this helps to bring out the sweet rice fragrance from the dough. I thought this to be a brilliant suggestion as the light tea infusion can certainly help balance the sweetness of the rice balls and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect given my first time experimenting with tea in the culinary field.

Preheating the bowl with warm water
It took a few times of trial and error to make the dough and filling from scratch. By then, I already had 6 rice balls inside my system and was starting to bloat. Finally, I managed three almost perfectly round rice balls filled with a sweet potato paste that did not leak out. As the water came to a boil and the rice balls were almost ready, I was thinking to myself if I would still be able to make room for these last three balls that are about to be dished up in a bowl of lightly infused raw pu'er tea.

I first took a sip of the tea and then a bite. I could sense how the flavours of the dough and the freshness of the tea fused beautifully like tomato and basil. The glutinous rice balls felt much lighter in texture and consistency as I chewed on them (a bit like butter) and the slight astringency in the tea faded away as the flavours all came together in a seamless fusion.

More tea to follow a heavy meal
I was enjoying my dessert even more so now thanks to this wonderful combination with raw pu'er tea. My stomach also felt less heavy as I went on to take a few sips of this tea.

Yum, yum, yum is all I can say for now - and if you are thinking of letting yourself go and tuck in as heartily as you can stomach, by all means go ahead, but don't forget to pack a party stash of your favourite pu'er tea to give that extra boost of digestion.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A christmas painting in the winter of 2012

The black cat - a reflection of my nocturnal rhythm
Today during calligraphy lesson, we learnt something new about the concept of dating an art piece based on the Chinese calendar that runs in a 60-year cycle.

As this is the year 2012, the Chinese would term this the 'Rén Chén Nián', 壬辰年. Personally, I very much admire this style of dating artworks as it attributes a quality of transcending time and space into ancient Chinese dynasties 120, 180 and perhaps 960 years ago, which is the estimated age of the tea jar that I am using tonight.

This being the most celebrated season of the year ‘寒冬 Han Dong’ with snow-covered landscapes, I decided to design my cha xi using a piece of white calligraphy paper. The purpose of a cha xi is not just about using the best or most expensive teaware you have. For me, it is about weaving different elements together like in a water-coloured painting and striking a harmonious balance between the tea master, the tea and selected teaware.

This evening I brewed an easy drinking Ali Shan spring oolong tea  that I have stored for a day in the tea jar to remove any residual smells from its original paper bag. Preparing this tea is rather straightforward as all you need is a porcelain gaiwan and cups. In this case, thin-walled 'eggshell' porcelain cups work best in  highlighting the floral notes of a light oolong.  The irregularly shaped saucers chiselled  from wood remind me of footprints in the snow.

The entire tea setup relaxes my whole being and stirs my imagination of a white Christmas with an occasional snowflake landing on my eyelashes. Overall, it was a very serene evening in good company of  a picture perfect 'snow-covered' cha xi.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Winter wake-up calls

Now that winter is here for the northern hemisphere outside the tropics, I believe that the reluctance to get out of bed in the morning has increased exponentially. It is much easier to snuggle deep into the covers when the alarm goes off and constantly risk oversleeping when you know that you should get up. To shake off feelings of winter blues, you can consider some tips for making waking up routine less painful.

1) Have a morning sip of water to stimulate your body and help you stay awake.

2) Drink something warm before sleep so by the time your alarm goes off, you will probably have to use the bathroom and won't be able to go back to sleep comfortably.

3) Do not allow yourself to reason with yourself because you can convince yourself of a hundred different reasons to stay in bed when you're still tired, even if it isn't really the best course of action.

4) Have something to look forward to. It's much easier to get out of bed when you focus on something you actually want to do instead of the drudgery of what you must do. Try setting aside a few minutes in the morning for a ritual that will help you look forward to waking up. Maybe it's coffee in bed, the time to flip through a design magazine, or a shower with a special soap. Or, if there's nothing ritualistic that strikes your fancy, try to think of a getting-up reward the night before. Maybe you want to read another chapter in that book you can't put down, or perhaps you want to treat yourself to a fancier-than-usual cha xi. Whatever it may be, try to give yourself something that will help you start the day right.

Shu pu'er warming my stomach in minutes!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

HAND-ling tea

With a recent batch of spring tea that went bad as a result of poor storage conditions, I decided to give things a 2nd and probably a 3rd try depending on what professional advice I can get.

This is a batch of light roast and oxidised Dong Ding Oolong tea that I very much enjoyed until the brew only yielded a rather watery infusion with very little flavour left. I blame this on the rather cold and dry air that tends to build up in one corner of the room and the experience left me slightly heart broken. One of the techniques I tried out which showed some positive consequences involved holding the spoilt tea in my palm for a few seconds longer than normally before dropping the leaves into the preheated teapot.

From the outset, I normally prepare my tea with bare hands, i.e. without the use of a spatula unless the teas in question involve rather fine needle-like Japanese green teas that tend to stick messily on contact with your hands.

Our hands are like fine tools that should be put into good use during tea preparation. Their warmth prepares the tea leaves for their transition from the bag/ jar into the preheated teapot.  At least, this is the idea in theory and it wasn't until I came across this batch of tea leaves that I to began appreciate more deeply the practice of handling tea leaves with our clean, unscented hands. To a noticeable degree, I was able to restore some of its umami qualities and sugary sweetness that were there once before. Still, I am looking forward to further improvements and welcome any suggestions.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Preparing Japanese gyokuro using Chinese teaware

A reader once asked if she could brew Chinese white tea using a glazed porcelain Japanese hohin. The question of interchangeably using your teaware with different tea types is a rather interesting one because with glazed porcelain, we can safely experiment with various kinds of teas and do away with those concerns of residual smells and tastes from the previous brewing session.

The purpose of preparing tea in different vessels is to find out what differences in aromas, tastes and flavours one can observe based on their overall size and shape. In the case of a gyokuro where its price per gram is considerably higher than regular sencha, I would choose brew this tea in smaller amounts in a hohin. The lid of the hohin which I am using is completely flat compared to a regular gaiwan. This is one aspect I do not mind so much when brewing fresh gyokuro because I derive most enjoyment from the umami taste in the tea concentrate.

In the spirit of experimenting, I decided to make use of the remaining leaves in a gaiwan. With a larger vessel to work with, I added slightly more leaves after preheating my gaiwan and meanwhile warm my tea cups thoroughly.

Here the difference in preparing Chinese teas and Japanese gyokuro is quite obvious. Unlike Chinese teas, if I do not cool the water down adequately, the umami taste will be overpowered by the tannins and taste like sencha. To avoid this, I poured water from the heated cups back into the gaiwan. By this time, water temperature in the teacups would have dropped to about 70 degree Celsius, an ideal temperature to prepare gyokuro.

The resulting brew was unlike Chinese green teas. In comparison, the colour was a more intense green with reduced transparency characteristic of Japanese green teas. Tea tasted like a well blended mix of umami broth and sencha. When using a hohin, highly distinct umami notes tend to be released in the first infusion, then come the flavours of green tea in the second infusion that continue to develop in the third infusion with quickly diminishing umami qualities.

Findings like these make experimenting very interesting. The chaxi felt very traditionally Chinese. Yet, the contents of my tea cup reminded me of a foreign element in today's setting which broke the usual routine of preparing tea in a gaiwan. I was made aware that brewing techniques need to be adapted to bring out the tastiest teas. There can never be a set of rules laid out for one to follow rigidly without any improvisation on the tea master's part based on the tea that he is handling.