11- The Basics: Tea

Serves: 5



Tea has been the most popular beverage in China for more than a thousand years. It has been cultivated extensively in that part of the world since the fifth century A.D. There are lovely and poetic legends as to its origins. Most likely, however, tea-drinking evolved from the realization that those who drank boiled water were healthier than those who didn't. The next step was to add something to that water to make it more palatable.

Tea is taken morning, noon and night and for every occasion. It accompanies every meal and is usually served at the end of family meals. In southern China, however, tea is served with the meal. Since the Cantonese (from the South) were the first to open restaurants outside China, the custom of taking tea with the meal came to be thought of as typically Chinese although it is not. Tea is always served during and throughout elaborate formal dinners in all parts of China, to refresh the diner and make him more receptive to each new dish. When a visitor crosses the threshold, a characteristically hospitable gesture is to present him with a cup of tea. In shops and offices, tea is kept piping hot in basket-like tea cozies and is available all day long.

When properly brewed, Chinese tea is clear in color, naturally sweet in taste and has a fine bouquet. Since it is drunk for refreshment, not for nourishment or strength, it's always taken without cream, sugar or lemon. Sometimes, however, when served to visitors with cake or cookies, it's given a touch of sweetness with preserved ginger or a bit of rock sugar.

Although Chinese teas vary greatly in character, flavor and aroma, they all come from the same plant-a plant belonging to the camellia family. (When it blooms, its flowers are much like the familiar camellia.) Differences in tea are created by the specific conditions under which each plant grows (its locale, climate, time of harvest, and processing.) In this sense, Chinese teas are much like wines: the conditions which create them are unique and cannot be duplicated elsewhere. All told, there are some 250 varieties of Chinese tea. (These vary in price from a few cents to hundreds of dollars per pound. The rarest are like vintage wines or fine old brandies. They are always served alone so that other tastes will not obscure their complex and delicate subtleties.) Despite this variety, there are only two basic types of tea--the green and the black--plus a subtype or combination of the two.

Green tea looks much like the leaves of the original plant because it is unfermented and receives little handling. The leaves (the smaller, younger and more tender ones from the top of the tree) are picked before they wither and are dried immediately either in the sun or with currents of warm air in special drying rooms. They are grayish-green in color and produce a pale golden brew with natural bouquet. Green tea has a refreshing and delicate taste, making it a popular drink in summer, pleasant with bland stir-fried foods and a fine foil for highly seasoned foods at any time of the year.

Black tea is fermented. Its leaves, permitted to wither on the bush, are then gathered, rolled, fermented and dried. Fermentation alters its chlorophyll content, changing the color from green to brownish-black and strengthening its flavor. Black tea produces a full-bodied rich red brew. (The Chinese name for black tea is "red" because of the color of this brew.) This warming and pungent tea is a popular winter drink and a good accompaniment for deep-fried foods.

The subtype or oolong variety is semi-fermented (or partly dried and partly fermented). The fermentation process is stopped at a certain point, making the leaves a brownish-green. Semi-fermented tea produces a rich amber brew, combining the pungent aroma of the black with the delicate fragrance of the green. These teas, often taken with the evening meal, go well with heavy foods and with such definitely flavored ones as broccoli and shrimp.

Chinese teas are often blended with fresh or dried flowers and fruit blossoms. These are the scented teas, of which jasmine is the best known. (Scented teas may be green, black or semi-fermented.) They are taken with spiced foods, with snacks, between meals and at banquets.

NOTE: The names of some specific varieties of tea appear in SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: __Chinese Teas.

Chinese tea is usually much stronger than its color suggests. To savor tea properly, it is better to begin with fewer rather than more leaves. (This, however, does not mean the tea should be weak and watery. It should be brewed full strength, then diluted with boiling water, if desired. It's a good idea to keep an extra pot of hot water on hand for those who like their tea weaker.) If the tea is brewed too strong from the start, many of its subtleties will be lost its flavor will be overwhelming. Strength and weakness are matters of personal preference, best determined by trial and error. As a general rule, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon should be allowed for each measuring cup of water. Green teas, however, are generally the most potent and should be used in smaller amounts. (With some high-quality green teas, 1 heaping teaspoon can produce 6 cups of a delicately fragrant brew.)

NOTE: The number of cups of tea brewed also determines the quantity of tea leaves to use. The more boiling water there is, the greater the amount of heat on the tea leaves and consequently the stronger the infusion. Therefore, the more of the brew, the fewer the tea leaves needed.

Whether tea is green, black, semi-fermented or scented, certain fundamental requirements must be met for the brewing of good tea. The quality of the tea must be good: no cup of tea is better than its tea leaves. The tea must always be stored properly so that its flavor is not lost. (See "SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: 18- Storing Information.) The tea-making utensils, teapot and cups should be used exclusively for this purpose. These are the rules for brewing tea:

1. The tea utensils must be absolutely clean. If they are not, rinse and sponge them with warm water. Never use soap. (It affects the flavor.)

2. Scald the teapot with boiling water, then drain. Keep the pot warm.

3. For the tea itself, always use freshly drawn water from the cold-water tap. (Only fresh water, freshly boiled, produces full-flavored tea. Stale water that has been allowed to stand in a kettle, or water that has been reheated, gives tea a flat taste.)

4. When the water is boiling fiercely at its highest boiling point, * pour it immediately over the tea leaves. You must be ready to brew the tea as soon as the water starts boiling. When it is added at that point, the tea leaves become active, rising first to the top quickly, then sinking slowly and gracefully to the bottom. (If the water is overboiled--and loses too much oxygen--the tea leaves sink to the bottom at once and don't steep properly. If the water is not at the boiling point, the tea leaves remain floating on top. Poorly brewed tea has a taste that's either flat or crude and bitter, and a color that's either too light or too dark.)
* Brass kettles are favored for boiling the water, but any kettle or saucepan will do. Whistling tea kettles have a particular advantage: they start whistling when the water is at a rolling boil and just ready to be used.

5. After the boiling water is added, cover the pot and let steep for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the strength you want. Brew by the clock. Don't guess. (It takes time for the leaves to unfold and release their flavor.) Don't stir the leaves. Don't steep [or a dark color. (Green tea will brew to a pale gold, semi-fermented tea to amber, and black tea will produce a rich, red brew.) You may, however, if you wish, stir the leaves just before pouring, to make sure the tea is uniformly strong.

NOTE: To infuse means to extract flavor from the tea leaves by steeping, not boiling, them in hot water. Only the water is boiled, not the tea leaves. You brew the tea, you don't stew it.

Tea can be brewed in teapots, saucepans or individual cups. Teapots are best: they keep the water hot during the brewing process and then keep the tea itself hot. (Unless drunk piping hot, tea loses its flavor.) A squat, round teapot is preferable to a tall thin one: it allows for more water surface, enables the leaves to steep better. Teapots made of porcelain, crockery or glass are preferable to metal ones, which tend to impart a foreign flavor to the tea. Good-quality Chinese teapots come with their own basketlike tea cozies, which keep tea hot for hours.

1. Scald the pot with boiling water. Drain.
2. Add the leaves in the desired quantity.
3. Pour boiling water over tea leaves. Cover pot.
4. Let steep 3 to 5 minutes.

Saucepans are used when tea is to be drunk informally and immediately. Enamel or Pyrex ware is preferable to aluminum and other metals.

1. For each cup of tea, measure out 1 cup of freshly drawn cold water.
2. Bring the water to a rolling boil.
3. Add tea leaves in the desired amount. Turn off the heat immediately. Cover pan.
4. Let steep 3 to 5 minutes. Strain and serve at once.

Individual cups are used for formal and ceremonial occasions. Brewing tea right in the cup is a courtesy which demonstrates that the tea is freshly made and not a reheated, dank, dark brew that's been sitting around for days in a teapot. The formal Chinese teacup is a three-piece unit consisting of a handle-less cup with a concave lid and a saucer. The lid acts as a strainer by covering the tea leaves while permitting enough liquid to float over it for easy sipping. The cup is held in one hand while the forefinger of that hand pushes the lid back slightly to let the tea flow whenever the cup is tipped. (The lid is removed only when boiling water is added for a second cup or when the drinker wishes to inhale the aroma of the brewing tea.)

1. Scald the cup and drain.
2. Use about 1/2 teaspoon tea per cup.
3. Add 1 tablespoon freshly boiled water. Cover up. Let steep 1 minute.
4. Fill cup with boiling water. Let steep another 2 minutes.

NOTE: For less formal brewing, add about 1/2 teaspoon tea to an ordinary cup. Pour the boiling water over tea. Let steep about 4 minutes.

Most Chinese teas of good quality can be infused or brewed at least twice. The second infusion is made like the first: by pouring freshly boiled water over the original tea leaves (some like to add a few fresh tea leaves at this point) and letting the tea steep 3 to 5 minutes more. Tea connoisseurs hold that the delicate flavors and fragrances of tea don't actually manifest themselves until the second steeping and that the second infusion, therefore, is superior to the first. This, they say, is always the case with black teas, sometimes with green. Some connoisseurs consider the first infusion so immature that they quickly pour it off without tasting it and drink only the second, which they inhale with the kind of enjoyment usually reserved for fine brandies.

NOTE: With some teas, even a third infusion is possible.

Good tea, if strained (its leaves discarded) and put in a cool place, will keep about 12 hours. To use again, simply bring to a boil and serve at once.

The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. ©1994 by Gloria Bley Miller.

This 11- The Basics: Tea recipe is from the Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

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