Masters of Puerh: the Dai People of Yunnan

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Tea processing by the Dai of Yunnan China

Processing of Tea Leaves in Preparation of Raw Tea

Tea is not just a beverage, but a piece of history and a reflection of its maker. The Dai people are the makers of Puerh. This ethnic minority has lived in the southwest region of the Yunnan province since the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E-220 C.E.). They migrated even further south into Laos and Thailand during the wars of the Song Dynasty (960C.E.-1279C.E.)

Dai Culture

The term Dai is used by the Chinese government to group in several minorities that have similar religious beliefs and dialects. There are seven documented different dialects for the Dai, based around where they lived. The rugged terrain of Yunnan made it hard, even now, to connect the various villages in the province so different dialects and beliefs developed based around whether you lived in the valley near the river of in the mountains. What stays similar throughout the region was their belief in Buddism, which is reflected in the vast number of temples through out Yunnan and the celebrated holidays. The Dai dress colorfully, mirroring the colors in the temples. They also have unique poetry, song and dance that is sometimes on display for the local tourists.

Dai Food and Drink

Their cuisine cares a wide variety of flavors, most notably spicy and bitter. Bamboo shoots are routinely included with meals, as well as pickled vegetables along with rice and meat. Many westerners would consider the cuisine to be simple, but its key is freshness. You can generally identify everything on the plate. Even the fish out the river are always served whole and where most likely caught that morning. Yunnan is home to wide variety of insects that are actually eaten as a local delicacy. You can find fried and spiced wasp larva, grasshoppers, cicadas, and chestnut bugs at the local restaurants and dinner tables.

Cloud and mist shrouded tea trees of Yunnan Province

Home of the Dai people of Yunnan, China with ancient tea trees for which small batch puerh is produced.

The tea is not scented in this region, it is valued for its size and vegetal flavor. The larger the leaf, the better in the eyes of the Dai. The tea plants are grown both trimmed and untrimmed. A tea plant over 100 years old is allowed to grow wild, and is plucked using a ladder. These ancient trees are treated with the utmost care, with many of them being well over 300 years old. Fertilizer comes from the local cows and chickens. Pesticides are not used because those insects in the tea plants may well become a side dish at dinner.

These ancient tea trees are a piece of history that the Dai consider as a gift given to them to share with others. So the next time you enjoy a cup of Puerh or Yunnan Sunrise, think of the Dai and the care they put into these trees and your favorite cup of tea.

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