Alishan High Mountain Oolongs

View from Dabang Village Alishan Taiwan

Sunrise in Dabang Village, Alishan National Forest

Alishan Oolongs put Taiwan’s tea industry on the map in the 1960’s & 70’s as the country struggled to compete with China for tea consumers. These famous oolongs are produced in the south central region of Taiwan by the many aboriginal tribes of Taiwan living in the large conservation district of Taiwan called Alishan National Forest.

What sets these oolongs apart is their complex, clean flavors. This is credited to both the perfect growing conditions in the region as well as the laborious process of hand picking, properly balling the oolong, and a combination of roasting and aging after processing.

Growing Conditions
One of the largest spiders on the planet found in large parts of Asia

Giant Golden Orb Web Weaver or Giant Wood Spider

Up at 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, the tea plants get plenty of morning fog that generally burns off by the afternoon. These warm misty conditions are what tea plants want. Given the ocean air, clouds can roll in and out all day long and small afternoon rain showers are normal during certain times of the year. Taiwan is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, so it is close enough to the Equator to stay warm year round, but the high elevations do allow the plants to go dormant period during winter.

Beyond the weather, having tea grown without insecticide or fertilizer adds to the complexity of the flavor as the plants have to fight off bugs and pull nutrients naturally from the soil. The soil is amended with grasses and other plants to return nutrients to the soil each dormant period. The best Alishan oolongs are produced without insecticide leaving nature to do its job. In those fields that means a home to the giant golden orb weaver, one of the largest spiders in the world. Not poisonous, they are still an interesting obstacle to getting to the tea leaves for those who are not fans of arachnids. These spiders appear in abundance! However these amazing creatures ensure that the insects don’t get to eat all the leaves. So for the serious tea drinker, they are a welcome site on a tea field.

Processing

Getting plucking correct is actually one of the trickiest parts in Taiwan. With very few people willing to pluck, the experienced plucking teams are in high demand. So trying to time plucking is hard for the smaller growers. Ideally, the tea is plucked late in the day and into the evening after the fog has left and the leaves have dried off. Once plucked, the leaves need to whither at least 24 hours while the tea master determines what type of oolong to make. This is often done based off of how many leaves were plucked (bud and 2 to 4 leaves) and the length of the leaves. Generally, smaller leaves and bud are going to go a lighter oxidized oolong.

Tea fields growing up a mountainside.

One of many tea fields found throughout the high mountains of Alishan Taiwan.

The leaves will be agitated for the next 24 hours in tumblers and rolling machines as the tea master samples to find the right flavor. It is then roasted/dried to stop the oxidation at the desired flavor. The tea is then put into air tight storage. While it can be drunk, the tea master prefers that it sit and a final finishing roast be applied a few months later. It is said that this resting time is the key to getting the complex flavors in the tea. The applied roasting can add its own complexities with woody and smokey notes.

Drinking

There are many types of Alishan Oolongs to choose from, from a lightly oxidized and roasted Alishan High Mountain to a more heavily oxidized Alishan Red Oolong. For those who are fans of Lapsang Souchong, there is even a Dark Roasted Alishan that has a smokiness and sweetness to rival this well known tea.

Alishan Oolongs should be steeped at cooler temperatures, between 185-200° F for 3-5 minutes (western style steeping). Multiple steepings are a must for this tea as the flavor will change over the steepings.

The balled nature of this tea lends itself to the use of a gaiwan or yixing tea pot. As the tea unfolds, small particulate falls out adding to the creamy mouthfeel. Go grab your gaiwan or yixing and fill it 1/3 to 1/2 full and do your first steeping at 45 seconds and work up in 15-30 second increments. Smell those leaves as you go, the aroma is mind blowing.

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Japanese Tea Ceremony History and Meaning

Matcha with treats!

Appreciating tea comes in many forms and one of the oldest forms is the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This ceremony has a rich history that encompasses not only enjoying matcha but setting up an environment to connect with ones’ guests over tea. What is often interpreted as strict and formal by Western cultural standards is actually a much broader examination of how the environment you are in will effect your ability to appreciate the tea and connect with your guests.

History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

As we mentioned in our blog post on the History of Matcha, tea made its way into Japan some 400 years before the creation of the tea ceremony via the Zen Buddhist Monks and their cultural exchange with China. The creation of the tea ceremony came during the period of the first samurai and shogun in Japan (1192-1333 C.E.). The Zen Buddhist Monks would prepare matcha for each other and themselves before sitting for long periods of meditation. This practice continued and would be shared with the royal court in Japan for many centuries before being adopted formally by the royal court under the reign of Toyotomi Hideyosi (1585-1598 C.E.).  It was also during this time that the ceremony and its steps where formally documented by the Zen Buddhist monk Sen Rikyu.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Attention to Detail and Environment

The Buddhist Monks that developed the tea ceremony paid a lot of attention to the environment around them as they drank the tea and shared it with their colleagues and friends. The environment was to be pleasant but not over stimulating. So artwork was carefully chosen and only a few pieces hung.  A small but carefully chosen flower arrangement was often included on the table with the tea utensils. The bamboo mats and cushions for guests where to provide protection from the cold floor so they could concentrate more easily on each other and the tea. The tea bowl and utensils where also chosen to fit with the artwork. The goal was to have everything fit together to provide a peaceful environment that would allow everyone to enjoy each other and the tea. What is often lost to Western cultural is that after consuming the tea, the host and guests would often discuss the artwork, practice calligraphy together, and spend time discussion intellectual pursuits.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Modern Day

The practice of the Japanese Tea Ceremony continues around the world. There are schools, in Washington, DC it is the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Association, that not only teach the preparation of the matcha but include how to do the ancient calligraphy, flower arrangements and play traditional Japanese instruments. So broaden your horizons by taking a class and learning more about this part of Japanese culture.

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What is Dim Sum?

Hong Kong Dim Sum

Custard Filled Hong Kong Style Dim Sum at a Xiamen Restaurant

Dim Sum has a long history in China that dates back to the Silk Road. This tea centered meal has spread from Southastern China to the world. As a tea drinker, this is a culinary tradition from China that is just as important as British high tea. Every serious tea drinker should go to Dim Sum at least once in their life.

Dim Sum Origins

Since the Song Dynasty (960-1127 C.E.), Dim Sum has been served in Southeastern China in the Provence of Guangdong, which is home to Hong Kong and the Cantonese people. It is common to find Dim Sum referred to as Cantonese cuisine. Originating in the tea houses along the Silk Road, Dim Sum is a series of small dishes of food served with a never ending pot of tea. It was up to the traveler to pick and choose what they wanted from the menu. In China, Dim Sum is typically served all day. In the US, you may find it served as brunch, lunch or dinner.

The Dim Sum menu is vast and overwhelming. However, it is an amazing array of flavors and textures that reflect not only the Cantonese people but food cultures through out China. There are dumplings filled with seafood, meat or vegetables. Congee, rice porridge, mixed with vegetables and pork. Rice buns filled with barbecued pork, stir fried seafood or vegetables. Dragon claws, or fried chicken feet, is another Cantonese delicacy. There are plates of stir fried meat or vegetables in various sauces. One of our favorite plates is the rice noodle rolls filled with sweet potato or taro. The roll is made by wrapping the rice noodles around the food and dropping it into a fryer, which gives a crispy texture to the outside and a soft inside. There are also sweets in the form of pastries and rice buns filled with sweet egg custard. This is a multi-course meal, so you don’t have to order everything at once. That gives you time to digest and decide on what is next to try. Keep in mind, the serving portions are small so you can order and try a lot of different things.

Much like high tea, Dim Sum has its own etiquette that should be followed.

Cantonese Dim Sum

Cantonese Style Dim Sum at one of the oldest garden style restaurants in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China

Dim Sum Etiquette

One starts Dim Sum by ordering the tea. Traditionally it would oolong tea in Guangdong but even they now offer all types. In Guangdong, the first pot is used to wash the dishes. To an American, this is rather odd as the dishes come out clean and often shrink wrapped in plastic to confirm cleanliness. However, you watch many a table unwrap the dishes and pour hot oolong tea over them into a bin that is taken away by staff.

If you sit to the left of the tea pot, it is your job to serve the guests at the table tea and to turn up the lid on the tea pot when it gets empty. That indicates to the staff that they need to bring more water. Always pour the other guests tea first, then pour your own cup.

Keep your chopsticks to yourself. Each dish is to be shared with the table, so it comes with serving spoons or chopsticks and your have your own chopsticks. So there are a fair number of utensils to keep straight. Just remember if the chopsticks went in your mouth, they do not get used to take food off the serving plate.

Most of the authentic dishes are best served warm and don’t reheat well, so skip the doggie bag.

Dim Sum is an amazing meal with tea that is worth the effort to find here in the states. As a tea drinker, you will find it is just as social an experience as high tea but with a lot more food choices.

 

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Teas for the Chinese New Year Celebrations

Chinese LanternsThe Chinese New Year is the largest celebration in China. Lasting 15 days, this holiday is a chance for families and friends to come together and celebrate the new year. Gifts are exchanged and a lot of food is eaten. In finding the right New Year gift, many Chinese choose food items or teas that focus on health and long life. Since the Chinese see all teas being healthy and helping to aid in a long life, it seems hard to figure out how to narrow the field. This holiday is considered the biggest in China and one of the few where gifts are exchanged, so the quality of the tea is going to play a big roll in what is chosen as a gift. Also, with the new year during the dormant period for tea plants, much of the available tea in China will be fall and winter harvest oolongs and aged puerh. So with this in mind, here are 3 oolongs that would would be considered an appropriate to both give and serve as part of the Chinese New Year .

Ti Kuan Yin – This beautiful oolong from Anxi in Fuijan province of China carries the name of Iron Goddess of Mercy. Kuan Yin, or Guanyin, gave guidance in a dream to a local farmer in Anxi on how to care for the tea plant and make this balled oolong. This brought prosperity to the farmer and the village. So this oolong is not only associated with health, but with prosperity. So it covers two of the biggest Chinese beliefs around the new year making it a perfect candidate for giving and serving.

Fenghuang Dancong – This Phoenix Mountain oolong from Guangdong province is plucked from tea plants that are allowed to grow wild in gardens of other plants. These plants are older and larger than the plants kept in a traditional garden. The flavor profile is both sweet and vegetal. These oolongs have been around for centuries and are considered one of the best lighter oolongs from China. Tea from old tea plants is always valued in China and shows a level of care from the giver of the tea.

Wen Shan Bao Zhong – This high elevation oolong from Taiwan (keep in mind China does not recognize Taiwan as a separate country), is also a fall harvest oolong and is prized on the mainly for its light creamy flavor. Taiwan oolongs are considered the best quality, even by mainland Chinese. So this would be both an exotic and highly prized gift.

Regardless of which one you choose, all of these oolongs are worthy of any holiday.

 

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Christmas Traditions in Japan

Col. Sanders are Santa in Japan

A New Japanese Tradition: Kentucky for Christmas. Photo by Flickr User ‘rumpleteaser’.

Would it surprise you to know that Christmas traditions in Japan are a reflection of American and European culture? For this huge tea producer and a nation with less than 1% of its population identifying as Christian, it celebrates the holiday with same gusto as America. It turns out a mix of good timing, similar cultural stories of big bellied men, and American marketing made this possible.

Santa and Hoteisho

The story of Santa is not that different from the story of Hoteisho. A large bellied, jolly Buddhist monk with a curly mustache that is said to have eyes on the back of his head to see whether or not children are behaving. Hoteisho travels with a large sack full of good fortune to pass out to people as he spreads cheer and good fortune to all. He is one of the seven lucky gods in Japan and a product of a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism that occurred in Japan in the 13th century. As it turns out, Japan had its own Santa Clause long before exposure to Europeans.

This may also help explain why the Japanese culture had no problem adopting this European tradition. They saw Santa as the European version of Hoteisho.

Christmas Decorations and Gifts

After World War I, Japan became was the largest manufacturer of Christmas decorations purchased in Europe and America. Dresden, Germany had held that title previously, but was so decimated by the war that it never caught back up to Japan’s manufacturing. World War II shifted this again, but the legacy of making Christmas decorations stayed with the Japanese culture. The glass balls on Christmas trees where not that different from the paper ornaments hung by the Japanese in celebration of spring. So Christmas trees, lights and ornaments can be found all over Japan during the month of December. It is very popular to take evening walks along the malls and parks to see the Christmas lights and ornaments.

Gifts in Japan are actually exchanged on New Year’s Day as a way of wishing your loved ones well for the new year. So Christmas Day and Christmas Eve are reserved more for parties, family gatherings and outings than actual gift exchange.

The Emperor’s Birthday

As it turns out December 23rd is a national holiday in Japan to honor the Emperor’s birthday. This is one of the few days that the inner grounds to the Imperial Palace, which is currently located in a park in Tokyo are opened to the public. Many people gather there to wish the Emperor good health and happy future. Think of it like President’s Day in the US, only we have a tendency to focus the deceased Presidents more than the living ones. Since the Emperor’s birthday is so close to the week before the New Year, it marks a time when many Japanese go on vacation to visit family and celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. Schools are closed between the Emperor’s birthday and the new year. This makes it convenient to slide in Christmas, and Christmas traditions, which is what KFC did in the 1970s.

Fried Chicken Christmas Eve

When KFC entered the Japanese market in the 1970’s it was looking for as many ways as possible to get the Japanese into their fast food restaurants. In 1974 they launched their Kentucky for Christmas campaign, which worked beautifully. It was targeted at dating couples to celebrate their blooming relationship and experience a little US hospitality Christmas eve. It took off and is still very popular in country. You have to actually put in for a reservation for a spot Christmas eve, and now you can order for pick up that afternoon to consume at home.

Though a bit quirky, Christmas in Japan is not all that different from Christmas here in the United States.

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