Stunning Glass Gaiwan with Dragonwell
Admittedly, buying gifts for a tea snob can be very hard. Beyond figuring out what they like to drink, there is all the equipment, which they may already own. So we like to turn to the experts at giving tea gifts, the Chinese, to find the right tea with the right meaning for our favorite tea snobs. Below are the 3 popular gifts for tea lovers in China and the stories behind why they are so popular.
- Ti Kuan Yin – This beautiful oolong named after the Iron Goddess of Mercy is prized for its beautiful flavor and story about its creation. It is also one of the oldest oolongs produced in China, having been created sometime during the 18th century. Giving the gift that came from the Iron Goddess of Mercy shows the gift receiver that you wish them health and prosperity well into their future.
- Puerh from Yunnan Provence – Given for its health benefits, Puerh tea is thought of as the fine wine of tea. It only gets better with age. This fermented tea is over 2,000 years old and can be made with a black, green or white tea base. The bacteria that is added to allow for the fermentation creates a naturally sweet and smooth tea with lots of complex flavors. This tea is usually purchased in cakes or bricks and is broken apart to make a cup of tea.
Bai Hao Silver Needle – Exquisite first pluck of the newest growth of the tea plant.
Bai Hao Silver Needle – This prized white tea has been under production during the Song Dynasty (969-1269 C.E.) but did not enter the European literature until the 1800’s. Its soft and floral flavor as well as the silver hairs on the tea leaves are distinctive characteristics that cannot be found in other teas. This is a more expensive tea as it can really only be plucked during the first harvest of the season. This tea was often given as a gift to the reigning Emperor as it was the first tea of the season.
There are a few characteristics these teas share, each one has been manufactured for centuries, given as gifts to Chinese Emperors to bring them good health and luck, and have exquisite and complex flavors.
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Are there Thanksgiving traditions in Asian Countries? Thanksgiving is thought of as a true American holiday that started with the Pilgrims celebrating a bountiful harvest with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. The celebration of the fall harvest is not something new and could easily be found in other countries. So let’s look at the Thanksgiving traditions in some of our favorite tea growing countries.
Mid-Autumn Festival in China
China does not have a holiday that corresponds to the US Thanksgiving. They do have a Mid-Autumn festival that has been around for about 3,000 years that celebrates the first full autumn moon, which happens to correspond with the fall harvest of crops. The Mid-Autumn Festival does includes big dinners with family, but those are the norm for most of the important Chinese holidays. The food of choice for this festival is mooncakes. Not to be confused with the American Moon Pie cookie, mooncakes are a small pastry with a dense filling. There are different fillings and flavors based on the region of China that you live in. They are always served with tea. So we will save a more in depth discussion on mooncakes for a later blog. The Chinese government does recognize American holidays and encourages local businesses to make turkey available around the American holiday where there are larger numbers of American’s are living in China. Currently there are believed to about 100k Americans with green cards living and working in China (The US government does not count US citizens who live aboard that are not associated with the US military or diplomatic operations, it is done by other organizations).
Vietnam… And American Thanksgiving Dinner Feasts
The Vietnamese, much like the Chinese, have a Mid-Autumn festival that celebrates the moon and the fall harvest of crops. Many of the Vietnam holidays follow the Chinese, so this isn’t a surprise. However, Vietnam has a large and growing American tourist trade, so finding an American Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and cranberry sauce is a little easier. You just have to book reservations about a month or two in advance in Hanoi at some of the higher end restaurants to get your turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and stuffing.
Niiname-sai,traditional Japanese dance by Wikimedia user katorisi.
Japan Labor Thanksgiving
Japan has a formal Thanksgiving holiday on November 23rd every year. It is called Labor Thanksgiving and was introduced into the country after World War II during the U.S. occupation. The Japanese put their own twist on it by using the holiday to honor each others’ work through out the year. Labor unions use the day to hold festivals focused on human rights, peace and the environment. Labor Thanksgiving was combined with the ancient celebration of the fall harvest of rice, Niinamesai. It is documented that Niinamesai was first celebrated in 678 C.E. During Niinamesai, the Emperor presents the first harvest of rice to the Gods and partakes of the rice himself.
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As Halloween approaches here in the US,the question arises does China have a similar holiday and do they serve tea? The answer is a surprising yes as it turns out. The Hungry Ghost Festival, or Zhong Yuan Ji, is quite similar to the US Halloween, but there are also some big differences.
Hungry Ghost Festival Origins
All Saints Day from which we get Halloween
The Hungary Ghost Festival originates from the Buddhist and Taoist beliefs that the gates to the afterlife open on the first day of 7th month of the Lunar calendar, which usually falls in August but sometimes in July. While the basis of the tradition is in religion, many of the festivals, food, and decorations are based in Chinese folk tradition. This is very similar to Halloween, in that Halloween originated from Celtic folk tradition and was merged by the Catholic church into All Saints Day (a day to honor the dead and atone them of their sins), with the folk traditions of dressing up as a ghost and offering food to visiting spirits still playing a large role in the celebration.
Hungry Ghost Festival Traditions
Burning Joss Paper Money ( CC BY-SA 3.0 by Vmenkov)
There are special traditions marked on the 1st day, the 15th day and the last day of the hungry ghost month. On the 1st day, joss paper is burnt outside of businesses and homes as a way to give the ghosts the money they need during the month on Earth. Joss paper acts as a representation of real money and little piles of ashes can be found all over the streets and at temples during this time. The 15th day of the month is marked as the holiday to feed the ghosts and to honor your deceased family members through a small shrine of pictures in the home, burning of incense near the pictures, and an elaborate meal with empty seats at the table left for the ancestors to sit in on the feast. Food may also be burned during this day so that the ghosts may take it with them into the afterlife. Tea is also burned so that the ghosts have their favorite beverage in the afterlife. The last day of the month is marked through the lighting of paper lanterns, the burning of more food, joss paper, and clothing so that the ghosts may have them in their afterlife, and the family pictures are returned to the shelves and walls. Unlike the Chinese holiday of Qing-Ming in the spring, this festival is less about honoring your ancestors and more about keeping those pesky ghosts from causing too much trouble. Food, beverages (tea especially), and other gifts are left out to feed and entertain the ghosts. Public concerts are held to entertain both the living and the dead and it is quite common to stumble over buckets and baskets of food placed on door steps, at bases of trees and just out on the sidewalk from the beginning of the month till the end of the month. So while we pass out candy to our little ghosts, it is nice to remember how similar human beliefs can be even if they are celebrated in different ways.
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Yak dressed up in Tibet.
Here are 3 additions to tea to keep your eyes open for when traveling aboard or here at home at your favorite foreign cuisine restaurant. These are not the sugar, cream or ice that Americans know and love.
1. Yak Butter. This Tibetan addition to tea cannot be duplicated here in the US as yak milk and butter are not to be found in your local grocery store. The closest we can get is using water buffalo milk to make buffalo butter to match this beverage. There are a few water buffalo dairies in the U.S., so if you are ever in Ithaca, New York or Canon City, Colorado, you might want to have a look. Yak milk and buffalo milk have about twice the amount of fat as cows milk, so the butter is more like what American’s think of as soft cheese in consistency. To make yak butter tea, a black tea is steeped several hours and then strained off. Butter and salt are added and the mixture is whipped or churned until the butter melts. It is then left over low heat to keep it warm. When finished drinking, a dash of roasted barley flour is added to the bottom of the cup and rolled into a ball to absorb the last bits of tea and butter and then eaten.
2. Salt. Pakistan has a version of salt tea called Kashmiri Chai. Mongolia has a version called Suutei tsai. Both use a green tea base, milk and salt. The trick to the salt is getting just the right amount. Too much salt and that is all you will taste. The tea is brewed in water and then the milk and salt are added and warmed enough not to have the temperature drop. Both versions typically have the tea steeping for about 10 minutes.
3. Toasted Rice. Any fan of Japanese green tea will recognize this addition. Genmaicha is toasted rice and green tea (Sencha). Unlike our first two additions which are added after brewing, the toasted rice is brewed with the tea and it gives the tea a smooth popcorn smell and flavor. This one is easy to get here in the states, and worth trying at least once to see how it changes the flavor of Sencha.
While these additions are definitely outside the typical American experience with tea, as true tea connoisseur, you are honoring your favorite beverage by experiencing it through the cultures that have consumed tea longer than the U.S. has been in existence.
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For some, finding the right sugar for tea is as equally important as picking out your favorite tea. There is nothing wrong with plain old ordinary cane sugar, other than it takes a while to dissolve in water even when it is at a boil. But, there are other great alternatives that dissolve quickly in your water regardless of the temperature and give you a new way to sweeten your favorite beverage.
Sugar cane from which molasses is produced. Public Domain – Care Of www.waterarchives.org
This staple for making Gingerbread Cookies is super sweet and dissolves quickly in hot water. Molasses is the left over syrup from extracting sugar from sugar cane juice. There are actually three forms of molasses – light, dark and blackstrap. The light molasses will not change the flavor of your tea much. However, the darker molasses will add a slightly nutty flavor to your tea. This stuff is super sweet so only use about 1/3 to 1/2 of what you typically would use for standard sugar. This sweetener will work well with black tea. It will darken your lighter colored teas, like green or white, but don’t let that stop you from trying it out.
Maple syrup goes great on pancakes, for sure, but also is great in tea. (CC BY SA 2.0 by Flickr user Lemsipmatt)
Much like molasses, maple syrup comes in many different grades. Grade A is the lightest, and not easily found in grocery stores. Grade B is the most common and usually what you buy in the grocery store. Our favorite comes from Highland County, Virginia where you can visit sugar shacks every spring, but great maple syrup options come from New England and Canada too. As a syrup it dissolves faster in hot liquids than standard cane sugar crystals and it will add a slight maple flavor to your tea.
Fruit Sugars (Coconut or Date Sugar)
Yes these are crystallized just like plain sugar, but their source is not sugar cane but their respective fruits. Both have a more butterscotch and brown cane sugar flavor than anything else. Date sugar can be made from any dates but you usually see it made from deglet noor dates. These dates are smaller than medjool dates and have a firmer texture. They are grown mainly in California. Coconut sugar has been around a long time in Southeast Asia and has only recently made an appearance in large volume in the last six years in the US. Coconut sugar is made from of the sap of the cut palm flowers.
These unique sugar sources are worth trying should you need something sweet in your cup of tea.
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