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.

Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestrss

Gaiwans: A Tool for True Tea Appreciation

Many a loose leaf tea drinker will admit to having a cupboard full of strainers, tea pots and various mugs that assist them in consuming tea. In China, that cupboard would be full of gaiwans. This simple lidded bowl lends itself to truly appreciating the tea in many ways that a teapot just cannot accomplish.

A gaiwan can be used to drink just about any tea you would like. However, traditionally it is reserved for white, green and lighter oolong teas. There are some teas we would not dream of drinking in anything other than a gaiwan, like Bai Hao Silver Needle. This is due to how the gaiwan amplifies smell and mouthfeel when following the traditional Chinese method of using a gaiwan.

The first step of using a gaiwan is to warm it with hot water and to discard that water. This seems like a silly step. However, it gives you an opportunity to smell the dry leaves even better. If you put the tea in just after this, the warm ceramic allows the smell of the dry leaves to become stronger. It is expected in China that the drinker will take the time to bring the gaiwan to just under their nose to inhale this fragrance before adding water to the leave. This allows the drinker to better appreciate what they are about to consume.

While drinking the tea, it is expected that the drinker will stop before putting the tea in their mouth and smell the brew. The bowl shape of the gaiwan makes it easy to smell before drinking. There should be no expectation that the dry leaf and the brew will smell the same. Often they do, but in some cases they absolutely do not. There is a green tea in China called Mo Li Xiang, where the dry leaves smell like duck/chicken poop but the brewed tea has a sweet dry grass aroma.

So to appreciate tea the Chinese way, stop and smell both the tea leaves and the tea before you drink. These simple steps lead to a better appreciation of your tea.

Fascinated by the gaiwan, read about how to use it and its history in this blog post.

Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestrss

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.

 

Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestrss

Da Hong Pao – Big Red Robe

Tea Bushes

Tea Fields in Wuyi Mountains

According to legend, Da Hong Pao (Dahongpao) tea dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1300-1600 AD) in China. Supposedly tea plucked from the Dahongpao mother bushes cured the sick mother of a Chinese emperor. The emperor was so happy that he sent giant red cloth robes to wrap the four bushes from which the tea was produced.  The original bushes are still alive today, though recent laws from 2006 prevent plucking the mother bushes. Modern Dahongpao is produced from relatives of the originals, that were grown from cuttings from the mother plant.

Da Hong Pao – Terroir and Growing Region

Grown in the Wuyi Mountains of Northwestern Fujian Province, the original home to Da Hong Pao is a national park.  Larger than Yellowstone, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site that was home to farmers and small communities that grew and produced tea in the region. They were “asked” to move out during the creation of the world heritage site and for the most part now live on the outskirts of the park and still care for the plants, pick, and produce the tea.

Long ago the region was an area of high volcanic activity. The result of erosion has been to produce steep cliffs with narrow low-lying areas which includes the 9 bend river — a favorite spot for taking tourists down the river in bamboo rafts. The rocks that make up the region though continue to erode and produce a unique blend of minerals that get taken up by the root systems of tea plants. It’s the combination of the cultivar, the climate of regular fog and mist, and minerals from eroding cliffs that contribute to the unique taste and mouth feel of Da Hong Pao.

The mother bushes themselves are found in 9 Dragon Canyon along a walking tour. End to end, it’s a bit over 3 miles up and down through the canyon where 25+ varieties of tea are grown anywhere the bushes can be fit and reached for plucking. Many of the bushes found here, in addition to the mother plants, are several hundred years old. They produce very high quality, but very low yield!

In addition to tea the area is home to about 5,000 animal species including many rare and unique species. Designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has resulted in rapid growth of Wuyi-shan. Many new hotels and shops have been built next to the park. China is working on building a new railway station so that tourists can get to the area much faster as the current railway station is about 45 minutes away.  There’s also been an influx of sellers offering Wuyi Rock Oolong Teas and Lapsang Souchong, much of which is fake.

Da Hong Pao – Drinking

This open twist oolong is roughly 35-50% oxidized. Use 3 grams per 8oz of water and steep at 190°F. The first infusion should be steeped for 2-3 minutes while the second infused steep 3-5 minutes. Steep 6 grams of tea in a medium size Gaiwan for approximately 20-30 seconds and pour off into a small pitcher and serve. Infuse 6-8 times adding 5-10 seconds for each infusion.

This rock oolong is worth exploring and adding to your tea cabinet.

Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestrss

3 Favorite Teas of the First Ladies

First Ladies of the US and Russia

Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev in 1987

Tea and politics in the United States have gone hand-in-hand since the founding of our country. Tea has influenced many a decision maker and brought together disparate minds over important topics. So it is fun to highlight some of the more frequently served types of tea in the White House. Below are just a few of the favorites of former First Ladies.

Abigail Adams – Abigail Adams served many different teas at the White House. Most formal occasions required a black tea, which during that time in America would have been black tea from the Fujian province in China. Remember that this is shortly after the American Revolution and trade with England and the British East India Company was not in the picture. So there would have been almost no tea from India at this time. Abigail took it upon herself to blend the black tea with rose petals to make a softer tea that she would serve for closest friends and family.

Nancy Reagan – The repeated meetings between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin wall in Germany and communism in Russia, required Nancy Reagan to entertain Raisa Gorbachev. This was done over a series of teas. During the one hosted by Mrs. Reagan, she offered a decaffeinated almond tea to Ms. Gorbachev, who seemed to enjoy it. Quite a bit was written by Mrs. Reagan about how uncomfortable these teas where in her memoir. As the conversations whether rather impersonal, with Mrs. Gorbachev talking about communism (she was a political science lecturer at many of the Russian universities) while Mrs. Reagan tried to steer the conversation toward talking about their children. Much was written in the press on the importance of these teas to international relations even though they were rather uncomfortable for Mrs. Reagan. At least she had her favorite tea with her during those trying meetings.

Jacqueline Kennedy – Another First Lady who entertained with many afternoon teas, Mrs. Kennedy used those affairs to help redefine the role of the First Lady in national politics. Now, much like Abigail Adams, those afternoon teas where formal affairs requiring a more formal tea. So a traditional black tea, this time Indian tea, as trade with China had not resumed, was usually served. It isn’t until she is away from the limelight that you learn her favorite tea was actually a black iced tea blended with mint, orange juice, and lime juice. She usually enjoyed this during the summer months while reading.

These are just a few of the First Ladies, so many more drank tea routinely, it is just rather difficult to get to the type of tea they liked. It should be noted that tea has had a long role at the White House and continues to be a way to connect with visiting dignitaries from all over the world.

Follow Dominion Tea: Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestrss