Masters of Puerh: the Dai People of Yunnan

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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Matcha Popcorn

Popcorn with Matcha Butter

Matcha Popcorn

October brings us Halloween and all things sweet and green slime colored. So in the spirit of having something tea flavored that still fits the bill for a Halloween treat to enjoy at home, in comes Matcha Popcorn. This fun recipe is easy to make and we even added some chocolate drizzle.

Matcha Popcorn – Ingredients

1/2 cup of popcorn kernels
2 Tablespoons of unsalted butter for pan
2 Tablespoons for unsalted butter for matcha sauce
1 tsp of Matcha powder
Salt and Sugar to taste – 1/4 tsp of each was our preference

Matcha Popcorn – Instructions

  1. Start by heating the 2 tablespoons of butter in a large pan. A dutch oven is perfect but you can also use a 4 quart pan. You need to have the lid for the pan and oven mitts near by as you will be shaking the pan. Measure out the popcorn and have it handy to pour in.
  2. While the butter is melting, in a microwave safe bowl, melt the other 2 tablespoons of butter. Allow to cool on the counter while the popcorn pops.
  3. Once your butter on the stove has melted drop in the kernels and put on the lid and pick up the pan and shake it around. You are trying to coat all the kernels with the butter. Put the pan back on high heat and await the popping. While it pops, you will need to periodically shake the pan to distribute the kernels. You may want to crack the lid a little to allow out steam and reduce the likelihood of burning the popcorn. Once the popping reduced to less than 3 pops in 5 seconds, pull from the heat and remove the lid. Pour the popcorn out into a large bowl.
  4. Stir the matcha and 1/8 teaspoon of sugar and salt into the butter. You are looking to smooth out the matcha, no clumps. Once smooth, pour over the popcorn and stir the popcorn. The matcha will transfer to the other popcorn kernels. Have a taste and then sprinkle on more salt and/or sugar to taste.

You can also do this with microwave popcorn. If you are feeling industrious and have a spice grinder, you can grind down your favorite tea to a powder and substitute it for the matcha. It will give you an entirely different flavor of popcorn.

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History of Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival

Two mooncakes

Mid-Autumn Festival Moon Cakes

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most popular holidays in China. Much like America’s Thanksgiving, it is a holiday that is celebrated by the entire country where everyone travels to see family. However, moving nearly 700 million people in a condensed period of time is a huge undertaking. To help you put this in perspective, AAA estimated 49 million Americans traveled for Thanksgiving in 2016. 17 times more people travel in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival than in the United States for Thanksgiving. China’s mass transit systems are put to the ultimate test moving this many people round trip over the span of 10 days.

Mid-Autumn Festival History

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival has been celebrated since the Zhou Dynasty (1045-221 BCE). It started as a celebration of the moon. The Emperor’s believed that by giving gifts to the moon after the fall harvest would help guarantee a good harvest the following year. These offering where usually placed on an alter outside for the Moon to see and consisted of various foods and drinks, like tea. The practice of celebrating the moon spread from just the Emperor through the upper class and into the masses during the Tong Dynasty (618-907 CE). It wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) that a formal festival was established and celebrated by the entire country. It is to occur on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar Calendar corresponding with a full moon, which means it can occur anywhere between mid-August till early October.

Culinary Traditions of the Mid-Autumn Festival

The big food item during the Mid-Autumn Festival is the moon cake. This tradition began during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE) as these dense cakes served as a means of transmitting messages concerning the rebellion against the Mongolian Emperors. The moon cake is generally a round pastry with a thin crisp skin that is filled with sweet lotus seed and duck yolk paste. The sweet filling now comes in many flavors, including Green Tea or Matcha paste filling. There are also now savory moon cakes filled with various meats and nuts.

Moon Cake with Filling

Moon cakes feature a variety of fillings including green tea or matcha paste filling.

So what do you drink with your moon cake? Tea of course. Puerh is resounding favorite as the moon cakes are often eaten in the evening after the family celebrations. However, the timing works with the flavors as the earthiness of the Puerh counters the sweetnees of the moon cakes. As with all things tea, this is personal preference and can vary by family. Oolongs like Ti Kuan Yin are another popular choice to pair with this treat.

Moon cakes can be found in Asian markets here in the US. So if you are curious, go find some and enjoy them with your favorite Puerh or Oolong.

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Retrain Your Taste Buds: 3 Tips for Enjoying Straight Tea

Tea with Creamer and Sugar

Care for some tea with your cream and sugar?

It is possible to retrain your taste buds to enjoy tea without milk or sugar. You are not so much retraining your taste buds but your brain. How people enjoy food is a rather complex system that scientists are still studying to understand, but there is a general consensus that flavor preferences are built by what is consumed routinely. So if you are wanting to remove that milk and sugar from your tea or expand your tea habit into new areas like puerh or green tea, here are 3 tips to help you in that process.

  1. Slowly remove the milk and sugar from your tea. This includes stevia and other sugar substitutes. If you taper it down over time, your brain won’t reject the change. Try reducing the milk and sugar by half what you normally put in the first week. Then reduce by half the following week and follow the same pattern until you are at zero. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition ran a study in 2016 that had half the participants reduce their sugar intake and then judge the sweetness of certain foods before and after 3 months of a reduced sugar diet. It was not a surprise that the group found certain foods more sweet after reducing their sugar intake. Our brains are very good to adapting to what we do, if we constantly consume sugar the brain stops consciously registering the sweetness. So we consume more sugar to get the sweetness we think we want. This particular study used 3 months, but other studies on taste have indicated that the taste preferences reset anywhere between 3-6 weeks.
  2. Keep trying that new tea. It will take between 5-10 tastes to adjust. Yes, new flavors are learned. So a single sip will not work, it requires repeated consumption to register the new flavor with your brain. You need to think when consuming this new flavor. What do you like? What is different? Why is it different? Is different good or bad? This practice is termed mindful eating. If practiced enough you will enjoy new foods more.
  3. Pair that new tea with something you love. If you are really serious about bringing green tea into your diet but are having trouble with the flavor, drink that tea while eating something you like. This is called associative conditioning. Our brains will associate the new flavor with the one you already like and condition you to enjoy that new flavor more than if you consumed it alone. You will need to do this more than once for it to work, usually about 4 or 5 times. This trick also works really well when introducing new foods to children.

Enjoy trying new tea and retraining your taste buds!

 

 

 

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How to Tell if Your Tea Has Gone Stale

Old Antique Tea Tin

While this is a super cool find its probably best to pitch any tea you find inside.

Tea leaves, when stored properly, will have a long shelf life. However, the flavor will change with age. So here are some tips on how to tell if your tea is stale and its time to feed it to your garden plants.

  1. Tastes flat or like paper. Those paper wrapped tea bags are meant to be used quickly, usually under a year. So don’t second guess yourself when you feel like you can taste the tea bag. If you need to keep those tea bags longer, get them into a resealable plastic bag. If it is not tea bag tea, and it tastes like paper, it’s also stale.
  2. Your tea starts to brew darker than normal. For green and white teas, this will start to come after the one year point. Generally you may not notice it if you are drinking it daily, as the change is gradual. There is nothing wrong with the darker brew, it is just an indication that the tea is aging. Eventually your white tea will brew like a green tea and your green tea will brew like an oolong or black tea if you keep it long enough. To really get the original taste, you need to drink your white teas within 1 year and your green teas in under 2 years.
  3. If your tea is blended with spices or nuts, the shelf life is dictated by those ingredients and not the tea leaves. Those other ingredients will go stale before the tea leaf does, especially the nuts. So if your favorite blend starts to taste weak or has an odd after taste, it is not your imagination, the other items in the blend have gone stale. If there are nut slivers in your tea, you really should drink it all before the 6 month mark to ensure good flavor. Your favorite chai should be consumed within the year to get the full effect of the cardamom and cinnamon.
  4. The hardest tea to tell if it has gone stale is black tea. If stored properly, it can hold its flavor a long time. For stronger blacks, you will notice the ending bite fade and the tea will taste more like stale bread. For the softer Chinese blacks, they will develop a bite that wasn’t there before.

Storage is critical to keeping your tea fresh, which you can learn about here. However, drink your tea regularly. It is meant to be enjoyed.

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