Strong Food: Tea
Some of you may already know that I’ve recently started a new season of life as a PhD student!
One of my research tenets is to take my writing assigments beyond the classroom. This can be done in a number of different ways in my mind and I hope to become more experimental with their dissemination over time.
To ease into the process, I’m sharing my first writing assignment of the year via Flush & Brew! It’s a little snippet of something I’m working on for the rest of the semester. It’s fun and chill and also 100% a tea nerd flex.
It takes one minute from boiling point for water to drop to 85 degrees, three minutes to drop to 80 degrees, six minutes to 70 degrees, and 13 minutes to 60 degrees. Soo Park of Soocha Tea reels off these times in a Korean tea workshop I’ve been invited to join. I have not bothered to verify the accuracy of these measurements. I delight in being let in on these secrets from their practitioners.
Legend has it that Emperor Shennong discovers tea when a few leaves fall into his cup of freshly boiled water and the water changes colour. What an appropriately humble mythological origin story for a beverage at once ubiquitous and elite, as Shennong is a prehistoric emperor credited with inventing agriculture and Chinese medicinal practices. After all, tea in its earliest iterations exists as medicine.
Hong Kong McDonalds’ tea insider ordering protocol: Ask for a Lai Cha, and a Hong Kong-style milk tea—with evaporated milk—will be served in a styrofoam cup with a plastic lid. Ask for a Cha Bao Lai Cha, and a British-style black tea bag steeped in hot water will be served with a dairy creamer and sugar packet on the side.
Singapore hawker centre ordering protocol: Damned if you don’t already know. The drink stall will invariably always more or less list the following options with no explanation:
Teh O Limau
Teh Siew Dai
A Quartz article that went viral a few years ago breaks down how the trading routes of tea determined if its consumers referred to it as tea / teh (by ocean) or cha / chay (by land). And this is how, despite both cities hosting sizeable Chinese populations, the Hong Kongers drink their Lai Cha, and the Singaporeans their Teh C.
I am a tea practitioner and a sommelier in training raised in the British colonial cities of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Suzhou — home to the famous LongJing**. People ask me why I find tea fascinating and spend so much time with it. I point out just how major tea is on the world stage. Tea, silk and porcelain as trade goods drained Britain of so much silver that they resorted to selling opium. This started the wars that ended with the cessation of Hong Kong to the British. Or how, in protest against taxes, the Sons of Liberty turned the Boston Harbour into a meagre tea brew but caused a political stirring mythologized as an early crucial step on the journey to American Independence. Other days I explain that I just love how it all works. Tea, like coffee and wine, embodies the unique characteristics of terroir, climate, production and processing. From small-batch, specialty leaf farming, to huge commercial brands, there is no end in flavours, brewing methods, production secrets and adventures to be had from pursuing a drink.
On a backpacking trip in 2014, I plan a 1 night 2 day trip into the Alishan mountains in Taiwan to visit a tea plantation 2500 m above sea level. They specialize in high mountain oolong, and after dinner, the landlady brings out her goods for taste testing. She claims her leaves are so stellar they can be steeped up to 15 times without losing the strength of their brew. This results in my consumption of over 14 cups of top-grade oolong and a buzzing headache through a sleepless night.
Years later, I am watching an online video feature by a food historian who specializes in Forbidden Palace cuisine during the Qing Dynasty, and learn that Emperor Qianlong had water carried in from the springs of Yellow Mountain for his tea brews, and that milk tea was a favourite go-to of his. This is initially surprising to me but it's also completely logical that the Manchu emperor would be partial to tea brewed with goat milk or butter, typical of Northern Chinese and West Asian tradition. I then register that I incorrectly consider milk tea to be a British thing.
In my sommelier course on tea production, I learn that big tea label brands have in-house tasters whose tongues are insured. Their job every year is to taste hundreds of samples from the label’s contracted plantations to recreate the exact flavour of last year’s teabag. Year after year, brews shaped uniquely by growing conditions are mixed together to maintain a sameness. After the lesson, I think, “Imagine being paid to gatekeep the terribly bland taste of yellow label Lipton.”
By contrast, in 2017, I attend a tea tasting and storytelling event where the host tells a portion of One Thousand and One Nights, and introduces a new tea at every cliffhanger. I taste Nilgiri for the first time, alongside the host’s personal chai blends. She tells us that the saffron she uses is sourced from growers on the same lands as the tea plantations. She thinks the echo of a shared terroir produces harmony in the flavours of the spice and tea. Although my tongue is unable to confirm her sentiment, I am moved by this reunion.
Tea is medicine, beverage, appetizer and dessert, crop, trade, knowledge, and bodied practice. Tea stories are ordinary, but also mythologies in the making. I am curious about their histories, and how they beget mine.
Earlier this year, while attending a rally at city hall protesting the rise of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence against Asians in the pandemic, Momo Yoshida of Momo Tea calls and I jog out to Bay street to meet her. She is pulled over near the parking lot and winding down the window, hands me a pink paper bag with her signature four grades of matcha and homemade Kohakuto candy. “See you at the workshop this weekend!”, she says. I wave goodbye and head back to Nathan Philips, tea tucked into my backpack.
**This version says “Longjing” when in actuality, Suzhou’s famous tea is the BiLuoChun. I discovered this mistake in a later revision and have corrected it in updated versions of this text..