Thursday, February 05, 2009

In Praise of Cha

The first time I tried tea I thought I was going to die.

I was about five or six years old and was over at one of my friends' grandmother's house. I remember being thirsty. I remember asking her for something to drink. She told me there was some pop in the refrigerator.

I remember a big glass jar -- a jug, really -- on the top shelf of the refrigerator. It was filled with a cola-colored liquid that I identified as Pepsi. Yum. Time for a refreshing swig.

I thought I was going to puke. Tea. Accckkk.

The best way to describe the taste in my mind was that it was like taking a glassful of Pepsi and adding a bunch of ice cubes and a pinch of hay then letting it sit out for a day or two. Watered down, rancid, and flat. In the years that followed, this traumatic memory served one purpose in my mind: I don't like tea.

Then came my trip to China. We took a tour of Shanghai that included Yuyuan Garden. The Gardens are in the middle of one of the biggest cities on earth but still feel like a park should feel. They're almost 500 years old and are laid out in a way that conjures up images of "traditional" Chinese style: streams of koi, rocks, ornate buildings, and lots of stone lions and dragons. Smack dab in the middle of the park, atop stilts standing in a pond, there's a tea house.

I went inside and took a look around while we were waiting for everybody to catch up. Ancient Chinese guys were scattered throughout the room, many sitting in dark wooden booths along the walls. They looked very contemplative sitting there with their tiny porcelain cups. A couple were smoking pipes. The entire room had a character that fit the occupants: sage and weathered. In the middle of the room was a counter, a bar of sorts. Behind the attendants there was, floor to ceiling, the biggest assortment of multicolored tins I had ever seen. Every conceivable variety of tea must have been represented there, I thought. My then-current knowledge, the sum total of which was "sweet" and "unsweet", was forever changed. Something in my mind told me that I should try some of this.

But imagine my situation: I knew nothing about tea. The tins, though visually appealing and enticing, may as well have been labeled in Chinese, which of course they were. Plus I don't speak Chinese. So I figured I would hold that thought.

As you get older, your tastes change, and I like to think of myself as adventurous when it comes to trying new foods, a sharp contrast from my extremely finicky elementary school days. So once I got back to the ship I whipped up some Darjeeling from a teabag in the cafeteria and resolved to approach it with an open mind. And as I expected, it wasn't half bad.

The rest of the story is a bit of a blur: what started with me ordering a few small tins of green tea has developed into my spending entirely too much money on pretentious imported leaves and exotic brewing vessels. Just the other day I ordered some 2007 organic Tai Ping Hou Kui at almost a dollar a gram. I prepare it gong fu style in a jade porcelain gaiwan. It is good.

I have flipped.


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