Category Archives: all the tea in China

TRUST

In this part of the world it’s hard enough to tell if you’re paying the right price for things, or whether you’re getting what you think you’re getting, but in China such worries can send you down the path to pure madness.

How do you know the quality of your hotel?
Four star hookers admiring the wood carvings in the lobby, free condoms in the rooms, clear glass separating the bed from the bathroom (with optional “modesty light” switch), and the number of people it takes to track down the Tech Guy, the one and only person who knows the wireless password.

How do you know the quality of your Pu’er tea? Was it picked from wild trees, ancient arbor, eco trees or mass production hedges?

It’s supposed to be logical by price, as explained here, but we all know better.

We live in a world of Swedish horsemeat-balls, 100% cold-pressed Italian olive oil made from Greek olives, and big fish made from many little fish. In China, if you take all the Pu’er drunk each year and sum up the years that the tea has been “aged,” you’ll get more years than the entire history of China’s existence, Imperial, Communist or otherwise.

Sure you can sit and actually taste it, but better buy it right then and there because that way you make sure the tea you buy is the tea you just drank. Though there’s always the chance they have placed good tea on the top of the bag, sitting on a mound of crappy tea, and when they scoop the tea for you, they dig deep down into the middle of the bag. My test for whether I over paid or not? Call back that evening and say you lost your hat or something and was wondering if you left it there. If they’re having a raging party, there’s your answer.

At some point you have to decide everyone in the country is on crack, or you just toss your dibs in and TRUST someone. Trust goes a long long way, in any culture, and it helps you sleep at night. But it’s also a moving target. You have to know when to smell a rat, but you have to embrace someone, somewhere, in order to learn the first thing about what these teas are supposed to taste like. Trust first, hold no grudges, and always know where your Pu’er comes from.

Of course if you’re still stressed out and develop high blood pressure China has a bunch of offerings to help you with that. This medicine for the flu cost $7 in Hong Kong, and when we found it in Guangzhou it was $2. Sure the packaging was different but the hologram sticker looked real enough. We didn’t die after drinking it, and it turns out it was the real thing, what a deal.

There’s the rare tea-stuffed pomelo.

The rare tea-stuffed bitter melon.

There’s the ultra-rare crab claw vine that grows only on tea trees that are over 200 years old. So in one shot you get proof of the age of the tea tree at the same time as you expel your own toxins.

Beware! This one’s a fake! Bastard red font!

When fate strikes in China

Pu’er might be the only tea that hurts when it hits you, but watch out when the Chinese concept of fate, “Yuan,” comes hurtling your way.

Like Schrodinger’s cat, you can’t go looking for Yuan, and when it does happen, how it manifests depends on your attitude at the moment of its appearance.

Our tea master Vesper Chan had a pretty good nose in 1992 when he tasted a tea that no one else was interested in buying. He decided to purchase the entire lot, some 30 tons of it, at something like 8 RMB a cake. Here’s a photo of the guy he bought it from, after being asked what he thought about the current selling price of 48,000 RMB.

The funny part? Our dear tea master kind of sold his lot too soon, he got the fame of having sniffed out this unbelievable tea, but didn’t score as big as he could have.

On our recent trip to China last month, my friend Linda wanted to meet face to face with James, the guy who does her printing. He had recently screwed up an order, and she wanted to decide whether to give him a second chance. Turns out James agreed not only to reprint the order for free, but he showed up with correctly printed samples and also offered to take us to the airport.

Turns out James planned for us to taste an organic crysthanamum tea his friend produced, and insisted that checking in only a half hour before the flight time would be okay.

Turns out James was wrong. But he insisted that the fact we missed our flight was meant to be (ahem), as in we weren’t allowed to leave the city until he had a chance to take us out for dinner.

So we got treated to goose-in-a-wok BBQ AND a foot massage.

Here’s how the goose started,

and as you eat it the goose continues to cook until at the end of the meal you’re left with goose and scallions BBQ’ed into pure crispy deliciousness. (That yellow stuff in the bowl that looks like soup? One of the few things in the world I’ve met that I could not stomach. Ug)

The foot massage played out exactly like the goose BBQ. It started with a neck and shoulder massage, a brief neck-cracking session, twists and backbends over the masseuses’ knees, cupping and foot massage, and then they poured alcohol on a towel on our backs and lit us on fire.

Since we were all on fire, no one was left to document the event, so here’s a video that pretty much captures it. The video also advises against getting this treatment done if you’re “mind confused,” but it’s a little late to worry about that now.

We managed to make the flight to Xixuangbanna on time the following day, and traipsed around the tea mountains visiting some really old trees.

In Nan Nor we bought some loose 2013 Pu’er, and just as we were pondering how we were going to get the fluffy delicate tea back home, we found out that the owner of our mountain inn, Mr. Chen, aka the Chinese Patrick Swayze, just happened to have a stone press for making Pu’er bricks, and he graciously turned our pain-in-the-ass bags of tea into compact bricks.

At dinner that night at the inn there was a group of men from the Ai Ni ethnic minority drinking local moonshine and toasting each other (“Sai sai sai!”). I just happened to be traveling with Jeni “Gimme Some of that Moonshine” Dodd so us gals sauntered over to give the other table a toast. This is not what you’d call common in China. Women don’t usually initiate a toast, much less take a drink with a table full of strangers, but hey, moonshine is moonshine.
In return they shared a traditional Ai Ni drinking song:

The evening ended with a some more singing, Patrick Swayze belted out some Dai minority love songs that made Jeni Moonshine cry, Linda showed all of us that if her tea business failed she could make a living as a singer, and Jeffrey played the guitar while reading the chords ad hoc off my iPhone. Turns out everyone knew the words to Hotel California. The look on their faces when we told them that Linda and I were actually from California was pure Y-U-A-N, though I was a little worried the way Patrick Swayze sang “And you can never leave…”

PS. One of the guys was a Beijing official, not from the Ai Ni tribe, and I wanted to ask him exactly why Facebook was blocked in China, but the following morning when I saw him at breakfast he was wearing cute flannel PJ’s so I changed my mind.

What’s new (and old) in the tea world

Ten years ago we stumbled upon a tea house in Guangzhou called the Best Tea House Co. Ltd. The owner had an amazing place in a park complete with lake front Pu’er storage and blooming ozmanthus and olive flowers for enhanced seasoning.
Turns out not only did he look like Chevy Chase he’s also a fake. Well not really a fake but a fraud, which is actually an important distinction in China because it’s a question of provenance rather than reality. In China you generally get the product you ask for, just not necessarily the exact thing you ask for. For example if you ask for 20 year old Pu’er you’ll get Pu’er but it will be made in the “20 year old style” rather than be actually 20 years old.

The Chinese Chevy Chase apparently kyped the company name of a very famous Pu’er master from Hong Kong named Vesper Chan (yes). I guess Mr. Chan didn’t really think it was a big deal until relations between HK and the mainland improved and he was offered a retail space in the Canton Tower and realized he couldn’t trademark his own company name.

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So it’s total fate that we became friends with someone in Los Angeles who actually studied from Vesper Chan so we could visit the real Best Tea House Co. Ltd.

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So what’s new in the tea world?
Everywhere you see tea kettles that are attached to spigots that pump water from a five gallon jug on the floor into the kettle. No more need to tip the water boy. Hit one button and water streams through a hole in the lid and, I’m not sure if all of them do this but they stop filling when the pot is full.

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What’s old in the tea world?
Here’s Master Chan with a photo of a 3200 year old tree (think Warring period, before the unification of China) and one of the tea cakes he pressed from the leaves of that tree. He had the rights to the leaves from that tree for ten years, but then some sugar company came along and…defrauded him…whacking his ten years down to six. Like I was saying…

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Hong Kong’s other ear

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In 2001 when I spoke Mandarin in Hong Kong the people ignored me or replied in Cantonese.

In 2003 when I spoke Mandarin in Hong Kong they replied in Mandarin.

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China’s economic boom had turned the bumpkin next door into a rich relative. I thought everyone had just gone to language school. My HK friend told me they called it “opening the other ear.”

Now in 2013 when I speak Mandarin in Hong Kong they try to ignore me, but then reluctantly reply in Mandarin. The ever-fatter and ever-richer relative just won’t go away.
What a world of difference flashing a US passport makes. With that gold eagle I am converted from an annoyance into a tourist, speaking Mandarin as if its not my fault.

It’s not like I’m going to start wearing the stars and stripes everywhere like the Canadians do in Europe with the maple leaf (for the exact opposite reason) but it sure is nice to pull out the California dialect when politics rears its ugly head.

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This morning in the train station I tried to take a photo of a poster informing travelers of just how many kilos of milk powder one was allowed to take out of Hong Kong. The guard came over and said no photos in Cantonese and I said “Oops sorry!” He then went to his post and returned with a couple of flyers in English explaining just how many kilos of milk powder one was allowed to take out of Hong Kong. So nice! (FYI-limit is 1.8 kilos, with possible $6000 fine or two years jail)

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So, if China is Hong Kong’s fat relative with unruly nose hairs, then Macau is the bastard step child. Overshadowed by size, population, historical importance and even in the economic status/seaworthy might of its European colonializer (what is the term for the “empire that colonizes?”) Macau loses on all fronts. I didn’t even know Macau was handed over to their own government AFTER 1997, when Hong Kong was retuned to China. I thought Portuguese control was something from the past, a novelty almost, until I arrived and there’s Portuguese on all the signs. Not just at the airport and in the tourist areas but all the freeway, information, and any official looking signs.

Like all good island countries Macau has a truly awesome baby suckling pig dish. Like all good Chinese communities they know how to turn the skin into the most mouthwatering salty crispy wafer.

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Its obvious the Portuguese influence in Macau dating back to the 1600’s was substantial:

– sidewalk design
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– bus maneuverability skills

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– desserts: my hunt for the Pasteis de Nata and the double skin milk makes Macau sort of an old home.

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But the Chinese culture fights backs for prominence:

– beef jerky graphs

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– Macau’s most famous almond cookie producer is on every single corner, selling cookies, orange peel, ginger candies, jerky, mushrooms and cancer fighting herbs. Their secret? Free samples.

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– the taming of the wild lettuce

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– photography as sport

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– casinos

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The “Asian Las Vegas” is now home to MGM, Wynn, and the timeless Sands. But the weirdest thing? Of all places the casinos are just about the quietest buildings on the continent. No screaming, no ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Just heavy perfume, auspicious felt-scraping techniques, and little ditties from the slots that seem directed for your ears only (opened up or not)

Maybe it’s me, I haven’t been to Vegas since before they went digital and definitely when there were still places on the strip to play one-deck blackjack, but something about the place (I mean, this is the Wynn) seemed eerie and sad.

The people who work there are locals, or from nearby Guangzhou, and have real lives totally disconnected to the world of casinos. What they do is actually a performance, which requires quite an effort, so when random stuff happens, things outside their training course, they revert to their normal selves.
(As a woman visiting Japan a few years ago I was served last everywhere we went except for at a “French” restaurant where the staff performed their managers idea of “westernness” and let the ladies sit first, order first and get served first)

In a county where so many people have no running water they know how to pour Perrier. In a country where everyone packs their own toilet paper they know how to place silk napkins on the ladies’ laps.
But ask them how the slots work and they go fetch their coworker who fetches another coworker who fetches another coworker until there are no more. Ask them how come they want us to make a reservation five minutes before the restaurant opens even though there’s no one else waiting and we’re all here standing around, and they smile and ask us for our name, please. Forget about asking how come they provide wireless in the restaurant but not in the adjacent lounge area.

I was reminded of two friends we made traveling in China ten years ago, Rainbow, a single mom working in a tea shop, and Gao Bei, a twenty something that had defied her parents by leaving home and working in an ad agency. It could be them working at the Wynn, Rainbow with her designer jeans and Gao Bei in fake eyelashes, and thinking about them and their lives made my five-spice-thai-hot-sauce cocktail more than just a mandatory thing.

Alphabet Soup

Several years ago a friend of mine, who happens to be a Japanese French chef, closed his restaurant in LA and moved back to Japan. I spent the last few days he was open for business standing in the kitchen and taking notes while he worked. He ran the kitchen and his wife ran the front. No dishwasher, no sous chef, no waitress. He’s a bit of a freak. He’d often wait until he saw the customer’s face before he decided what to serve him. He’d also claim “I’m a chef, I’m nothing. I’m just using things available in the world.”
Aren’t we all.


On Monday I head to China to visit some really old Pu’er tea trees, and at the end of the trip I get to visit Koh and his wife Aki in Tokyo. This afternoon while hunting for a good notebook to bring I came across something I had written during that time:

“Alphabet soup is instructive in the same way as food writing is meaningful. Stir it around and the words are different but the taste is the same. Seared hoobidyhoo with small batched blah blah covered with a la la la reduction and baby poobahs. The language has become flat and sterile. Who doesn’t use meyer lemons, organic micro greens and first flush blooms? What does the use of tapenade, marinade, etceterade say about what the food actually tastes like and what kind of thinking has gone into the work?
One could create a series of food descriptors and spit them out on a ticker tape and people can buy them by the linear inch. Or maybe a radio program on a station called WFRY that just has a voice reading dinner entree options…”

I once watched Koh make a Pear Charlotte (and I will take credit for helping him figure out how long to make the wall of lady fingers in order for it to wrap nicely along the inside rim of the cake pan), and I asked him if it was a special lady finger recipe and he said “No, if it’s for serving with coffee I make them more crunchy, harder. This one’s a Charlotte, it’s supposed to go with the Barbara, which is heavy, and if you make it with regular lady fingers the inside is moist from the Barbara but the outside is crunchy. I don’t want your mouth to be bothered by the crunchy. The Barbara is smooth and melts in your mouth.” (Barbara = Bavarian cream) So before he puts the cream in he coats the lady fingers with sugar water and so when you bite into it the cookie is consistent all the way through. “If you want texture,” Koh said, “just add the little cut off bits of lady finger to the middle.”
That’s some good advice all around.

tea smoked duck

Many years ago when we lived in Los Feliz (and rent was $525/month for a 1 bedroom apartment), we held a garage sale and some friends came over with orange juice and vodka to liven up the sales. In fact the sales went so well (sold some nice skirts to the guy next door, and my Doc Martins went to the lady who took all of our clay pots, etc.) that we went back into the apartment many times scouring the place for more things, anything, to sell.
I had a little bit of that feeling this week after getting my sea legs with the Ibushi Gin Donabe Smoker. I trolled the kitchen wondering what else I could possibly put in that little pot belly. Soy sauce! Cod roe! Salt!

If I could only smoke one thing in the whole world however, it would be tea-smoked duck. Hands down.
OK, maybe a hard boiled egg. OK, maybe a slab of pork cheek. Well, it would be in my top three things, alone on my smoking desert island.

Here is the smoking goods: rice, lapsang souchong tea, brown sugar and pieces of cinnamon.

The duck breast is crosshatched, then marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and Shaoxing rice wine. I ran out of time so it was only marinated for two hours, but I sprinkled it with Sichuan peppercorns before searing the skin and tossing it into the smoker.

Like the communist party that promises a bowl of rice for every person, we promise a shaft of crispy skin on every slice.

Quality taste tested and approved.

donabe lifestyle

This is the famous clay pot of Banpo, a neolithic village dating back to 5000 B.C. If you get tired while carrying it, you just jab the sharp end into the ground and take a break.

This is the famous clay pot of Banpo sitting in our neighbor’s yard. If you get tired of figuring out what to do with the landscaping, you just go archeological.

(See earlier post on why this pot is genius).

Call it clay pot, Donabe, tagine or Römertopf, the idea of cooking with clay is universal. Different countries claim to have endless resources of a particular type of clay that they’ve been excavating for centuries, be it Yixing for teapots or Iga for Donabe.

Working with clay is hard, as I learned from my Yixing teapot master, and pottery has one of the slowest timelines in terms of gratification (photography used to be similar, but has since surged into the “immediate,” but pottery is still far behind others, like architecture or child rearing). What you have on the wheel is definitely not what you get when it dries, much less when you pull it out of the kiln, and let’s not even talk about glazes, which to me seems like painting with invisible ink.

As with many things, understanding clay is complicated, and often technical. A lot of people want to treat clay like it’s a non-geological material, and they just want the best pot from the best clay. Sometimes when I tell the people interested in Yixing teapots that terroir, age and technique does matter, as the material at the bottom of the bag can be different than the stuff at the top, clay being a mixture of dead animals, minerals, etc, they soon move on from their casual interest in teapots to other things like siphon coffee makers and raclette grills.

To ring in the new year we bought the Ibushi Gin Donabe Smoker and though the clay probably comes from the best part of the bag, our technique/timing needs work. Even so, our chubby La Bedaine is so cool it’s hard to screw anything up. What’s missing in the photos is the smell of Sakura wood chips being heated. Wow.

On the bottom we put a piece of opah, the middle had salmon and fennel, and the top had tiger shrimp, fennel and leeks. We should’ve cut the opah into smaller pieces, but it was easy enough to smoke it a second time until it was done. The leeks were smokey but still hard so we just sliced and panfried them in butter, no doubt a technique dating back to 5000 B.C.