This is part two of my article on the Japanese stop of our World Tea Tasting Tour. Part one was posted a few days ago.
The Japanese tea ceremony has been around for a very long time, but it was solidified into its current form in the 1500s by a man named Sen no Rikyū. He was an adherent of a philosophy called wabi-sabi, which honors and treasures simplicity, transience, asymmetry, and finding the beauty in imperfection. Rikyū applied this to the tea ceremony, developing what became known as chanoyu: the Way of Tea.
He removed unnecessary ornamentation from tearooms, typically reducing the decor to a single scroll on the wall and a flower arrangement designed to harmonize with the garden outside. Everything else in the room was functional. Chanoyu teaches four fundamental principles known as wa kei sei jaku, intended to be not only the core of the tea ceremony, but a representation of the principles to incorporate into daily life.
Wa (harmony) was his ultimate ideal. From harmony comes peace. Guest and host should be in harmony and man should strive for harmony with nature, rather than attempting to dominate nature.
Kei (respect) allows people to accept and understand others even when you do not agree with them. In a tea ceremony the guest must respect the host and the host must respect the guest, making them equals. The simplest vase should be treated as well as the most expensive, and the same politeness and purity of heart should be extended to your servant as to your master.
Sei (purity) is a part of the ritual of the tea ceremony, cleaning everything beforehand and wiping each vessel with a special cloth before using it. But that is only an outward reflection of the purity of the heart and soul that brings the harmony and respect. In accordance with wabi-cha, imperfection was to be prized here as well. To Rikyū, the ultimate expression of purity was the garden after he spent hours grooming it and several leaves settled randomly on the assiduously manicured walkway.
Finally, Jaku (tranquility) is the ultimate goal of enlightenment and selflessness. It is also the fresh beginning as you go back with fresh perspective to examine the way you have chosen to implement harmony, respect, and purity into your life.
There is a long list of implements that are used in the preparation of matcha, which is the powdered tea used in the tea ceremony. The four that I concentrated on in this class were the bowl, scoop, whisk, and caddy. It could be argued that others are as important, or even more important, but I chose to focus on the ones that are used at home when you make matcha, even if you are not participating in a tea ceremony. The link in the slide above is a great place to learn all about the ceremony itself, and the site contains a detailed list of chanoyu utensils.
In preparing matcha, the bamboo scoop is used to take tea powder and place it in the bowl. After adding water, the whisk is used not only to mix the powder, but to aerate the mixture, leaving it slightly frothy.
Of all of the tools of chanoyu, the bowl is probably the most personal.
We were lucky enough to have Karin Solberg, who created the matcha bowls we sell at our store, talk about the process of creating and decorating the bowls. Karin has done some lovely work, and we enjoyed learning from her. There is a picture showing some of her bowls in part 1 of this article.
I have said many times before that tea is a very personal thing. Nobody can tell you what tastes good to you. The “right” way for me to enjoy a particular tea could be quite different than the “right” way for you to enjoy that same tea. To Rikyū, however, the tea ceremony was not about what made your matcha taste the best. It was all about using the ritual to clear your mind and help you to see things more clearly. It was about achieving harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.
Outside of the ceremony, however, I would argue that your way of relaxing is the right way of relaxing, whether it means sitting on your front porch with a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey, preparing a delicate silver needle tea to enjoy with a friend, or laying back in the bathtub with a fragrant jasmine green tea. Tea should be a pleasure, not a chore, and the ceremony is about sharing that pleasure with your friends and guests.
If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information).
I rarely sweeten my tea, with a few notable exceptions (chai just doesn’t taste like chai if I don’t add some honey and milk to it). That doesn’t, however, mean I have a problem with you sweetening your tea. I’ve written before about tea absolutists (a.k.a. “tea Nazis”) and their attitudes. I hope I never become one.
What does kind of bother me, however, is preparing a cup of a new and interesting tea for a guest and having them sweeten it before they taste it. For some people, though, they know how they like their particular favorite tea, and they assume that’s how they’ll like all tea. I think it indicates a general unawareness of the breadth of flavors in different varieties of tea.
A friend of mine came by the tea bar the other day, and I was excited to pull out a new tea for her to try. She was born in Ireland, and lived in the British Isles for most of her early life. I know she likes strong black tea, so I figured she’d really like this Royal Tajiri. I asked her, “would you like to taste it plain before you add your milk?”
She looked at me like I was nuts and said, “plain is with milk.”
Back on the subject of sweetening, times are changing. Used to be, a tea bar or coffee shop could put out a bowl with some of the white packets (sugar), some of the blue packets of aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal), and some of the pink packets of saccharin (Sweet’N’Low), and everyone was happy. Expectations have gone up, though. Now, you really need to have the green packets of stevia (Truvia/PureVia), yellow packets of sucralose (Splenda), and brown packets of natural brown sugar. And perhaps a jar of honey, a jar of agave nectar, and a jar of pure maple syrup.
Some want the most “natural” sweetener they can get. Others have a particular sweetener that they like the taste of. Others are primarily worried about the calories. For those who wish to experiment, I’ve been trying something a little different lately.
Stevia is a plant native to Paraguay that’s now being grown in a bunch of countries. It has a number of sweet components to its leaves, and the most potent (Rebaudioside A) is the base compound used to produce the powder in the green packets. That powder has a slight but noticeable flavor, which you’ll definitely pick up in a delicate tea (not that any of you would actually sweeten a delicate tea, would you?).
I’m now stocking dried raw stevia leaf in the tea bar. I use it — quite sparingly — in a couple of my house blends to add a touch of sweetness, and I’m starting to get more customers asking me to drop a pinch of stevia leaf in the pot when I’m brewing their tea. The flavor from the raw leaf is different from the flavor you get from the processed powder. Is it any more “natural” than the powder? I really don’t think so. But it feels different to add some leaves to your infusion instead of stirring a powder from a packet into the finished tea.
Going back to my mantra: whatever method of preparation works for you is the right one — for you.