I came across a fascinating article the other day with pictures (and short captions) of tea as they drink it in 22 countries around the world. Obviously, picking one tea — and one style of drinking it — to represent an entire country is difficult, but they did an admirable job of it. What I appreciated, though, is that it got me thinking about the way we experience tea from other countries.
I was rather distressed that the caption they chose for the U.S. was:
Iced tea from the American South is usually prepared from bagged tea. In addition to tea bags and loose tea, powdered “instant iced tea mix” is available in stores.
Eek! As much as I enjoy a cup of iced tea on a hot day, I rarely stoop to tea bags, and never to “instant iced tea mix.” If you are one of my international readers (when I last checked, about half of my blog’s visitors were outside the U.S.), please don’t judge us based on that article!
Despite that, the article made me think about something: When we experiment with the drinks from other countries, we usually prepare them our own way. Yerba mate, for example. The traditional method of making mate in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay is in a gourd, with water that Americans would call “warm.” Americans trying out the drink usually make it just like a cup of tea, using boiling water in a cup or mug.
With tea, many of us would have difficulty drinking a cup of tea like they do in another country. Follow that link above and look at their description of Tibetan tea (#5 on the list). I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montana, I can’t easily lay my hands on yak butter.
Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to research how people eat and drink in other countries and try to duplicate the experience. Even if you’re not doing it exactly right at first, it makes you feel connected with other people and their cultures.
When my wife and I were dating, we discovered a Moroccan restaurant that we both loved: Menara in San Jose, California. They had fabulous food, belly dancers, authentic music, and — of course — Moroccan mint tea.
Kathy and I loved enjoyed watching them pour the tea as much as we enjoyed drinking it. We sat cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The server would place the ornate glasses — yes, glasses for hot tea — on the table and hold the metal teapot high in the air to pour the tea.
I am not a big fan of mint teas, generally, and I do not sweeten my tea, but I absolutely loved the tea at Menara (and no matter what my wife tells you, it had nothing to do with being distracted by the belly dancer).
When I made Moroccan mint tea at home, it never came out the same. There was always something off about the taste. I tried different blends, but just couldn’t duplicate the flavor. Then I decided to try duplicating the technique.
Take a look at that picture to the right (a marvelously-staged and shot picture from chelle marie). Look closely at the glass. That, as it turns out, is what I was missing. Pouring the tea from a height does more than just look good; it aerates the tea, which changes the way it tastes and smells.
You’ll find the same thing with a well-whisked bowl of matcha (Japan), a traditionally-made cup of masala chai (India), a frothy-sweet boba tea (Taiwan), or a cold, refreshing Southern sweet tea (USA).
If there’s a tea shop or restaurant in your area that makes the kind of tea you want to try, get it there first. Otherwise, read a few blog posts, watch a few videos, check out a good book, and give it your best try.
Tea is more than just a beverage; it is a window into the cultures that consume it. Embrace the differences. Enjoy the differences. Enjoy the tea!
I have some strange friends. One of them is a rather … unique … tea blogger from Australia named Robert Godden (his blog, for those who dare to look, is Lord Devotea’s Tea Spouts). One day last week, I signed on to Facebook, only to see that Robert had tagged me in a post. That’s never a good sign. I followed the link to find this: My first thought was, how do you punctuate that? I imagine a restaurant reviewer getting a call from her editor. “Yeah? What do you want?” The editor responds with, “Fine words. Butter. No parsnips.” Check. Got it. Like her other reviews, this one should be fine words. Maybe the next issue of the magazine has a Paula Deen theme: every article must include butter. And the editor probably hates parsnips. It makes sense — in the same kind of twisted way that any idea of Robert’s makes sense. But what does all of this have to do with tea bloggers? Should I write about Tibetan yak butter tea? There aren’t any parsnips in Tibetan yak butter tea. But then it hit me. He’s using “butter” as a verb. Buttering parsnips is a good thing. You want to butter your parsnips. But you can’t do it just with fine words. It requires action. Fine words alone ain’t going to butter any parsnips. That does mean something in the tea world. There are all kinds of ways to promote tea. You can describe a tea using fine words: “This astonishing infusion has sylvan aroma, full buttery mouthfeel with floral overtones, notes of antebellum parsnip and yak musk, and a mild nutty aftertaste.” You can pitch the benefits of a tea using fine words: “This health-laden tea is Ethical Tea Partnership certified, loaded with theanine and antioxidants, 100% organic, and picked only by virgins on the full moon. Oh, and the label was drawn by a Seattle artist who dresses only in all-natural fair-trade hemp.” You can market the tea shop that sells a tea using fine words: “Our tea house was founded in 1492 by two monks and a tea farmer. We have buyers in 17 countries who hand-select every single leaf that appears in our shop. Every one of our stock clerks has a PhD in botany and is an ITMA Certified Tea Sommelier™.” But none of those fine words are what really butters your parsnips. What’s important is whether you like the tea, not whether the barTEAsta is a stunningly-good-looking expert in selling tea. You don’t want to get sucked in by all of the fine words on the label, buy a $20 bag of fine tea, and then have it rot in the pantry because you don’t want to drink it. Instead, buy your tea from a shop that lets you taste it before you commit. Buy a cup, or avail yourself of a free sample if they offer one. If buying tea online is your thing, ask if you can get a sample with your next order. If you’re buying $50 worth of tea, I doubt they’ll begrudge you a tablespoon or two of some other blend — especially if you’re a regular. Don’t ask them to send you a sample for free if it’s not piggybacked on an order, though. That’s not nice. Even if it’s just ten grams of tea, they would still have to pay for the packaging and shipping. Taste it. Enjoy it. Make sure it’s a tea that you’ll actually drink a big bag of. Then make your purchasing decision. Read the fine words. Listen to the sales pitch. But remember, the proof is in the pudding — err — parsnips. (Just click on the picture above for a buttered parsnip recipe)
While writing this blog post, I was drinking tieguanyin (a.k.a. Iron Goddess of Mercy), a soft, flavorful oolong tea. I brewed this cup for 3:00 using boiling water. I often do it with cooler water, but I’m feeling saucy today. Not saucy enough to add yak butter, but saucy nonetheless. In my not-so-humble opinion, the second infusion is better than the first.
POSTSCRIPT: Posts from the other bloggers that have answered the challenge are starting to appear. I shall add each to this list as I discover it:
- Robert Godden: thedevotea.teatra.de/2015/02/27/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- Jo Johnson: scandaloustea.teatra.de/2015/02/27/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- A. C. Cargill: accargill.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- Rachel Rachana Carter: iheartteas.teatra.de/2015/02/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- Jen Piccotti: internationalteamoment.blogspot.com/2015/02/a-fine-words-butter-no-parsnips-moment.html
- Ken Knowles: lahikmajoe.me/2015/03/01/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- Nicole Schwartz: amazonv.blogspot.com/2015/02/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips.html
- Naomi Rosen: www.joysteaspoon.com/blog/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips-ummm-what
- Jackie Davenport: cupsofteawithjackie.teatra.de/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/