Monday, November 18, 2013

Tang, Song, or Ming - Prep Your Tea in Dynasty Style

The way we prepare a cup of tea has evolved over the centuries according to the style of the times.  Professor Tadahiko Tadahashi of Tokyo Gakugei University teaches that there are three distinct trends in the early development of Chinese tea preparation. Here’s what I learned from his lecture at the 2013 Ocha Zanmai Conference on Chanoyu and Tea Cultures held at San Francisco State University.

In the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), the style was to boil tea. The Tang era is when tea came into its own as a cultural tradition in China and when Lu Yu wrote, circa 760 AD, the book “The Classic of Tea” , the first book ever about tea.  Yu detailed the Tang dynasty method of preparing tea. The style was to grind a dry tea cake into a powder and boil it in salted water.  The tea preparer carefully watched the size of the bubbles to know when to add the salt, when to stir, and when to add a reserve cup of cool water to bring down the temperature.  The preferred tea color was green, hence the teacups were made green to augment the liquid color.

Photo credit: Mason Bryant
In the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), the style was to whip the tea.  The 1049 AD book “The Record of Tea” by Cai Xiang describes the technique.  Tea preparers ground a compressed tea brick into a fine powder, mixed the powder with hot water and then whipped it with a whisk to get a frothy consistency.  The ideal color of froth was white and they liked to serve it in dark teacups to bring out the contrast.  They created artistic patterns in the froth just like the lattes served in coffee shops today.  This frothy whipped drink was the precursor to the matcha tea so popular in Japan today.

Photo credit: Miya
In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 AD), the style was to steep the tea and strain it.  In this period, the Chinese moved towards the use of the whole leaf tea as opposed to ground powder from compressed cakes.  The tea was prepared by pouring hot water over the leaves.  The Chinese took more pleasure in the variations in the color of the tea liquid than in the past. White teacups were used to better view the subtle color variations.  Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, Europeans discovered Chinese tea, adopted the Ming style of preparation and adapted it to their own pleasures.  Now you know why white colored porcelain cups are popular at British tea service!

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