Tuesday, November 18, 2014

3rd Annual San Francisco International Tea Festival

The 3rd annual SF International Tea Festival was held this past Sunday in the iconic Ferry Building of San Francisco.  There was quite an enthusiastic showing of vendors. Some came from afar, but most were small, California based, specialty tea companies.  Here are some of the tables I stopped by…

Ghograjan Tea Estate, Assam, India

The Imperial Tea Court, San Francisco, CA

Tea Xotics, El Dorado Hills, CA  

Chado Tea Room, Los Angeles and Pasadena, CA

The Tea Room (tea infused chocolate!), San Leandro, CA

Red Circle Tea, San Francisco, CA

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Eat your tea!...Laphet Thoke

Laphet Thoke - tea meal unmixed
At the Rangoon Ruby restaurant in Palo Alto, I had the best tea and didn’t even drink it!  I couldn’t actually drink it because it was a salad.  While eating tea leaves is not common in most parts of the world, it is a popular tradition in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in the form of tea leaf salad.  There, tea leaf salad, Laphet Thoke, is a typical part of family meals.[1]

Palaung woman prepares to ferment tea leaves
Photo credit: Claudia
“Laphet” in Burmese means pickled tea and “Thoke” means mixture or salad.  Laphet is made by fermenting fresh tea leaves.  Newly picked tea leaves get steamed for about an hour, then spread on mats and hand pressed.  The leaves are then packed tightly into a container (traditionally a bamboo lined pit) and covered with stones or another weight to compress the leaves and squeeze out air.  They are then left that way to ferment for several months to as long as a year.[2]  Laphet as a delicacy was originally created and produced by the Palaung people in the Shan region of northern Myanmar.[3]  Sixty percent of the tea produced in Myanmar still comes from this region.[4]

Laphet Thoke - tea meal mixed
The salad I ate was brought to the table in the traditional way, which is on a single plate with separate piles of additional ingredients - nuts, seeds, lettuce…  It was then tossed together and served.  The flavors were layered and complex with a sweet and sour tang and a little bit of a spicy after taste.  I loved the jumble of textures - soft, crunchy and crisp elements.  It was wonderful.

Laphet Thoke can come in many variations.  Here’s one recipe you might like:

1/3 cup fermented green tea leaves
4 cloves of garlic (chopped)
1/4 cup peanut oil
2 tablespoons peanuts (coarsely chopped)
2 tablespoons cooked lentils
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (toasted)
2 tablespoons dried shrimp
1/2 lime (sliced or juiced)
1/3 cup shredded cabbage or lettuce

Sauté the garlic in 2 teaspoons of the oil until it starts to turn brown. Remove from heat.  Combine with the tea leaves and the remaining oil in a bowl and knead. Let the mixture sit at least one hour or until leaves soften.  Serve with the other ingredients.

[1] http://www.myanmars.net/myanmar-culture/myanmar-laphet.htm
[2] “The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World,” by Sandor Ellix Katz, 2012
[3] http://www.myanmarburma.com/attraction/549/the-Palaung

[4] https://www.dvb.no/news/tea-industry-in-steep-decline-burma-myanmar/40652

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Science Fiction Novel about a Tea Master

If the world runs out of water, make my last cup into tea please.

Click image to go to Amazon.com
It’s not every day that I come across a book that blends my love of tea with my love of science fiction.  With beautiful prose, Finnish author Emmi Itaranta tells a dark tale of a futuristic society where water is scarce and expensive but the tradition of tea survives.  Memory of Water is a dystopian novel about tea masters in a post-apocalyptic future where the water is strictly rationed and the penalty for violating the water quota can be execution. 
The main character is Noria, a seventeen year old born long after the “oil wars” and after the earth’s climatic change that resulted in the loss of most of the world’s drinking water.  She lives in the former Scandinavia, which has become a province controlled by a totalitarian military regime which seeks to own and control all remaining potable potable water supplies.  Noria studies the fine art of the tea ceremony and is to inherit her father’s distinguished position as the village tea master.  Noria learns that Tea Masters have secret knowledge of hidden water sources.

Tea fans will appreciate that author Itaranta gave a good deal of detail on tea preparation.  For example, Noria heats water in a cauldron and watches for the first 10 bubbles of the boiling water.  In real life, the Chinese have traditionally called this stage of boiling water “shrimp eyes.” Shrimp eyes appear at a temperature of 155°-176°F, which is ideal for delicate green tea. [1]

Itaranta’s tea ceremony has a strictly prescribed etiquette and philosophy and is modeled after real life’s Japanese tea ceremony.  In one scene, Noria silently disapproves when certain guests discuss politics during the tea ceremony.  Similarly, in the Japanese tea ceremony, guests are to refrain from talking about topics unrelated to the tea ceremony.  In another scene, Noria is chastised by a senior tea master for opening a second window in the tea house where by rule only one window is to be left open.  She is reminded that this rule is so that guests can “take pleasure in the scent of the tea and the humidity of air created by the water.” [2]  Noria explains her choice to open a second window was for the comfort of her guests and was in fact in accordance with the philosophy of the tea ceremony, which is about “embracing change and accepting the fleeting quality of the world around us.” 

Will Noria embrace change or be bound by tradition of the tea master in a world where the military’s designs on water are at odds with survival for all?  I enjoyed finding out and hope the author decides to make a sequel.
[1]  http://www.teadreams.net/2013/08/some-like-it-hot.html 
[2] Water of Memory, Emmi Itaranta Chapter 8, page 98.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Afternoon Tea at The Golden Tea Garden

Sitting in an oasis of beauty, I had a British style Afternoon Tea service with a friend at the Golden Tea Garden in Hayward, CA.  The owner Beneba Thomas has spared no effort in bringing the tranquility of a lovely private outdoor garden to her inside dining area.  There’s a grand trickling water fountain at the entry and live flowers everywhere along with rose petals (not real ones!) strewn about the floor.  A garden mural covers an entire wall and the white garden furniture is a perfect touch to make this inside area feel like a garden.  And like a real garden, the décor changes in part with the seasons.

Tea was served in a beautiful variety of fine porcelain tea cups, saucers, and pots with floral patterns.  Lavish displays of even more exquisite teaware appeared on extra tables and garden benches.  Only some of the teaware was for sale, some was part of the owner's private collection.
The charming owner, Beneba, was there serving her guests when I visited. Along with fine teaware, Beneba knows her teas!  There are nearly 200 options, the menu serves as a basic guide, but Beneba has even more teas available upon request.  I was pleasantly surprised to find she had one of my favorites, a ginseng oolong which is not very common in U.S. tea houses.

Sara & owner Beneba
The Golden Tea Garden also hosts events.  The day I went, I joined a class in the etiquette of Afternoon Tea from the British tradition.  I learned that there are two traditions of tea service taken in the afternoons, one called “High Tea,” and the other “Low Tea.”  High Tea originated in Britain as a late day tea and meal break for the working class, with the term “high” presumably because they had their tea break while sitting at regular sized tables.  This would be as opposed to the “low” tables of Low Tea, which originated as casual social meetings between friends of the upper class where the tea was served on low drawing room tables. The term "Afternoon Tea" typically refers to Low Tea, which nowadays is served on tables of any height.

Whether high or low, I’ll be back either way for more tea at the Golden Tea Garden.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Mango Bubble Tea at Zencha, Columbus OH
In the window of ZenCha Tea Salon there was a sign  that said "Wanted - Tea Ambassadors."  If I lived in Columbus Ohio, I’d consider applying.  “Enthusiasm” in learning about tea and in promoting tea and tea culture is what ZenCha seeks in its tea ambassadors, a.k.a. tea support staff.  That sounds like me!   

ZenCha on High St, Columbus, OH
ZenCha believes that tea is a common bond between ethnic and cultural diversity across the globe.  To further this common bond, ZenCha offers teas from all over the world and also blends teas to capture the styles of the some of the major tea regions.  For its “Arabic series” of tea, ZenCha combines black tea with spices and fruits found in Arabia.  My favorite from this series is Cardimon Ginger and I buy packets of it in loose leaf to bring home.

ZenCha in Bexley, Columbus, OH

Recently at ZenCha, I ordered a mango bubble tea made the old fashion way, as explained by ZenCha owner Jean Wu.   Bubble tea is sweet latte tea with a number of tapioca “bubbles” or balls in it.  Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and is extremely popular there today.  Zencha’s bubble tea is still made from real brewed tea, real milk, and real natural ingrediants, unlike some bubble tea sellers today, who now use food dye, powdered tea and powdered milk.

ZenCha inside in Bexley, Columbus OH
With a tea philosophy based on the principles of “Harmony, Respect, Purity, and Tranquility,” ZenCha seeks to create environments where customers feel a sense of relaxation for a “Zen” tea experience.  I found that the garden in the window of their High St. location and the art work and soothing colors at their Bexley location both lead me to Zen tea moments.  It must be working for other customers too - judging by the way they linger     
[1]  http://zen-cha.com/philosophy.html 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fame and the 700 Year Old Tea Jar

The "Chigusa", Antique Tea Jar

How did this modest jar get bestowed a name and why is it so famous that it has its own exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.?  Tea is the answer. 

On display at the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art, is a 700 year old tea jar named the Chigusa.  I went to its exhibit, the “Chigusa and the Art of Tea,” which is showing in the Sackler Gallery of Art through July 2014.  This big brown ceramic jar (16.5 inches tall) with no extraordinary decorative design or etchings was created in China as a mere storage jar during the Southern Song or Yuan dynasty, 1260 -1368.  [1

The jar was shipped to Japan where tea masters used it to hold loose leaf tea.  In Japan, the Chigusa held precious Tencha (sweet or new leaf tea) used for making matcha during the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The tea ceremony in ancient times was reserved for royalty, high Samurai, visiting dignitaries, and influential tea merchants.  [2]  This humble tea jar rose to become one of the most revered objects of Japan’s chanoyu (art of tea) culture. 

We know this because not only did Japanese tea masters keep tea diaries detailing every aspect of their tea ceremonies, including centerpieces, flooring and the jars that held their tea, they named their tea pieces.  The first record of the Chigusa is in a 1586 diary.  Since then, records show that the Chigusa’s “surface has been admired and caressed by a who's who of Japan's cultural giants from the 16th century forward,” said James Ulak, deputy director of the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries.  [3]  

By virtue of the tea fans who have used it, seen it and written about it over the centuries, the Chigusa has become in essence a celebrity tea jar.  If I name my own personal tea box and blog about it, will my box be as famous as the Chigusa in 700 years?  Here’s a photo of it…its name is Joey.

"Joey" the Tea Box

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