By Fred Lit Yu
When I sit in front of my bamboo tray, the red porcelain tea vessel and accoutrements lined up before me, the soothing hum of hot water coming to a full boil, I don’t ask myself whether I plan to drink green tea, oolong, or red. Sure, there are hundreds of varieties, but the desire for a specific taste, a particular outcome, has already been decided for me. I reach for the High Mountain Oolong, an exquisite Taiwanese tea rich with florals. It is smooth and milky, green and sweet, but not grassy like spring green teas. It is what my soul needs; my mind does not interfere. I dump an exact number of leaves into the porcelain vessel and bring the oolong to life with a quick splash of hot water before draining it and discarding the rinse cycle. The aroma fills the room. I am about to make the perfect drink, a journey I look forward to many times a day.
Over the years that I have been drinking tea, I have shot documentaries depicting China and Taiwan’s vast tea farms. I have met with tea merchants and connoisseurs around the world and interviewed farmers devastated by rapidly changing climate as well as tea scientists in state-of-the-art facilities whose crops were immune to sub-zero temperatures. I have even innovated a cuisine using artisan teas in French sauces. It has been a long journey, and now the unique nuances of tea, its depth and character and provocations battling for position on my tongue every morning, leave a lingering aftermath about which I could write volumes. Still, tea has proven to be more than that.
Tea has been critical not only to my physical health but also to my mental health. Its health benefits are old news. Tea polyphenols eliminate free radicals and help prevent cancer. I have recited this mantra many times. I believe it is true, but I am no longer excited by it. Tea has been good for my daily life, not only some distant future. I can certainly talk myself into drinking more tea for a better tomorrow, but that gets old.
What is the point of following a tea ritual for five minutes a day? We load a precise number of leaves into a tea vessel without measuring. We have done this before. We pour in the hot water, never scalding. We already know the water temperature without scientific instruments. We have done this before as well. We swirl the water and then dispose of it, and we unleash the aroma and subtleties when we partially uncover the lid, exposing the wet leaves for the first time. We inhale the fragrance. It is magic. Then, we add more hot water, and we move the leaves while it steeps. How long do the leaves remain in motion? Until we see the right color in the liquid, the elixir we call tea. We no longer have to think about what color we desire. We just know. The hotter the water, the less time, or fewer leaves. The fewer leaves, the more time, or hotter water. The water would never be too hot or too cold. The balance is in the gut, and the proof is in the shade of the elixir that we watch with interest, and disinterest. The right color will come, and when it does, we pour the magical extraction.
The aroma envelops us. We are about to taste a drink like no other. And then we forget what we did.
What happened? Absolutely nothing. We followed a routine, a ritual that brings us a pleasant experience we look forward to every day. We stopped thinking and planning, gave up choice and control. When we drink tea, we give our minds a few minutes of vacation every day, several times a day, free to let go of the outcome, free to embrace repetition, so we don’t need to think about our beverage before enjoying its glory and tradition. There is no preference for cream or sugar or almond milk here. We renounce choice when we drink tea like this, and when we do, our minds calm for a well-deserved break.
Every real hiatus for our overactive minds is a luxury for the soul, whether that means practicing deep meditation or simply brewing the perfect cup of tea. Tea has made me calmer, more logical, and has prepared my mind to spring into action after some rest. It has helped me let go of small conflicts and nuisances. When I sit back and sip on a fine oolong, I understand it was all part of life’s ritual, after all.
Fred Yu went to film school but ended up working in a bank, yet he remains a martial arts junkie who welcomes any new martial arts knowledge that comes his way. Along with the Wuxia novel THE LEGEND OF SNOW WOLF and the instructional book YIN YANG BLADES released on June 2018. THE ORCHID FARMER’S SACRIFICE (The Red Crest Book 1) premiered on Amazon.com October 5, 2021 including Kindle & audiobook editions. Part 2: The Commoner’s Destiny will debut April 5, 2022.
My journey with artisan teas began over 14 years ago, when I passed by a fancy teashop during my first trip to Beijing and peered in at the locals drinking tea out of tiny porcelain cups. Servers in traditional robes stopped by each table at frequent intervals to steep the tea in pretty little clay pots, meticulously emptying and straining each infusion before serving their customers. What struck me most, when gazing into that part of Chinese culture completely unfamiliar to me, was the demeanor of the customers. They were not joking and laughing and slapping their knees like beer drinkers in a bar. They were not speaking at high speeds, their words colliding with each other in rapid conversation as you might see in a coffee house. The tea drinkers were calm, contemplating, almost detached. The slow, multi-step process of steeping the tea seemed to be as enjoyable to them as the tea itself.
After many years, I gradually became familiar with the sophisticated world of artisan teas, the many intricacies behind each tea varietal, the complex nuances emerging from minor differences in water temperature, timing, vessel, and tea leaf movement. The number of different aromas and tastes were mind-boggling. The same plant grown from the same soil, when processed differently, could yield an infinite variation of notes and fragrances.
Much later, while shooting a documentary on artisan tea farmers in China and Taiwan, sipping on a rare tea known as Honey Jialong, an interesting thought came to me. The dark grape notes in the tea were well balanced by a honey undertone. What if I extracted these aromas and cooked them with a lobster browned in butter and deglazed with cognac? Would the butter and the Honey Jialong support each other? What if I drank a light merlot with such a lobster dish? At that moment, I could not wait to return home to try my lobster dish. I decided then that I would use tea not only as a beverage, but as a source of contrast and fragrance in my sauces.
Tea is not like coffee. It’s not like soda or juice or any of the beverages that humans created to overwhelm their senses. Tea is subtle, complicated; it caresses our senses while also demanding acknowledgment.
And tea, unlike other beverages, is very hard to cook with. Concentrated tea becomes bitter. Light teas are easily overwhelmed by other flavors. Can we hide the bitterness with sugar every time? Can we avoid powerful spices so the complex aromas of so many tea varietals can be tasted in every dish?