Two Lumps, Please

One of the things I am missing the most since we've left Turkey is çay – pronounced “chai”. Çay at its most basic is black tea, but at the same time it's so much more than that. If there's one thing I had to pick to represent Turkish culture as we've experienced it, it would be çay. 

To make çay, a double boiler consisting of two stacked pots of differing sizes is employed. The bottom larger pot is filled with water and brought to a boil. Some of the boiling water is poured into the smaller pot on top that contains the tea leaves. The heat is kept high as the tea leaves steep and the water continues to boil. After a few minutes this thickened tea liquor is poured into small tulip-shaped glasses, and the strength of the tea can be adjusted individually by adding more hot water from the bottom pot. Çay is served extra hot, always in small glasses, a ceramic dish and a spoon, with sugar cubes on the side, and never with milk.

People drink çay all the time. At five in the morning on the farm we'd be greeted by the clink-clink-clink of a spoon being stirred in a glass in our next door neighbor's kitchen. You can while away the hours on a one lira glass of çay in a cafe while playing backgammon with a friend or reading the paper, we saw scores of old men in every town passing time that way. We'd drink it with lunch, breakfast and dinner. We'd drink it at in between times, and were offered it every time we visited someone's house. We'd watch men with trays filled with those tulip-shaped glasses weave their way through the crowd in the bazaar in Istanbul, delivering it to each shop. We drank it (yes, in tulip-shaped glasses) on the twenty minute commuter ferry past the Golden Horn while watching the sun set.

To be honest I didn't get it at first. I thought, “it's so hot, why would you want to drink tea?” And the first time I tried it, I wasn't thrilled with the taste. Because it's been steeped for so long the tea ends up being rather bitter. And ran counter to everything the tea lady in Beijing told us about making tea! But çay is everywhere, you can't avoid it. Two sugarcubes seemed to mellow it out a bit, and after a while we got addicted. It's actually refreshing when it's hot out, and I always looked forward to having some çay with a meal, especially breakfast. (Have we talked about Turkish breakfast yet? Bread, cheeses, olives, honey, cucumbers tomatoes, boiled eggs? Still my favorite.) Perhaps we also got hooked on the ritual as well. We'd get mesmerized by the clinking of the spoon and watching the sugarcubes dissolve into the tea. It's a social glue, a way to kill time while waiting for the dolmuş, stretching out dinner just a bit more, an excuse to people watch, a moment of relaxation.

We ended up liking çay so much that we stuffed an entire “crystal” tea set into our backpack. Next time we'll have to figure out how to bring one of those double boilers home.


All the Tea in China

What is an experience in China without tea? We arrived back in Beijing and we tagged along with some American acupuncturists to visit a tea shop and we learned more about tea in one afternoon than I think we've known in our entire lives. The shop is owned by a family that grows, harvests and packages their own oolong leaves in Fujian province, but they also carry other types of teas like green tea and pu'er. They were the most gracious people and we sampled more than ten teas for four hours! It very much had the feel of a wine tasting without the getting-drunk part. Here's a bit of what we learned.

First off, there are many varieties of tea that come from different plants, and within that different grades. By tasting them side by side, we really got a sense of the different flavors and mouthfeels. You have to follow different brewing times and methods depending on the type of tea. In general, you do not soak the leaves for very long, and you drain the steeped water into a separate glass teapot. One brew/pour of the leaves is called a pao, and how many paos you can get out of a batch of leaves is dependent upon the quality of the tea. You also need the right equipment – those giant English teapots will not do, you need much smaller ceramic teapots or containers to do the initial brewing and small glass teapots to hold the brewed tea. If you do acquire one of the small ceramic pots, you must keep it soaked on a regular basis to keep the pot in good condition, and it gets better with age and usage. 

All tea (except pu'erh) should be stored in airtight containers in the freezer to preserve freshness, and this should keep the tea for about two years. Check the date of harvest to make sure you're buying the freshest tea possible!

Oolong tea is a relatively light tasting tea, somewhere in between black tea and green tea. Generally it comes from Fujian province or Taiwan. We tried four varieties of oolong, Golden Guanyin, two grades of Iron Guanyin (roasted over heat), and one baked oolong. The high quality Iron Guanyin was hands down our favorite, as it had a nice balance of fragrance and smoothness. It's also the tea that the tea shop family prefers to drink in their home. Golden Guanyin had a strong fragrant aroma and was more astringent, but apparently smokers and other people who have no tastebuds prefer that one. The baked oolong is preferred mostly by old people as it has less caffeine. Oolong is harvested twice a year, once in May and once in October. The May harvest is considered more fragrant while the October harvest is smoother and more highly valued.
Brewing temp: Boiling water

Brewing method: Use the ceramic cup with a lid, it's about the size and shape of a regular cup. Use about 3 tablespoons of leaves or so. DO NOT drink the first pao, you must rinse the leaves first. Wait about 40 seconds after the first pao before you do the next pao, and make sure all the water has been drained out after each pao. On the second and subsequent paos, wait a few seconds and then pour the brewed tea out into the glass teapot and serve. You can get about 8 paos out of good quality Oolong. Also, you can keep the cap on the ceramic container at an angle.

Green Tea (Dragonswell)
The higher quality dragonswell tea comes from up in the mountains, as the air quality is better. The first harvest of the year on Ching Ming (around April 5th) produces the best and most expensive tea, and as the season goes on the price and quality gets cheaper. We definitely preferred the higher quality mountain tea as it was less astringent. Green tea is considered to have cooling properties, so too much can damage your stomach. It's good to drink in the summer, and you can do a cold steep in spring water overnight in the fridge.
Brewing temp: 70 degrees celsius (boil water and set aside for a few minutes before pouring over the leaves)
Brewing method: Use an open container, like a tall glass, as covering the tea leaves will cook them and change the flavor. So don't cover it! You don't need to rinse the leaves the first time either. Steep for a minute or two and drain. 

Jasmine tea is considered a rather common and cheap tea, as any kind of tea leaf can be used to make it and it's processed, thus not as pure. It doesn't really come in grades, rather just in strength – strong or mild. The tea leaves are sent to Guanxi for the fermentation process because the tea leaves have to be mixed with the jasmine flowers at the flowers' peak freshness and those flowers from Guanxi are held as the most fragrant in all of China. The tea leaves and flowers are smothered together and then baked to remove the fluid. The jasmine tea actually came off as too flowery after trying the oolong. It was almost bubble gum like in flavor and aroma after tasting the oolongs.
Brewing temp: boiling water
Brewing method: Use about two grams of leaves in a small ceramic teapot. It's a short steep,similar to oolong, but it's a bit more forgiving. make sure you cover it when you're steeping. You can probably get about six paos out of one batch of leaves.
This is a dark, fermented tea that gets better with age unlike the previous teas – it's like the Barolo of the tea world, with less risk. The tea leaves come from Yunnan province, the one we purchased was from the Xishuangbanna area in southern Yunnan. It has a strong, yet smooth flavor and can be the most expensive – the older the tea, the more expensive it gets. To save money, you can buy a raw pu'erh and save it for a few years (at least three). It comes in two varieties, raw and cooked, and it's sun dried so this gives pu'erh a particular flavor. It absorbs odors, so make sure you don't store it in the kitchen. Anywhere else will do, literally a corner of your living room is alright. It's a great tea to serve to guests, because it lasts for many paos (15 times for raw, 25 times for cooked) so you can drink it all day and not change the leaves. Pu'erh is also good for your health as it reputedly lowers cholesterol, and it's excellent for old people to drink and to drink in the winter, as it's considered to have warming properties. 
Brewing temp: boiling water
Brewing method: Use a small ceramic teapot and do two rinses before you start drinking. In the first two rinses, make sure the chunks of tea leaves are broken up so that the water steeps evenly. Also, do not pour the tea out from very high. Do NOT cover the teapot when you steep, and it's a quick steep like oolong (a few seconds). Only use the cover to pour the tea out into the clear glass teapot, make sure you drain all the water and uncover the ceramic pot after you're done pouring. 

The name of the tea shop is Lin Xiu Ji, it's located in the tea street. (they picked us up in a van so I really have no idea how to get there.) Their cell number is 1339 197 8916, but no one who answers the phone really speaks English. You can also email them at, the person who checks that email address speaks some English.