Now that its autumn, my favourite way to not hate the cold weather is to sip on a lot of hot tea. “If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points” , says George Orwell. I agree. In my series, learn to cook, i want to start with tea. I am an avid tea drinker. And here are a few of my favorites i want to share. Part two will contain rituals and techniques to make tea.
The task of Zen, the task of Tea, is to be entirely in the moment. Dogen, in his Chiji shingi, reminds us that when we are cooking or washing the dishes, we are not to be bothered with thoughts of what we will do next, worried about the value of our stocks and bonds, or even envisioning the Buddhist saints. We are to be single-mindedly engaged in what we are doing at this very moment. In the Way of swordsmanship, the feet, hands, body, mind, and sword must all be manifested in a single stroke.
– Wilson, William Scott. The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea.
A few years ago, i was diagnosed with ‘stomach irritation from drinking too much black coffee’. And my Chinese labmates suggested drinking tea as an alternative. I liked the idea and started trying out boxed tea bags. A year later, i met Peng Zang. Peng was a visiting scholar from China who is a practicing Buddhist and has vested interest in martial arts. He practiced many wellness routines. And these routines were very bizarre to me, but only for a short period of time before they got to me. I would see him set an alarm on the phone, that would prompt him to get up from his desk every 50 minutes, to take a walk. We would see him do some martial art-sy moves in his office, which became a spectacle around the lab. And brew a fresh pot of tea during his ‘breaks’. All these were justified because of how brilliant he was in his field of expertise. One other thing i noticed was how he took care of his heirloom cast iron tea pot and the teas he used. It was always loose leaves or flowers of sort. And the research started.
Firstly, the importance he gave to movement and giving himself breaks. Secondly, the Cast Iron. Finally, the tea. There was something very earthy as well as ritualistic about using loose tea. You get to pick the quantity, quality and get creative with mixing your own blend. Pay attention to the nuances of drinking tea, which is Zen in every sense of the world ! Three years later, i have accumulated a tea box as well as some knowledge about how it should be done. To the point i fantasize about attending/hosting Japanese Tea Ceremonies.
A Few Varieties I Adore
Note: I added a few links to finding the products mentioned. American mainstream stores have over priced tea bags, which according to me are not sustainable and kill the soul of tea. There are a few places online to source great quality organic teas like Harney and Sons, Bellocq, etc. But if ordering online, you pay for shipping and taxes. Teas are native to China, Japan and India. They produce some of the best teas. If going for the non organic kind, Ebay is one of the best sources. There is free shipping by most vendors and all the links included are been tried and tested by me over the years. They are great quality for the price. Next best is local Asian grocery stores. You find the popular tried and tested kinds. The only downside is not being able to read the labels. Tag along with an Asian friend, for help.
Green teas from China and Japan are pride of the traditional tea producers. These are the teas that are most popular in the world and has the highest sales volumes in the recent year, over taking the popularity of Black tea. Young tea leaves are picked, wilted and heated either with steam or dry cooking to kill the enzymes in the leaf that causes oxidation. It is high in anti-oxidants and is attributed to increased metabolism, weight loss, anti-aging benefits, etc. It is my afternoon pick me up that i drink after my lunch. In general, the subtle, vegetative flavor and aroma of most green tea is well suited to mild or subtly-flavored foods, such as seafood, rice, salads or chicken. This kind is my go-to easy tea. For when i want a routine and keep awake in the lab.
Shop: 1 , 2
Genmaicha is the Japanese name for green tea combined with roasted brown rice. This type of tea was originally drunk by poor Japanese, as the rice served as a filler and reduced the price of the tea; which is why it is also known as the “people’s tea.” It was also used by those persons fasting for religious purposes or who found themselves to be between meals for long periods of time. Tea steeped from these tea leaves has a light yellow hue. Its flavor is mild and combines the fresh grassy flavor of green tea with the aroma of the roasted rice.
Shop: 1 , 2
Matcha is a finely ground tea powder made from Tencha leaves. It is prepared by whisking the tea powder with hot water in a ceramic bowl. Matcha is the primary form of tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The sweet flavor of matcha is due to the amount of amino acids present in the tea and the higher the quality, the sweeter and deeper the flavor is.The art of producing, preparing and consuming this powdered tea became a ritual performed by Zen Buddhists in China. Matcha eventually became an important part of rituals in Zen monasteries in Japan and was elevated to level of high culture and skill in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which is still the case today. This is my official coffee substitute. I add this tea to my morning smoothie. And it gives me the pick me up i need, during cold winter mornings.
Shop: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
White tea is made from the young tea bud and is the closest to the natural state of the tea leaf. It is plucked just before the leaf opens on the stem and is air-dried to lock in its color and flavor. The chlorophyll is not mature in this bud and that gives its “white” appearance. It has both caffeine and healthy polyphenols.Its less processed hence retaining more of its anti-oxidants. White tea is my favourite kind of tea ever, and i definitely think its undervalued. My favourite way to drink it is paired with a jasmine bud. The aroma complements its delicate-body, and innate sweetness. And its smoother than any other tea i have tasted so far. Because of the extremely subtle flavor of white teas, it is recommended to pair it them with only the mildest of flavors. If paired with strong foods, the natural sweetness of this beverage, as it will be overwhelmed by the food’s aroma. This category of tea is the most delicate one, so it should be paired only with lightly flavored foods.
Shop: 1 ( absolutely the best i found, never need to try another)
Pu-Erh is the original and ancient variety of tea tree that can only be grown in Yunnan, the birthplace of tea. The people of Yunnan traditionally eat a very fatty diet, but have low rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease, and the reasons is often attributed to this tea. Pu’erh is fermented green tea made from special broad leaf tea leaves that have a unique chemical composition, that makes them suitable for ageing. This tea is graded and classified by how old it is. It was definitely an acquired taste for me. The first sip ever felt like i was eating clay. Now, i absolutely love it. My favourite pairing with this tea is liquorice when drinking it stand alone. This tea pairs well with chicken and meats, stir-fried foods, and anything with lots of animal fat or greasy foods.
Shop: 1, Asian grocery stores.
Yerba mate has been used as a base for herbal medicines in South America for centuries. Its more nutritious than green tea. Rumored to be a nerve stimulant and apparently increases mental concentration. While there are no studies to prove this, but its linked to better absorption of carbohydrates and increased muscle endurance. Boy, i would love that. I am currently testing this tea. Its growing on me. But i am yet to experience the alleged benefits.
Shop: 1 , 2
Indian inspired teas are the ones i was most familiar with, the ones i saw my country men drink when i was a child. The chai is a black tea blend, that is popular in England and India. And now that starbucks do a version of it in America, i see it everywhere. I make my own blend with a few varieties from Teavana. I prefer my tea without milk which sort of kills the essence of this tea, but i like it anyways. Another tea that doesn’t gets its due, is Tulsi tea. Its the holy tree for the religious Hindus and ayurveda claims many many medicinal benefits to this tea. The taste of this leave is just divine. It reminds me of visits to the temples and my travels in India.
Shop: Chai: 1 , 2 , 3 Tulsi: 1 ( very mild ), 2 ( my pick )
Floral teas like Jasmine, Camomile, Lavender, Rooibos are great teas to drink at the end of the day and before bed when caffeine is a no-no. They also make great additives to make DIY tea blends. Chamomile is known for its soothing properties. Jasmine is very calming and relaxing on me. Lavender, makes the prettiest purple tea. Rooibos has many medicinal properties like anti-aging, soothing on the stomach, high mineral content, etc. These are the extra luxuries in my tea box and make great night time teas.
Shop: Jasmine buds (1, 2). Camomile ( 1, 2). Lavender (1) Rooibos ( 1, 2) Hibiscus ( 1 )
“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”
― Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Dear tea, Thank you for all the small pleasures that are not so small in reality.