Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dreaming About Tea in the Autumn Sun

I have a fondness for college towns. Ivory-covered Georgian brick, they breed nostalgia for my college days. It's especially so, at this time of the year, when light so peculiar to late fall evenings permeates all with its magical blush.

Over the weekend, E and I took long strolls through Evanston, and I was in my element. The ambling pace of the town - students wrapped in scarves on bikes weaving around us, graying professor-types with abstracted looks passing by - was a counterpoint to the jostle and blare of nearby Chicago.

We stopped in at Dream about Tea, a Chinese tea house on a street still garnished with fall colors. Inside was a sunny space with neat rows of square wooden tabletops. The proprietor smiled broadly at us behind the counter while I contained my glee as I looked around. Large jars of green Chinese tea lined the countertop although a smattering of blacks, oolongs, pu-erhs, Japanese greens, and whites were present as well. I was giddy as I tried to decide on my first cup of tea.

Caffeine-neediness trumping common sense, I chose a 1st flush Darjeeling over a Chinese green while in a Chinese tea house. The gracious owner brewed my tea in a sturdy glass mug, neatly scooping tea leaves and placing them - without the intermediary of an infuser- directly onto the bottom of the cup. He then poured the hot water over my tea and handed the cup over to me.

E, himself, decided on a Chinese green, the "house" selection. We settled into a shady corner with our cups and waited for our tea to brew. Sunlight dappled on nearby tables, and potted greenery lined the front window, a lushness not echoed by the scrawny, leafless tree outside.

I watched the leaves on the bottom of my cup unfurl into tan filaments and I took my first sip. The Darjeeling was bracing as I had hoped, its dark briskness rousing me from late-morning sleepiness. I continued to drink my tea, the liquor deepening its shade, becoming bitter as I neared the stratum on which the leaves rested - a gentle nudge for me to a have another cup of tea.

Counter to the palate of a proper tea drinker, I chose a Chinese green just after having had a cup of a black tea (custom and perhaps intuition suggest that you should begin a tea tasting with a mild tea like a white or a green. Then you progress to stronger, oxidized ones like oolongs, blacks, pu-erhs). I committed a heterodoxy, indeed.

My host recommended a green, new to me, the Xin Yang Mao Jiang (Fur Tip) from Henan Province. This tea originally belonged to the class of "Famous Teas" of imperial China, a tea befitting emperors, presented to them as tributes.

I watched the needle-shaped leaves unfold their ragged edges in the misty green of the liquor. With my first sip, I tasted the briny notes of steamed leaves. With the second infusion, a sweeter accent emerged, lingering with me, warmed as I was by the meandering sunlight.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Revisiting Keemun

On my walks each morning, I look for changes in the leaves. On the ground, there are ones with crinkled edges, snapping into bits in my hand. Those still clinging to trees and low-lying shrubs have dark circles of blight, flaunting their badges of senescence. These pocked-leaves curtsy as I walk by.

I wake up in the dim light of morning, and each day seems to start out the same - rituals enfolded into neat seams. The brushing of teeth to plaintive feline cries for food, the trudging downstairs accompanied by gallumphing of many paws. Predictable little details that vary minutely day to day. A beam of sunlight dapples aslant on the bedcovers one morning; the next day, I see mere slivers of sun creeping into the bedroom .

The morning tea before work is habitually Keemun, my most muscular of the day. I brew it strong to coax out its briskness, its round cacao flavor. The tea wakes up my palate, blunted by sleep and a too-sweet breakfast. I pour the tea into my Thermos for the short drive to work.

I sip the tea while snug in the car. A slight bitterness of taste may jolt me with disappointment. On another day, Keemun's dark, full notes play themselves delightfully on my palate and I wonder then if it was that extra flick of tea leaves settling in the infuser that gives my tea its piquant nature.

Over time, I have learned the amount of tea leaves that would yield a cup of tea pleasing to my taste, and I have often abided by that knowledge (even if it means dissenting with written instructions). But I'm not always constant, and so I veer from well-trod methods. Those few extra seconds of brewing, while I watch the deepening red of the liquor, will yield a cup unlike any from the past.

On a recent morning, hurly-burly with tardiness, I made off with lukewarm and bitter tea. Stanching an impulse to empty it out the car window, I sipped and grimaced. I took in drafts of cold air, teasing out the sweeter notes of Keemun, hardly lost in my haste.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


It was nearing dusk when we saw the starlings. A sight that transfixed us as we stood staring at the sky during the ensuing minutes. The birds were mere specks high above as they assembled into a giant formation, swooping through the darkening sky in harmonious flight. They made a bowl-shaped arc, seeming to pulse with one mind. Finally, they alighted in a nearby grove where trees were thinned of their leaves. Soon, I heard a symphony of chirps coming from the flickering treetops.

Later on, we learned that the starlings have been performing their curious dance daily now for the last several weeks. They enact their rite always in the same city park, at the same time of day, and noone can account for why they do it.

I marvel at them - they perform gestures that are unexplained and novel to me. However, these have an embedded logic and import I have yet to discover.

Days later, I found myself saddled with more cranberries than I needed for baking purposes. I had overzealously bought several bags, my grand plan of churning out cranberry-inflected cakes stymied by a crazy work-week. Undaunted, I turned to a dish novel to me -one that would take mere minutes to whip up: cranberry sauce, that most seasonal and American of side dishes.

I did not grow up in a household where a glossy turkey and its attendant trimmings and side dishes awaited us on Thanksgiving Day. Our holiday instead was a patchwork of cultural ideas: a plate heaping with spring rolls beside a pitcher of Kool-Aid, tingling red lobster meat abutting a platter of stir-fried baby bok choy.

Now, I stirred the bubbling sauce, bursting with cranberries and watched the bits of lemon peel fleck the bright redness. I thought of countless cooks doing the same over the years, harried in their kitchens this time in the season, fretting over their Thanksgiving menus. I felt a thin thread linking us across time and space.

While the pot simmered, I prepared tea, Teavana's Copper Knot Hongcha (black tea), one given to me by my visiting cousin, Q, and his girlfriend, K.

The dry leaves were indeed little kinks of interlacing black and gray, brewing up a startling ruby-red liquor. I watched the steam loopily swirl upwards as the color darkened.

The cranberry sauce cooled on the stove into a scarlet sea studded with ruptured globules. On a toasted half of an English muffin, I thickly smeared some of the sauce.

I sat down to tea and sipped from my cup. The taste of the black tea was mildly brisk, faintly smoky, and pleasant with a note of caramel. I bit into the porous muffin, puckering a bit at the invigorating tartness.

Cranberry Sauce:
12-18 oz cranberries
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
Zest from 1 lemon
Juice from 1 lemon

On your stovetop, place all the above ingredients into a saucepan. Turn heat to high and wait until the mixture reaches boiling point. Then turn down the heat and simmer the sauce for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Cool sauce before serving.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


I've been thinking about rituals, those cornerstones of everyday life. Perhaps the recent passing of that great anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, started me on this trajectory. Unlike those which he studied, the little rituals that inhabit my day are pretty banal, westernized, and cossetted. They're not little-understood practices performed in far-flung places in need of rigorous deconstruction by social scientists. There's no need to coax from my time-worn habits a universal principle. More personal in their intentions, my rituals provide a comforting ballast to the unpredictable inherent in each day.

Preparing tea in the morning is one of these rituals. I got up late this weekend, waking to unseasonable warmth, the balmiest of weather. I opened the windows and heard the rustle of a breeze and the crunch of dry leaves on pavement. A ladybug appeared, its spindly legs twitchy, sidling across the window screen. Swadled in a wool sweater - my autumnal wear thrown on through force of habit- I watched the cats bound onto the window ledge. Rustles and scents from the outside world attracted their attention and their nostrils flared avidly, pressed to the screen.

While the kettle rumbled, I culled oats and spices together for a batch of granola. The familiar movements of delving into the pantry for little spice jars and reaching on high for the largest of the nesting bowls seemed somehow necessary. It was as if I could not start my already late morning in earnest without performing these rites.

The kettle's roiling came to a halt as I tried to stave off hunger by finishing off a quarter of a cantaloupe. Now I was ready for my morning tea. I pulled out one new to me, Rishi's Organic Ancient Yellow Sprouts, a yellow tea from Yunnan Province. Yellow teas are quite rare, unique in taste, their nature poised somewhere between those of white teas and green teas.

The dry leaves were long and grayish-green with ragged edges. I placed a tablespoon of the crinkly leaves into the glass infuser filled with hot water and watched them unfurl into recognizable leaf-like forms, delicately veined. The liquor was decisively golden and the first taste, a delight: a honey-smooth flavor evoking a springtime orchard when mild floral aromas have yet to blossom into the cloying overripess of the late fruiting season.

The taste of my tea held no astringency nor grassiness. Without being bland, it is even-natured, slipping with ease into the balminess of my day.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Morning Walk

I am not a morning person but I wish I were one. My friend, K, calls this desire morning-person envy, one that we shared over a late breakfast one weekend.

I often wonder how it feels to wake up each morning with abundant spryness. Instead, I flail at the alarm button as it goes off and fitfully tug at the bedsheets over my head to prolong my sleep a few more minutes. Later in the kitchen, I gulp down my breakfast, keeping one eye on the clock while I brew my tea abstractedly. And when I finally leave the house for work, I am a harried bundle of trailing scarf, cradling a much-needed thermos of scalding tea.

On rare occasions, I do manage to drink my first cup of tea in the unhurried light of the early morning, steeping myself in its languid pace before leaving for work. The kitchen is bathed in a soft light. The cats, worn-out from their nocturnal tussle with a fuzzy ball, are asleep in an entwined heap. Their even breathing, the creaks and starts of our old house - the house settling, E would point out to me when these unaccountable noises appear- only accentuate the deep silence. I feel light, unencumbered by the constraints of time, and I banish the kitchen timepiece to a corner.

I catch a rare glimpse of this state when with unhabitual foresight I go to bed early enough to rise with ease the next morning. But my memory can be willfully selective, and during the bustle of my late nights, I forget how much I cling to my sleep.

This morning was an exception. I woke up to a glimmer of light from the window. Shivering a bit, I looked outside: fallen leaves, illumined by moonlight, covered the sidewalk and yards. The bare boughs were starkly lit and grazed the misted windowpanes. Daylight had not claimed the scene and I hurried to get outside before it did.

I took a long walk, solitary in the near darkness. With the encroaching sunlight, a few figures quietly appeared, some still in their bathrobes and slippers, their dogs in tow.

On my way home, I picked from among the fallen leaves several brightly colored ones - outnumbered by their dun-colored counterparts this deep into the fall season.

At home, I brewed a pot of sencha. What remained of a cranberry lemon cake from yesterday rested on the kitchen counter. I cut a slice for myself and tasted the bracing tartness of fresh cranberries.

Recipe for Cranberry Lemon Cake
(adapted from
a recipe by Dorie Greenspan)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
3/4 cup sugar
grated zest of one lemon and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 cup fat free yogurt
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups cranberries

Getting ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter an 8 1/2-x-4 1/2-inch loaf pan, place the pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and keep near by.

1. Put the sugar and zest in a medium bowl and rub the ingredients together until the sugar is fragrant. Add the lemon juice and whisk in the yogurt, eggs and vanilla. When the mixture is well blended, gently whisk in the dry ingredients. Switch to a spatula and fold in the oil. The batter will be thick and shiny. Scrape it into the pan and smooth the top. Add the cranberries to the batter.

2. Bake the cake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until it is golden and starts to come away from the sides of the pan; a knife inserted into the center of the cake will come out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then run a knife between the cake and the sides of the pan. Unmold and cool to room temperature right-side up.

Storing: You can keep the cake at room temperature for at least 4 days or freeze it for up to 2 months