Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Umami on My Mind

With perhaps one of the last snowfall of the season and its attendant powdery patina still on the ground, E and I ushered in spring with our cups of the sakura-cha, a tisane made from salted cherry blossoms. This was the first tea served at a recent tea-tasting at our favorite local Japanese restaurant, Nanakusa.

Under the stern eyes of Hello Kitty -militaristically imposing in her bearing- our group of tea enthusiasts gathered around our hosts, Richard and Yoko, as they offered us cups of the sakura-cha. I held the delicate teacup in my hands and gazed at the lone cherry blossom reposing on the bottom of the cup and marveled at this study in fragile beauty.

I sipped the pale liquor slowly as a burst of a briny, floral flavor cascaded over my palate. It was a wonderful revelation. From a plate cradling an array of o-kashi (bite-sized savories and sweets traditionally served with tea), I took an artfully shaped ginger cracker, the shoga senbei. The melange of flower, egg, sugar, and ginger melded together seamlessly.

Carrying forward the briny motif, our hosts next served the kobucha, a tisane made from the kelp seaweed. Its savory nature had me conjuring up a steamy bowl of miso soup to accompany tamari-flavored rice crackers.

My mind, started on its trajectory of musings on savories, it was only natural that the tea which came next was the soba-cha, roasted buckwheat steeped in boiled water. Its taste was one of nutty toastiness.

After we had lingered on the three tisanal amuse-bouches, we were ready for the tasting of green teas. The green teas served were bancha, kukicha, genmaicha, hojicha, sencha, gyokuro, and matcha- these words were like a tripping waterfall splashing over pebbles.
It was the first time I tasted bancha in earnest; its vegetal flavor was bolder than that of the more familiar sencha- this did not surprise me as bancha is made from the tougher leaves harvested later during the season than those used to make sencha.
The more nuanced sencha segued beautifully into the penultimate tasting of the evening with the Uji gyokuro. I savored the gyokuro's umami nature- umami, denoting the ineffably rich mouthfeel imparted by the amino acid, glutamate- while Hello Kitty was now practically beaming with benevolence from her corner as if giving us her benediction for the chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) which came next.

I watched our hostess perform an abbreviated chanoyu, appreciating the grace and utility inherent in each of her gesture. Each movement seemed to flow into the next, mannered, but at the same time, effortlessly natural.

The higashi, a soft sweet candy served with matcha, melted in my mouth as I gratefully received the bowl of matcha into my hands. Its familiar brothiness was soothing and bracing. With its warmth suffusing me, E and I thanked our gracious hostess for a wonderful evening and we were soon enveloped in a clear moonlit night.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


At this time of the year, I am struck by the stark beauty of the bare boughs of trees. The recent snowfall which had laced the tree limbs with powdery whiteness left not a trace of its recent presence. So it was only natural that when asked by our waiter, at a vegetarian restaurant that we like, if I wanted to try the "house twig tea", I said yes without hesitation. This tea turned out to be kukicha, a Japanese tea made in early spring from the leaves as well as twigs of sencha tea production.

My tea brewed a darkish brown color and tasted a lot like its roasted counterpart, the hojicha tea- earthy and faintly cacao-tinged but without the toastiness so prominent in the hojicha itself.

I took small sips of the tea while relishing my dinner of a Southwestern salad heartily tossed with tasty smoked-flavored tempeh, the latter's smokiness making up for the kukicha's lack of this quality. I also welcomed the tea's low caffeine content after having had cup after cup of the stronger oolong earlier that day.
After dinner, we walked outside into an avenue of trees, their branches outlined by the moon against a dusky light. The branches of each tree seemed to be curtsying towards their neighbors'. Filigrees of twigs provided an interlacing canopy over our heads as we ambled along, feeling protected underneath this natural awning.
The spare beauty of this vernal night invoked for me a poem by the Chinese poet, Tu Fu, who lived in the 9th century:

South Wind
The days grow long, the mountains
Beautiful. The south wind blows
Over blossoming meadows.
Newly arrived swallows dart
Over the streaming marshes.
Ducks in pairs drowse on the warm sand.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Merci, Mercy

An overcast sky that dewed the tree branches with pearly droplets called for an uncommon pairing of tea and food. I banished eclairs and their fulsome creamy cousins to their respective corners in favor of savory edamame dumplings paired with Iron Goddess of Mercy, an oolong tea. This tea (also known as Ti Kuan Yin) was named after the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, Kuan Yin, whose representation in statues has alternately soothed me with her soft demeanor and daunted me with her many-limbed grotesquery.

I examined the almost black tea leaves which were loosely coiled, and I placed them in the gaiwan. Then, I poured boiling water over the leaves and watched them unfurl. They uncoiled majestically to their full length rather quickly: by the second infusion, leaves of varying sizes, had elongated their ragged edges and turned from a dusky green to a more mossy hue.

The first infusion yielded a liquor that was toasty. This taste lingered luxuriantly with me as I dipped an edamame dumpling into ponzu sauce. Felicitous, indeed, was this pairing: the little parcel of egg whites and young steamed soybeans, infused with ginger and sesame oil, melded seamlessly with the assertive briskness of the tea.

My flight of fancy carried me to a dim sum restaurant resplendent with Chinese chotchkies. It was at this restaurant in a Canadian border town across from Detroit that I first made my acquaintance with savory dumplings. Variously filled with tender shrimp, aromatic mushrooms, or more hearty pork, they were steamed to perfection. A bite into one yielded a burst of flavors hinting at the presence of chives, garlic, and ginger.

The somberly dressed waitress, pushing the cart laden with small plates of food, briskly deposited the chosen dishes on our lazy susan while my dad expertly scanned the selections on the cart. It was a frenzy of eating, dipping, sipping hot tea, my lap gettting doused with a cold liquid as the waitress sloppily poured water into my drinking glass with lightning speed. All the while, we kept tabs on the activities of the family at the next table lest they got the choice morsels instead of us.

With this Darwinian fray long behind me, I sipped the liquor from the fourth infusion, detecting floral notes that were veiled previously and marveled at the richly hued nature of my many-limbed Goddess.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pouchong Oolong

In my continuing quest for oolong tea tastings, I found myself at a rather unlikely venue: the Russian Tea Time. This venerable Old World restaurant offers an afternoon tea, and a quick perusal of its website revealed pouchong oolong listed at the top of its tea menu. My fate was quickly decided.

So on a gloriously balmy afternoon, my companions and I found ourselves entering the restaurant's portals which were flanked by several Russian dolls with ballooning dresses and countenances of frozen mirth.

All three of us chose the full afternoon tea service, each with our own tea selection in its own teapot. Mine, of course, was the long-awaited pouchong oolong; pouchong is the least oxidized of all oolongs, probably more so than the Jade Oolong that I have had recently. It arrived already brewed, with the leaves unencumbered by an infuser in the attractive porcelain teapot. The lack of an infuser -often a boon because the leaves could then fully attain their length- in this case, made it difficult to not overbrew the tea. An additional empty teapot into which the extra liquor could be decanted when the tea finished brewing was the solution. This extra liquor awaited me as I sipped leisurely from my cup.

The leaves slightly unfurled with the first infusion and had a fruity taste. The subtler elements of this fruitiness flowered beautifully with subsequent infusions. As I sipped from the china cup, I was continually deluded into thinking that I was imbibing a green tea. However, the ineffable roastiness of oolongs was present here and disabused me of my delusion.

The sweets and savories were arrayed impressively on two 3-tiered trays. The standouts were not too large raisin scones; moist and flaky, they were delightful with creamed butter.

Mini eclairs with rich custard cream were likewise delectable.

As I ate myself to a point beyond satiety; sampling sundry shortbreads, a rugelach that left me cold, middling finger sandwiches with a surfeit of cream cheese, I wondered why I was doing this. Wouldn't my experience be a better one with a few well-chosen pastries to accompany my tea, enabling me to more easily savor the oolong as well as the food?

Should I eschew the full tea service the next time we go out in search of tea experiences and instead opt for a pot of tea with perhaps one or two pastries?

But then the Peninsula Hotel does reputedly serve a mean afternoon tea service...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Egged on by Oolong

It was not surprising that I bought a loaf of brioche after having read Amanda Hesser's piece on the popover, brioche's muffin-like cousin. The aroma of baking from a neighborhood breadshop inexorably pulled me inside its humble storefront; several minutes later, I was happily in possession of a loaf of brioche of considerable heft.

I am partial to eggy desserts, including eggy breads. Even a recent encounter with almost stale challah bread did not daunt me; the telltale faint yellow hue of the bread reassured me that its rich egg-nature would be able to override any lack of freshness on its part.

As I prepared a slice of brioche for myself, I decided on the Jade Oolong for my tea. This tea, from the mountains of Taiwan, is less oxidized than many other oolongs and thus imparts a lighter flavor akin to those of the green teas; more heavily oxidized oolongs can taste almost like black teas with their assertive and robust flavors.

The Jade Oolong's leaves are tightly coiled and darkly green, its appearance and roasty aroma piquing our black cat's interest. Using fully boiled water, I brewed the tea in the gaiwan and watched the leaves unfurl in the green-golden liquor. The first sip was wonderfully floral and I felt transported to a vernal flower garden of gardenias.

The first taste of the still warm brioche likewise did not disappoint. Eggy delight had me falling into a reverie concerning the baba au rhum I had first discovered as a sixteen year-old traipsing the streets of Paris while staying at my cousins' home there. Of course, the ubiquitous boulangerie/patisserie had to be located below their apartment and it tantalized me everyday with its aroma as I passed it on my way to the nearby Metro station. I succumbed at last when hunger not sated by baguette and Nutella drove me inside the patisserie and I ended up choosing a rather bulbous looking pastry, lured in part by the toothsome candied cherry surrounded by Chantilly cream atop the whole affair. This was indeed the baba (its droll appellation, meaning old lady in Polish, has always amused me) and the first bite revealed a wonderful sponginess suffused with the slightly bitter sweetness of rum, made more decadent by Chantilly and little nuggets of bright colored candied fruits.

After having had the fourth infusion of the Jade Oolong (oolongs can actually undergo up to eight infusions without losing their taste) with the sun setting, I found myself floating somewhere in the 19th arrondissement, searching for my baba.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Eight Treasures Tea

A combination of too much birthday cake (of the ice cream variety) at work and the tedium of morning rounding had me yearning for a different kind of tea. The small bag of Ba Bao Cha, alternatively known as Eight Treasures tea, in the tea cabinet beckoned; it languished unceremoniously in the nook occupied by the bagged herbal teas although the Ba Bao Cha itself has a green tea base. This tea was purchased from a Hong Kong teahouse and presented to me as a gift several months ago. From the little information I have garnered on this tea, I knew that it is comprised of eight ingredients although the roster seems to be a variable one. The transparent bag which it came in revealed a motley bunch of ingredients, many of which I was not able to identify, and the Chinese inscriptions on the plastic bag -all Greek to me- did not help to illuminate the nature of its contents.

However, after tearing the bag open along its perforation, I detected a citrus-y scent and recognized what may be some grated orange peel, two chrysanthemum buds, an unpeeled longan, variously dessicated-looking berries, many cubes of rock sugar, and of course, the green tea itself.

I decided to brew the tea in my gaiwan, wanting to fully appreciate the interplay of all the curious-looking ingredients as the tea steeped, unfettered by an infuser. Plopping only two cubes of rock sugar into the hot water (I did not want an overly sweet tasting tea), I set out to wait patiently for the five minute brewing time to elapse while our gray cat at my elbow sniffed inquisitively at the unfamiliar scents emanating from the gaiwan. And indeed, a potpourri of scents wafted by: faintly floral, the reassuringly vegetal one of the green tea, and something vaguely medicinal. I sipped the liquor gingerly; the first taste, not unpleasant. Yes, it was slightly mediciney, but it did not have the cloying sweetness of cough syrup. However, as I continued to sip the tea, I was more certain of detecting the flavor of ginseng. My olfactory memory, now triggered, I conjured up an image of myself, as a child, drinking a ginseng tisane all the while grimacing at its bitterness.

With that, I put down my gaiwan while our gray cat dozed nearby, and I wished for a nice batch of madeleines to wash away the acrid taste in my mouth.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Me and My Dragons

This surfeit of bagged herbal tea just wasn't doing the trick. My pesky cold was still lingering, even prostrating me for most of the day. So despite my own exhortations to my own patients, -to stay away from all things caffeine in order to avoid dehydration when ill- I was not ready to heed my own advice. My attachment to real tea was too strong.

A bag of fresh longans awaited me in the fridge, recently procured from the Asian supermarket in Chicago. A longan, when peeled, has a thin white translucent membrane through which one can espy the shiny black seed. It is thus aptly named, as the word longan translated from Chinese, means dragon's eye.

A treat, as a child for me, would be to have a bowl of these fruits, chilled, sometimes with several cubes of ice added. The ice cubes were especially welcome when the longans themselves were just scooped out from a tin can stored in our dank basement and thus were quite tepid, not to mention overly sweet from basking in heavy corn syrup for who knows how long.

So with my current cache of the fruit, I was anxious to give them their proper due with an accompaniment of an equally special tea. The juicy sweetness of the longans called for a delicately scented green tea, and my waning supply of Jasmine Dragon Pearls fitted the bill.

This tea, from the Fujian Province of China, is culled from the buds of the tea plant. The jasmine flowers are used to scent the buds multiple times prior to the tea being rolled into the coiled pearls that give the tea such as unique look.

As I brewed the tea in the glass teacup on another consecutively rainy day, the pearls unfurled with majesty, yielding a golden yellow liquor. I sipped the tea, now redolent with the scent of jasmine flowers on a pleasant green tea base.

The longans, now adequately chilled, were ready.

As I bit into one, its tender membrane yielded a tropical sweetness, falling away from the hard black center, while the dragon's eye stared back at me, twinklingly.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bubble Tea and Beyond

A recent walk revealed the lake to be a foment of activity. Thawing temperatures partially melted the ice which covered the surface of the lake so that strips of flowing water, dotted with floating Canadian geese, alternated with icy patches.

With the rain coming down steadily, E and I drove to Chicago for the day to see my family. It was hairy driving, and I was glad to be fortified with a mug of strong black tea once we arrived at my brother's downtown condo. We then all tumbled into two cars and headed for Chinatown for dinner.

I quickly found the short selection of teas listed on the menu of the restaurant and ordered the
hot version of the cryptically named Hong Kong styled tea. Plumbing the matter a bit with searching questions of our friendly waitress, I gathered that this was bubble tea.

Indeed, mutant sized tapioca pearls occupied the bottom stratum of the large plastic cup containing this milky drink. As I sipped through the equally outsized straw, I detected the familiar childhood orange pekoe flavor from a Lipton tea bag.

Once the novelty of feeling slithering tapioca globules slide down my throat had passed, I turned my attention to the food at hand. Braised tofu, crisp on the exterior and incredibly silky soft on the inside was a delight. It was paired with flavorful shiitake and enoki mushrooms and served with steamed jasmine rice. The bubble tea relegated to the side, I sipped hot tea poured from the communal teapot at our our table.

After exchanging reluctant goodbyes with my family, I hinted to E that I was not ready for our tea-quest to end just yet. By serendipity, we were standing right in front of the Saint Alp's teahouse, a Hong-Kong based chain of teahouses, and E was up to the adventure.

Neon wall colors and grinning statuaries of Hello Kitty greeted us as we were led to our banquette. We found ourselves amidst a sea of Asian American tweens who were hunched over variously colored bubble teas and savory shiny snacks.

Deciding against more bubble teas for myself, I chose a ginger milk black tea and E, its almond counterpart.

Finally, this was a tea that sang: Keemun-tasting black tea seamlessly paired with warm milk that hit the right note of sweetness. But it was the fresh tasting ginger, which tickled my throat pleasantly, that gave the tea its piquancy. I felt myself ready at that point to chuck my tea snobbery regarding blended teas as I sipped this piece of revelation.

Overly caffeinated, yet with my limbs paradoxically languorous from many cups of tea, we drove through the city homeward as the rain continued, unabated.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gateway Tea

Black currant tea paved the way to my current tea drinking addiction. It was my gateway drug, so to speak. I discovered it during my medicine residency while perusing the aisles of a Whole Foods store. This was in the mid 90s when shopping at Whole Foods was still the progressive thing to do, even in Ann Arbor where I was living at the time.

The loose leaf tea was nicely packaged in a canister bearing the Republic of Tea logo. Up to that point, I had been drinking tea brewed from teabags. Was I ready to make the leap into the adult world of the loose leaf drinking tea set? My slight Anglophilic streak, fostered since my teenage years by the Victorian fatalism of Hardy's tragic heroines and heroes, was tickled pink at the thought of brewing and drinking black currant tea. Dried currants, those tart berries of the genus ribes nigrum, dotted the flaky scones nibbled by English maidens on the windswept heath- those were my associations with currants at that time.

The propensity of flavored teas to overpower the intrinsic nature of the tea leaves themselves with their cloyingly artificial taste has turned me off to them for the most part. However, black currant tea is one of the exceptions. I sipped this self-same tea now, appreciating the alternately tart and sweet flavor of the currants that fortunately did not drown out the taste of the black tea itself. It complemented well the Belgian waffle cookie that I nibbled between sips of the tea. Despite its corporeal firmness, this cookie had a melt in your mouth butteriness that was very pleasing. As I savored my afternoon tea, I was overcome by a desire to open my dog-eared copy of Jude the Obscure.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Speak, Memory

On a recent wintry day, I made orange muffins for an afternoon tea at our house. I had first tasted these as a child at Mrs. V's house and found out how delightfully moist they were. Mrs. V, a close family friend, was a great cook and an even better baker. Just thinking about her famed Buche de Noel, the focal point of any Christmas dinners I attended back then, can send me into spasms of rapturous cravings; incredibly rich buttercream frosting melted in my mouth as I attempted to make my allotted slice of cake last just a little longer. Sometimes, wheedling my sister out of her piece bore fruit, as she herself lacked a sugar addiction trait. Sadly, I never learned the recipe of the Buche de Noel from Mrs. V, but my mom, who was no stranger to my insatiable sweet tooth, did obtain the recipe for the equally toothsome orange muffins and started baking them for us at home.

Recipe for Orange Muffins
(makes a dozen)

Cream for 10 minutes in a mixer at high speed:
2 sticks of butter
1 cup of sugar
2 eggs

Combine in another bowl:
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 cup of buttermilk or regular milk
2 cups of flour

Mix at low speed the combined mixtures from the bowls above, and add to this, grated rind from 2 oranges.

( As you can see from the photo of the orange muffins above, I inadvertently added the grated rind after the muffins had finished baking so that a festooning of orange sits atop them. They actually still tasted good this way.)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place the batter in muffin molds and add golden raisins, submerging them in the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Remove from oven. Spoon glaze over muffins.

To make glaze, squeeze the juice from 2 oranges and stir in 2 tablespoons of brown sugar.

Serve warm.

Anticipating with pleasure the arrival of our friends for tea, E and I bustled about the house, getting ready. I pulled out the long-neglected muffin pans while E artfully arranged freshly-trimmed flowers. The cats ran about with excitement, sniffing at unwonted baking aromas and the temporary rearrangement of chairs.

I set out for the tasting, three teas: the White Peony, the Ancient Snow Sprouts, and the always festive genmaicha. Start out with the sweetly demure white tea, I thought, and end with the robust roastiness of the genmaicha.

A wonderful medley of warming tea, sweet morsels. and great conversation ensued. I thought of the inevitable convergences of the past and present in everyday life. Taste and smells of childhood, inextricable with the present, populate my consciousness with their piquancy.

As our friends left with the sun setting, I dug into another orange muffin with gusto.