Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Nature of Things

I woke up in the bedroom of my childhood today after a night of hearing the torrential winds. Many branches scattered on the sidewalks, crunching beneath my shoes when E and I went for our walk. The morning brought with it bracing breezes that contrasted with the preternaturally balmy temperatures of yesterday.

I was excited at the prospect of trying a new tea which E so kindly bestowed upon me, increasing my already sizable collection of Chinese greens. The tea is Rishi's Ancient Snow Buds, a Chinese green tea grown in the Yunnan province, prized as it is harvested during a very limited season. The tea leaves were surprisingly long and bleached-white, reminiscent of the appearance I associate with the white teas. I followed the directions for brewing the tea: two tablespoons of dry tea leaves for each cup. The business of infusing the tea was a little fraught as I did not have my usual tea appurtenances and had to make do with what was at hand in my mom's domain. However, I found a nice glass pot into which I poured the boiling water to be cooled. The tea leaves were next deposited into the pot and swirled. As the tea was left to infuse, I observed with pleasure the leaves plumping and elongating, emitting a very mild aroma. I sipped the liquor from the first infusion, which was permitted to brew for a full 7 minutes ( unusually a long duration for a green tea, but for some reason which I am not cognizant of, is called for with brewing this particular tea). Like the aroma, the taste was pleasantly mild, not at all astringent, considering the long brewing time the tea had underwent. However, it was not until the second infusion, that I was overwhelmed by the tea's unique quality: the liquor was unmistakably honey-sweet, but not cloyingly so. I thought of how fitting it is that its appearance was a limpid golden hue, evoking springtime blossoms and flitting bees.

I eagerly awaited the third infusion to brew. As I expectantly sipped from my cup, I tasted a rather attenuated version of my previous brew. I sadly collected the tea leaves, from which had been coaxed wonderful flavors, and was reminded of the ephemeral nature of things.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Snowy Tuesday

More snowfall today. I visit my one nursing home patient. She is bedridden, dependent on nursing aides for simple activities, like turning herself in bed. Her mind, however, is razor sharp; she recounts to me the memorable snowstorm of '47 when the city came to a standstill. She was in junior high school at the time and remembers that 27.5 inches of snow fell then.

I look around her room and note the details. A monthly calendar with photos of her family is tacked above her bed. A profusion of small stuffed animals are gathered on a straight-backed chair in the corner of the room. Amongst these items, stacks of austere white linens, a box of disposable gloves add a discordant note to the hominess of her personal belongings.

She is propped up on her bed, her speech difficult at times to understand due to past strokes. Her eyes gleam when we touch upon events of her past life, veering away from the obligatory questions on her health that I dutifully ask on my monthly visits. She has lived in this city for all of her life but remark that others older than her have seen the "horse and buggy" days.

I part from her with some reluctance, sensing her desire for company often not satiated. I wonder, when I visit her next month, if we might not share some tea.

Friday, December 19, 2008

An Unexpected Day at Home

The anticipated snow storm came overnight and blew in at least a foot of snow. I attempted to go to work but was waylaid not more than three blocks from home by an unruly snowbank. I turned back home after extricating my car from the snowy entanglement, skidding to and fro.

Gladly, I entered the house and made a second pot of tea. I chose the Dragonwell which provides a delightful sensory experience to brew and to drink. Its flat longish leaves swirl languidly in the teapot, imparting initially a heady vegetal scent. With successive steeping, the scent and taste become more nutty in character. I look out the window and see the evergreens laden with snow, the side of the house nearby covered haphazardly with white patches as the wind continues to blow. I am reminded of the farmhouses in the countryside standing forlornly, their shingles peeling with red paint, now slightly hidden by the falling snow.

I sipped the Dragonwell, ensconced with a blanket and stroked one of the cats. He jumped on my lap, pleased at this unexpected turn of events which gave his human companion a day at home.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tea at Work

There is something infinitely civilized about having tea at work, especially if one carves out a special time for it each day. For me, it is at lunch when this happens. My repast is often unvaried in its contents; however, the tea selection changes from day to to day, and I never know until the last minute what I will choose to drink. The choice is determined partially by whimsy and largely by other practical matters.

I wind down my morning schedule of seeing patients , make various phone calls, and then settle down for an eagerly awaited small brown bag lunch. This is quickly consumed and then the business of tea selection begins. Will it be a brew with black currant flavored tea today as it will go exceedingly well with a piece of baklava from a nearby Greek diner? Or will I choose the Lung Ching Dragonwell to pair with a ginger cookie, always a dependable standby for my workday tea treat? Sometimes, I just crave the milder, elemental taste of a white tea regardless of the nature of my sugary pairing.

By necessity, the making of the tea is a more abbreviated version of the one at home. The water, poured into a porcelain teapot of burnished orange color, is placed in the microwave and heated for a little over 2 minutes . I then gingerly nestle the teapot in my hands and quickly walk back to my office, often with accompanied looks of amusement from coworkers.

I deposited the tea leaves in a metal infuser which is placed in the pot and pull out the pastry of the day. My tea companion comes when the tea is brewed and I pour the tea into each of our cups. We sip the tea and nibble the sweet with contentment, chatting a bit, savoring a few minutes of calm before the afternoon begins.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

White Tea

I decided to do something unprecedented this morning: white tea ushered in my day. I usually favor a more potent brew for my first pot of the day; I admit the caffeine content plays a role in this decision. However, this morning, I felt a mellower accompaniment was in order, today being a Sunday, and there was no need for me to get the neuronal synapses to fire with maximal efficiency for work.

I chose the white tea given to me several Christmases ago by my brother which I still have in plentiful supply. It is an Argo brand, from a company based in Chicago. I chose to use my glass teapot which has become the workhorse of teapots in our household due to its beauty as well as its sizable capacity for holding multiple cupfuls of tea. The water was first boiled in an electric kettle (sacrilege, I know, to you tea traditionalists), poured into the glass teapot with its large infuser and then left to cool for several minutes. I then spooned out 2 teaspoons of the multi-hued leaves of tea into the infuser and proceeded to wait for it to fully steep.

I swirled the teapot a bit to permit the longish leaves to submerge themselves, as many of them were quite recalcitrant and floated on top of the water without fully steeping themselves. It is a phenomenon that I encounter often with the white teas. It is perhaps because they are the least processed of the teas and thus the leaves still retain much of their original nature; they are less tractable, following the whimsies of their ways, calling on the tea brewer to be a bit more mindful and resourcelful in the brewing.

I sat at the kitchen table watching the leaves fully elongate and metamorphose. They resemble the autumnal leaves one sees heaped on sidewalks and driveways in the latter part of the season when there are not the riots of bright greens, deep reds and yellows seen in early fall but the more subdued sedate browns, calmer greens. The tea leaves imparted a slightly amber hue to the liquid. I inhaled the brewed tea, now giving off a stronger scent than expected. I then poured the tea into my cup and sipped expectantly. The first infusion yielded a very mild grassy flavor, but was also pleasantly sweet and soothing. It did not have the astringency that sometimes catches me off my guard when I have, say, that first cup of sencha in the morning.

I lingered over my white tea and poured E his cup. I eventually had a pot of the second infusion, all the while conscious of my mind clearing its nocturnal fog.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Matcha Novice

I made matcha today for the first time. The experience was more awkward than I had expected. I dutifully scooped out 1 teaspoon of the prized powder from its foil packaging inside the mini tin canister ( this was a teavana tea given to me by my mother on a daytrip to Chicago recently). The opening of the foil itself was fraught with some apprehension when I saw a green powdery trail wafting into the air (could the designers of the packaging do better than this?) wasting my precious cache. However, after some less than dexterous fumbling, the 2 scoops of the tea were deposited in hot water (boiling water left to cool for 3 minutes) through a small strainer and the utilitarian whisk -alas, metal and not bamboo- was then used to stir up the matcha powder in the two Japanese porcelain bowls.

The resultant bright green liquid with its quickly precipating powder made a stunning contrast with the deep blue hue of the bowls. My husband, E, and I eagerly sipped from our tea bowls as we sat at the kitchen table, the light of the afternoon waning in the windows overlooking the melting snow. I savored the astringency and grassiness of the matcha and was surprised at detecting a saltiness that I heretofore had not appreciated in previous cups of this tea. It was not an unpleasant experience and I commented to E that wouldn't it be nice if we had some of those wasabi peas (yes, the same ones I rhapsodized about in the last post) which would perfectly complement our tea. Unfortunately, the last batch had quickly disappeared from our home shortly after that last Chicago trip.

The experience was a counterpoint to my morning of seeing patients at the free clinic. It seemed part and parcel of the rhythm of the prosaic: ordinary, but pretty amazing.

Friday, December 12, 2008


I wish my capacity to drink tea were less finite; I have found throughout my years of tea sipping that the occurences of migraine headaches have been the limiting factor. I prepare my first pot of tea in the morning with an anticipated enjoyment tinged with caution lest I become overindulgent and thus incur the unwanted physiologic response. However, the amount of tea does not necessarily correlate with my likelihood of developing a headache. There seems to be other factors at work. For example, one of my tea-sweet pairings is a citrus-y oolong tea with a pain aux raisins ( a delectable combination which I highly recommend). This combination invariably plunges me into the throes of a migraine if I have been negligent about eating something more substantial earlier. On the other hand, I recently enjoyed a goodly pot of genmaicha along with another irresistible pot of the second infusion, and all this with impunity!

The rate at which I drink my cup of tea also seem to affect the likelihood of developing a migraine as I notice that the more mindfully and slowly I sip my cup of tea, the less chance I have of getting the dreaded headache. The amount of caffeine, thus ingested, is then more slowly absorbed into one's bloodstream and perhaps does not deluge the offending migraine centers with its effects.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; I have a potent reminder now to slow down and engage in mindfulness as I drink my tea ( and eat that crumpet!), fully immersing myself in the totality of the experience.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What's in a Name?

Lotus tea is one of my favorite teas. I like it so much that my nom de plume, cha sen , is derived from it. Cha, being the cognate of the word tea in many languages; sen, the term for lotus in Vietnamese, befitting since lotus tea originates in the central highlands of Vietnam (by serendipity, chasen, is also the Japanese term designating the bamboo whisk used to stir matcha in the Japanese tea ceremony).
The method of creating lotus tea is completely charming: at night, a fine green tea is placed into the opened lotus flower buds. The buds are then gently closed overnight for the lotus essence to permeate the tea.
When I drank my cup of lotus tea, I often think of the delicate process that it goes through before it becomes this wonderful amber liquid in my teapot. Its flavor is very strong after the first infusion so that 2 minutes are plenty for steeping. The tea, like other green teas, should be brewed in cooler water; I usually wait for the boiling water to cool down between 3-4 minutes before steeping the tea.
A snack that goes wonderfully well with this tea are peas laced with wasabi; the saltiness and sinus-clearing nature of the wasabi pair well with the slightly astringent taste of the tea. I am able to find the peas sold at Japanese specialty stores and have trouble not eating all of the contents of the bag before I pulled out my prized canister of lotus tea!
On the other hand, it is more difficult to find good lotus teas even in Vietnamese stores. I will let you know when I find a dependable purveyor of lotus tea.
After this tea-pairing, my mind ( and nasal passages) clears and I go back to my journal reading.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


I did the unpardonable today as a teaist: I had a ginger green tea this morning at Starbucks, packaged in a sachet, no less! The exculpating factor was that I was on my way to work and needed a speedy breakfast with its usual accompaniment of hot tea. In spite of myself, I quite enjoyed the "Perfect Oatmeal" sprinkled with dried fruits and brown sugar in its cheery paper bowl. The tea, on the other hand, was a little lackluster; it was a Tazo brand and the expected grassiness of green tea was nary to be found in my paper tea cup.

Many of the tea's attributes were veiled by the packaging and the flavorings, but as I was rounding in the hospital an hour later, the essence of my cup of tea still lingered with me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Teaism and Medicine

I had a wonderful pot of jasmine tea this morning. As I sat looking out the window at the boughs laden with snow, mentally observing my breathing, I felt suffused by calmness. The floral teacup in both of my hands was warm; the aroma and swirling steam wafted from the pale golden tea as I inhaled deeply. I felt all was well in the world before I embarked on my day.

The intersection of experiencing tea and the art of medicine interests me greatly. The meditative acts of preparing the tea and drinking it are akin to being very present and aware of my patient when I am with him in my examining room. I can give my whole attention to him, conscious of my rhythmic breathing and at the same time, heeding to his suffering.