Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Morning

The day stretched ahead of me, hours to savor a slow-day's activities interspersed with some work. I sat in the early morning sun with my bowl of Kashi, glad to let my mind lull with idle, disjointed thoughts. I had a bad night of sleep, awakened repeatedly by phone calls, nurses on the other end with queries that demanded quick responses: What did I want done with a patient with kidney failure, whose blood pressure was rapidly plummeting? At two in the morning, I rubbed my eyes and gave the nurse my answer.

My call night was now over and it was only as I ate breakfast that I felt the tension in my shoulders ebbing - a taut coil of wire slackening its grip. I permitted the state of expectant hypervigilance of the night to lapse into a delicious torpor. No more need for reflex-speed retorts, solutions to late night medical crises. My mind gladly slowed down, and I tasted the mild sweet crunch of the grains, the succulence of a raspberry. E would be coming downstairs soon, and I stirred myself to make us tea. A pot of a deep Chinese green would be nice today, I thought. Something floral and sweet, and I chose the Organic Hongqing Special.

The kitchen table cleared of breakfast, we settled in our chairs while the tea brewed. The week-old spray of flowers in the vase were frayed at the bottom. But the once tight buds towards the top were still blossoming. The vase held a curious mix of senescence and youth all sustained by the water that I replenished daily. The timer went off noisily after four minutes, and I poured the tea into our cups. We sipped and remarked on the floral notes, a pleasant discovery each time we drink this tea. The cats came by for their morning nuzzles and coos which they duly received. Satisfied, they loped side by side from the kitchen and settled on their self-designated armchair in the living room (now with a furry, tawny patina) for an early morning nap.

E and I parted for the day, and I got on my bike for the monthly visit to see my nursing home patient. The bike trail stretched from near our home to downtown where she lives. The sun peeked through the leafy trees arching over the trail as I biked, passing commuters in their shiny Spandex get-up.

My patient was in a good mood. Her recent cataract surgery was a success. She smiled as she remarked on the clarity of my facial features which were a nebulous jumble to her last month. She showed me a photo of her 20 year-old grandson, a recent college graduate, now sporting a jaunty goatee. She crinkled her nose and said she wished he would shave the darn thing off. She had shown me, throughout the years I have known her, pictures of him, and I caught glimpses of his life as he grew up. Here he was, boyish and straight-backed in his Scout's uniform. Another picture showed a studious high school student, in glasses and clean-shaven. And now, he is a confident college graduate with his pretty fiancee at his side.

I lingered after examining my patient, sensing that she did not receive many visitors. We said goodbye only when a nurse's aide came to take her to a bingo game in the TV room.

A short bike ride took me to a teahouse where I like to stop in after visiting my patient. The loose leaf teas were stored in air-tight glass jars, arrayed on shelves behind the counter. I imagined myself in an herbalist's den-cum-headshop as I brushed past dreadlocked twenty-year olds and aging hippies.

I sipped a cup of the White Pekoe, listed as a rare tea on the menu. The brew was reminiscent of the Silver Needles, another white tea, mild and faintly-honeyed. I sipped the tea and caught up on my journal reading. Soon, it was afternoon, and I left the teahouse to the strains of Purple Haze. 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky..

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


The single spray of violet blossoms was wilting hours after I placed them in the vase. I noticed the now crinkly petals tiredly drooping against the still ramrod stem from which they grew. It was just this morning that I cut the sprig from our garden when I was out weeding the small patch of herbs -a thriving sweet basil plant along with a profusion of tarragon and parsley, each vying with each other for space in the whiskey barrel.

I took the vase from the top of the fridge -the usual place for most floral arrangements in our home due to the cats' omnivorous tendencies- and saw that the vase was only partially filled with water. The bottom of the flowered-stem did not even skim the water's surface so it was not surprising that the water-deprived flowers were languishing, plucked from their outside habitat. I promptly filled the vase with water and set it on the kitchen table where I could keep a supervisory eye on it, enjoying the sight, while our two cats were afoot. After their usual morning fare of the briny and fishy nuggets, they would only be too happy to finish things off with an herbaceous dessert.

For me, tea time at last -and sorely needed. I was still groggy with sleep, probably too much of it; in this case, an attempt to make up for lack of hours slept during the work-week. My attempt backfired and I ended up with a mental fog upon awakening.

I set the kettle to boil and settled on an oolong. One fairly new to me, Rishi's Bao Zhong, a lightly oxidized oolong. I took out the wild berry buttermilk cake I had made yesterday after work. The berries were a gift from a patient who dropped off the bundle at my office. They drew attention, aromatic with a ribbon of Thai basil adorning the basket. A note attached enjoined me to enjoy them with my tea. I felt they were too pretty to eat. But after one whole day of gazing on them as they sat on the kitchen counter, my sweet tooth prevailed and I found a pretext to indulge in more baking.

I pulled out the recipe for this berry buttermilk cake, stashed in the growing pile of recipe clippings culled from food magazines and newspapers, all stuffed into a drawer of the kitchen table. Baking with buttermilk would be a first for me, and after reading encomiums on the richness of this cake in other food blogs, I was anxious to make it myself.

So here it was, already a slice poorer from last night's late noshing. The tea finished brewing and I poured the golden liquor into my cup. The taste was light and fruity as I had expected from a lightly oxidized oolong. I sipped the tea and ate the cake, the latter still toothsomely tender the next day, unwarmed. I thought of a patient who had been in the throes of clinical depression, despairing of ever feeling well again. He saw his life in a monotone of gray. I saw him again a month later after he started treatment. He walked into my office, his face a relaxed mien, hopeful. He now finds enjoyment again in playing with his kids.

I finished my cup of tea and looked up to see the petals revived.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Birthday Dinner

It is not everyday that I get to be a part of an 85th year birthday celebration. E and I ushered in his father's birthday over the weekend. A hale and hearty octogenarian, Morris loves to eat. A pastrami sandwich on rye at a humble diner would suit him equally well as an opulent dinner at a four-star restaurant. Birthdays, however, call for opulence, and for the last several years, my father-in-law has marked each of his birthdays by inviting a group of us to a lavish dinner. This year was no exception. The destination was L20, a high-end and high-concept seafood restaurant in Chicago. I did forgo my usual vegetarianism -employing many rationalizations to assuage my guilt; I didn't want to hurt Morris's feelings by not fully partaking in the offerings of the menu. But the ignoble truth is that I was mainly motivated by curiosity. Curious about what molecular gastronomy is all about - this new genre in haute cuisine that the restaurant is known for. This school of cooking employs new-fangled, high-tech machines as well as the more mundane staples of a high school science lab -like Erlenmeyer flasks and their attendant rubber tubings, for example- to create dishes that take novel and often bizarre forms.

I wanted to fully absorb the experience -embrace all the nuances of the food, the surroundings, and of course, enjoy the company. But this desire, curiously enough, caused me some anxiety as I wondered if I were up to the task . I don't consider myself a connoisseur of haute cuisine by any means, someone with such a rarefied palate that she could invariably detect the trace of yuzu essence (perhaps distilled with an Erlenmeyer flask) infusing her steaming broth of a shabu shabu dish (that was my main course). Nor could I be confident of parsing all the subtle flavors present in my warm octopus dish. What I did detect, however, was an expertly-crafted dish with a hint of tarragon enhancing the succulence of the octopus, presented artfully in a hollow of a startlingly large plate. I beheld this beautiful sight, surrounded by the wood-panelled decorum of our dimly lit dining room.

And then there was the tea, not to be outdone by the food. The selection was impressive in its eclecticism: a pu-erh, a rooibos, Keemun, Silver Needles, several greens, and even tencha -precursor in the production of matcha, the Japanese powder green tea. I was bowled over as this was one of the few times I have seen tencha offered anywhere. I was duly impressed and much as I wanted to order the tencha, I opted for a pot of rooibos instead, this being late evening, and I didn't want the heft of caffeine in tencha to keep me awake that night.

I sipped the silkily sweet rooibos from my cup. Tropical notes emanated from the tisane. I poured myself another cup from the alabaster-white pot and watched the steam rising as I let my tea cool a bit. I took a bite from my dessert of a creamy rhubarb confection, garnished with the candied edible flower. I savored the gutsy, unmistakable tang of rhubarb as I sat in rapt mindfulness, throwing cares of connoisseurship to the winds.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I was truly agog, standing there, in the middle of a teashop in Chinatown - the proverbial kid in her candy store. All around me were canisters filled with dry tea leaves and herbs of all sorts, destined for tisanes. My head spun at the largesse as I walked around, trailed by the eager owner. Did I want a tea set, only for thirty dollars, or would I like some of this black tea? She removed the lid and brought the glass container closer for me to inspect. I breathed in the scent of pine wafting from the tea leaves. As my cache of morning black tea was disappearing fast at home, I nodded eagerly in response to her query in Chinese, with a smattering of several decipherable key-words in English thrown in. In the end, I made off with this mysterious black tea of unknown provenance, along with a bag of the familiar Lung Ching Dragonwell.

At home today, I am making a pot of Lung Ching for E and me. I can't remember when I first started drinking this tea. Three, four years ago? Since then, I have made countless pots of Lung Ching. Initially, I experimented with brewing times or varied slightly the amounts of tea leaves used. Over time, I found a succession of steps that produced a good pot of Lung Ching: boil the water, let it cool for three and a half minutes, and then steep 2 teaspoons of tea leaves in enough water for two cups of tea for another three and a half minutes. So a routine of sorts has emerged for me, now when I make this tea -as well as other teas. But there is more to it than just a series of calibrated steps.

Each time I make tea, there are other elements present that affect my tea drinking experience. It may involve the delicate flared rim of a teacup versus the sturdy china handle of another. The leaves rustling outside as I sip from my cup, gazing out the kitchen window, invite contemplation and enjoyment of solitude. E and I sipping together in the late morning - a communal experience- is something else. It is a shared moment of drinking tea, its taste and scent now familiar and cherished qualities.
I seem to discover the tea anew each time, like a cat reexperiencing a not-so-new toy, that he pulls out from under the bed, as if for the first time.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Mindful Moment

What constitutes a perfect cup of tea? Is this a quixotic quest? I ask myself these questions as I brew a pot of sencha, a first-flush from this spring harvest. The tea arrived in the mail several days ago in a nondescript package belying the treasure inside. I tore open the trim cardboard box and pulled from it the small bag bearing the sencha. I imagined the tea's provenance: lush fields of tea bushes on verdant hillsides, dewy with mists. Weeks later, the harvested leaves are nestled in a tea canister in my tea cabinet, their final home.
I scoop two spoonfuls of the sencha into a pot of hot water - almost tepid as not to scorch the delicate needle-shaped leaves. My finger had rested comfortably in the water for a few minutes and gave its verdict: the water could now receive the leaves safely. A mere minute later, the tea is ready. The steeped leaves amass like cooked spinach along the sides of the glass infuser inside the pot; the liquor, a beautiful light green. I slowly pour the tea into our cups at the kitchen table. I see stray bits of the leaves speckle the bottom of my cup. I hold the warm cup in my hands and breathe in the aroma. Vegetal -wonderfully so- characteristically sencha-natured. I sip expectantly. The taste is full-flavored, sweetly laden with umami and barely astringent. E sips from his a cup, across the table, and we sit together this morning, for awhile. With each moment attended, perfection seems not so quixotic after all.