When you enter a cafe in Taiwan, it smells great, it’s quiet, people talk about everyday things. They are tasting tea. Gong Fu Cha It is the name of the Chinese tea ritual practiced here, with gong fu meaning as much as it means elaborate, refined, or literal. It is above all: with interest and good mood.
Is drinking tea a spiritual act or a social upbringing? This is something to consider if you are walking down Dihua Street, or any of the other old neighborhoods in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei. You are actually talking about the difference between Japanese and Chinese tea rituals. Although they have the same origin, the tea ritual in Japan is now a serene spiritual affair. On the other hand, in China, it is more realistic and more about comfort and tasting tea. You could say: it’s all about the tea leaves.
This does not mean that it is an easy ritual, because when you enter such a café, a confusing amount of cups and attributes may be placed in front of you. Feel free to ask for an explanation. Gong Fu Cha is the name of the Chinese tea ritual. Gong Fu means “broad, refined”, “literal” and this is exactly the correct word. It is a series of careful and loving acts, with flowery descriptions such as ‘Black Dragon Enters the Palace’ (Put the tea leaves in the pot), ‘Spring breeze in your face’ (Smell the scent of the cap) and ‘Guan Gong’ patrols the city’ (Fill the cups tea in a circular motion).
The first to describe the tea ritual in detail was the Chinese tea master Lu Yu, in the eighth century. Lu Yi made his own drink from dried tea instead of tea leaves, but the essence of the concern was the same. No one described how water boiled more beautifully than Lu Yu. The first stage is when bubbles float to the surface of the water like fish eyes. The second boiling point is when bubbles like crystal pearls in a fountain tumble, and the third boiling point is when the waves sway violently in the cauldron.
Tea already had a long history in Lu Yu’s time. According to tradition, it was the legendary Shen Nong (meaning: “Divine Farmer”) who one day 2,737 years before our era found a number of tea leaves in his pot of boiling water, into which he was blown. Another (somewhat horrific) legend tells of Bodhidharma, who wanted to stay awake during meditation, cut off his eyelids and threw them into the bush from which the first tea plants grew. In India, they tell of a monk chewing some tea leaves during a pilgrimage to China to keep him awake.
to you in taiwan
Anyway, this was all long before tea was made in Taiwan. If you take the four-kilometre gondola lift from Taipei to Mount Maokong and walk among the tea fields there, you’ll see the tea culture that really took off in the 19th century and took off even more when British tea merchant John Dodd decided not to. Not only to arrange cultivation, but also to process tea in Taiwan and send tea to England, rather than sell it in China. He sent one of the teas to Queen Victoria, who was so pleased with it that the tea got its own name: Oriental Beauty.
Oolong tea was, and remains, the most popular tea from Taiwan. It is somewhere between green and black tea in terms of taste and aroma. Logically: tea is only partially oxidized.
Oxidation is the natural process that occurs after tea leaves come into contact with oxygen in the air, just like apple pieces turn brown. You can stop this process by heating the leaves and then have green tea. Or you can roll and crush the leaves several times in between so that more oxygen is added and therefore more oxidation of the black tea occurs. Oolong is somewhere in between.
Beautiful legend: the owner of the tea garden in Formosa, as it was then called, was just in the middle of the harvest season when he suddenly saw a snake among the tea plants from which he had escaped (in other stories, he would leave the harvest in a stab to chase deer). When he later returned, the tea leaves had changed color in the sun, and the tea he had made from them turned out to have a very distinctive taste.
They say oolong was the name of a tea plantation. So. But no matter how exactly it went, the story shows how close everything is, the process of making tea. All tea comes from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), of which there are many varieties. But there are many factors that affect the taste and aroma of tea. Not just the climate, the altitude at which the tea plant grows and the soil. The method of processing is just as important. It wilts, oxidizes, and may still ripen. Tea can be made in hundreds, no, in a thousand ways. There are training courses for this in China, and a true tea master has completed a fifteen-year process, as if it were nothing.
The only female among the ten active tea connoisseurs outside of China comes from Taiwan, Yu Hui Tseng. She owns the exclusive La Maison des Trois Thés tea house in Paris, which sells tea at thousands of euros per kilogram, and still regularly goes to Taiwan to harvest her tea, according to her own ideas and regulations. Because oh, listen closely!
Dry the tea, a few minutes in the sun, then in the shed, gently bruise the edges, continue to smell, then stop the oxidation by heating the leaves, rolling and roasting the leaves – it’s a dance with the tea leaves, every step can be different, every decision changes the taste . When you see Maître Tseng (see YouTube) in conversation with chefs, winemakers, or chocolatiers, tasting tea is like tasting wine. Inhale the lid of the teacup. Pay attention to smell. Taste. Describe the complex flavors and stories about the distinctive teas.
For example, Maître Tseng travels to Taiwan to harvest leaves from a single 160-year-old tree, then stays overnight next to the tea leaves, tossing them at just the right time. It costs something, but then you also have something.
Tea as a substitute for wine
The comparison to wine isn’t that crazy after all. Like wine, tea is a world in itself, which becomes more fun and interesting the more you delve into it. The good news is: you don’t have to go to Taiwan for this.
Another nice idea: If you really want to cut back on wine, tea is the perfect alternative. Why fish three times with a tea bag in a cup of warm water? barbaric! Try it, heat the teapot and take the time to brew a pot of white tea. Do not open a bottle at five o’clock, but put your nose into a can of Lapsang Souchong. Tea with dinner. Why not?
But really taste it. And choose your groups carefully. Milk chocolate and milk oolong. Slightly oxidized oolong with apple pie. Oolong is heavier with winter stew. For the sophisticated, earthy flavors of real pu-erh tea, a fermented tea kept in clumps and allowed to simmer softly for years.
cherish the moment
Boil the water, watch for bubbles that look like fish eyes. Heat the teapot, pour it and empty it, letting the tea leaves gently unfold, so that they can release their flavor and aroma. Place the cups and pour them in a circular motion…it’s about the idea. Meanwhile, don’t forget to catch up. Relative a little too. everything passes. Let’s cherish the moment. Or to quote the tea master Kakuzu Okakura (The Book of Tea): “Let us dream of steadfastness, and stop at the folly of glorious things.”
Curious about how this tea ritual works? watch this video:
*This article is from Happynes “Meaning”.
Photo: Photography by Birgitta de Vos
Want to read more about tea?
are you sad? This tea provides relief.