Sunday, November 13, 2005

Not for all the Tea in China

Tea in Shanghai is not what it is in the US. I don't mean to say it's made from something weird, but that it occupies a different niche than what you'll get in Chinese restaurant back in the US. Most of those places in the US, they'll give a nice pot of tea, with some minced-up leaves that settle at the bottom of your glass. I believe that's a perfectly authentic Cantonese style of drinking tea. But it doesn't jibe with how it's done in Shanghai.

Here, if you go to a normal Chinese-style cafe, you'll be given a glass of incredibly hot water, with some leaves in it. These leaves float on the surface, flavoring the water. The idea is that as the water cools, the leaves will sink down to the bottom. With the higher-quality teas, they'll rise and fall a few times, before eventually sinking to the bottom. However in practice the leaves never all agree to head to the bottom of the glass. There's a certain art to drinking the tea without getting any in your mouth - an art I haven't quite mastered.

Note the two teas, which are probably the most popular ones in Shanghai: on the left is green tea, it was delicious if I recall. On the right is flower tea, it's a bunch of dried white jasmine flowers. Jasmine tea's taste isn't my favorite but it does look really cool. Once you've reached the bottom of the glass, somebody will re-fill it with more incredibly hot water.

The tea starts out life a little uglier. Here is some tea in my apartment, right out of the bag. It's green tea on the left, and Oolong tea on the right. The leaves look like something from under the sofa, until they're soaked in water for a bit. Even a small grocery store or convenience store will have dozens of these dried teas for sale, and premium tea stores are pretty common.

But of course tea is consumed in other ways, you can't get away from it! A large amount of people will carry around thermoses of tea. Partially the tea sun-dries and partially there's hot water easily available in a lot of places. Sometimes these thermoses have a little of this and a little of that, it's strangely artistic, although I have no idea how or why you'd want to mix up the various kinds of tea.

And of course pearl milk tea drinks (with sweetened milk mostly overwhelming the flavor of the tea) are found on nearly every block. They'll cost maybe a quarter or fifty cents, and are often served warm or even hot. You can also find iced tea at convenience stores, but they're all lightly sweetened, which I find repulsive.

Surprisingly, most local restaurants I go to will not have tea available. Instead, the liquid comes from ordering a light soup. If they do have any drinks, it'll be soy milk, or a juice, or a milk tea (with or without the pearls).

And you do see teabags around, I'll notice them in offices or situations where free leaves would be too messy. They're also available at the cafes you'll see in the more Westernized areas, which attract a certain kind of clientel:

1 comment:

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