Nicole’s latest post wondering “where have all the tea bloggers gone” reminded me of this space. Yes, it may have been a year and a half since I last posted here, but I am still around, mostly on Instagram and TikTok. Of course, over the years since I’ve had various blogs, blogging has transitioned into content creation and influencing. We now have a range of platforms that cater to every talent and attention span level. I’ve had a lot of fun with the short-form video format of TikTok, and in the past I’ve enjoyed playing with the visual microblogging aspect of Instagram. But at heart, I am a long-form writer. Those who have followed this blog for a while (a long while now) will be well aware that I adore rambling on in the written word.
Today, I am sipping some of last year’s first flush Darjeeling as I attempt to make room for the new flush I have coming in later this week. This is pertinent because it directly relates to a new project I’ve started. You may know that I have participated in NaNoWriMo in the past and I have tried my hand several times at writing novel-length works. Well, I have decided to take this a step further. Inspired by my friends who have found success sharing their work through self-publishing, I have decided to write something for self-publication.
But I have not just decided to self-publish anything — I am writing a new work that is inspired by my love of tea. The main character is a tea shop owner and tea aficionado who lives in a small town. The book will follow her as she ends up in a messy situation and has to use all her senses to get herself out! That is all I’m going to reveal for now, but look forward to more to come, likely on social media more than here. But I will be sure to announce when I have a firm date for release! For now, my goal is to release it sometime before the end of the year.
It’s not a secret that Naoki Matcha is one of my favorite matcha companies and recently, they contacted me to be part of the tasters for their new blends coming out. They sent me 20g of each blend from three different regions of Japan and while they were content with private feedback, I thought I would share my notes here.
The packaging is a sleek black resealable bag with the Naoki Matcha branding. I love the gold-on-black color scheme. The powder itself is very creamy-textured, almost like a really high-end eyeshadow. There wasn’t a whole lot of variation in the colors among the three of them, but all three are vibrantly green. And they were all a little complicated to sift because that creamy texture tended to stick in the sifter, but a little tap with my scoop freed it.
I tasted all three of these whisked traditionally with a bamboo whisk. I used the same white glazed clay chawan for all three and kept parameters consistent. All three were made with 2g of matcha powder, sifted, and whisked with 60ml of water that was at 85C.
This is the most subtle of the three. The aroma of the dry powder is green and nutty, like cooked chicory. It has a smooth mouthfeel that I described as like velvet and thick cream. The flavor is mellow, with little discernible bitterness initially, but a soft bitterness on the back of the tongue. The froth is thick and dense, like a flat white. The overall flavor experience is like a leafy green vegetable cooked in a peppery olive oil, with a vegetal umami flavor. The body energy of this matcha was very warm and stimulating.
This powder immediately reminded me of the “classic” matcha baked good aroma. When you think of something being green-tea flavored, this is what it smells like. The foam was a slightly brighter green and looked very glossy upon being whisked. The flavor is much brighter, with a tart or fruity astringency on the initial flavor. This has a milder umami flavor and a lighter mouthfeel that dissipates without coating the mouth. There is some bitterness on the aftertaste, but it is tempered by the astringent brightness. I tasted a lingering tartness at the back of my tongue.
This one has a savory aroma and a creamy texture. I taste it almost entirely in the back of my mouth, with flavors of asparagus in butter. The bitterness perfectly matches the bitterness of very fresh asparagus (which I’ve recently had the opportunity to taste, as I grow it myself). It looked gritty in the bowl, like I didn’t whisk it enough but I didn’t detect any feeling of grit in the mouth. The asparagus flavor fills the mouth and lingers in the aftertaste, with a creamy, mouth-coating texture. This one had a chill body energy.
I haven’t tried any of these blends in lattes, but I might experiment with that soon. For now, each of them has their own unique qualities that I turn to for different mornings. Uji Harmony is more inspirational, while Nishio Bloom is a more low-key morning. And all three have made their way into my matcha practice, if not for good (these might be limited edition), at least for as long as they last.
When I was in college, I dated a guy who explained why we were together using the concept of utility matrices from economics. This wasn’t a reference to any money either of us had, but rather he used the idea of maximizing the utility matrix and applied it to maximizing personal pleasure. Now, as a romantic 20-something, this sounded horribly dry and unappealing to me, and that relationship… didn’t last. But I suppose I owe him an apology because as I grow older, I somewhat understand what he meant.
Rather than seeing it as a dispassionate calculation, I realize that happiness and pleasure are in fact a balance of different options. And as I progress in my life, pleasure is one of the things that I strive to maximize. But what brings me pleasure and what brings others pleasure are going to be different. That balance and optimization are going to be different for everyone.
On its basest level, pleasure is the avoidance of discomfort. And on the base of my understanding of pleasure comes the experiences I’ve had that convince me that certain things, though I may enjoy them in the moment, will ultimately have displeasure that outweighs their pleasure. Coffee is one of those things. As I get older, my body increasingly shows its displeasure at being given coffee. So even though I actually adore the taste and experience of coffee, I’ve started largely limiting myself to enjoying the aroma when my spouse makes his morning cup.
On the flip side of that, sometimes something that seems unpleasant can yield more pleasure than the initial unpleasantness. Waking at 5:30 a.m. and exercising it not many people’s idea of a good time, but the endorphins from the exercise and the delicious experience of the still quiet of the early morning brings me more pleasure than lying in bed until noon ever did (with a few exceptions ;)). And I always choose exercise that I enjoy, so it’s not an ordeal to get through to get to the afterglow. By the time I have my workout clothes on and push the button to start my video, I’m excited, I’m anticipating the joy of this ritual.
But beyond the trade-off pleasures that I have, my routines are also maximized to deliver things that I solely enjoy. Like my morning croissant. The full sensory experience of my tea practice, calling on all of my senses to fully immerse myself in a practice of pleasure each day. The bright swipe of lipstick or the feel of my favorite skin care against my skin. Feeling the grass between my toes as I enjoy my yard or tend to the garden. The smell and flavor of fresh herbs.
The primary reason I do most of what I do is for pleasure. Yes, I still work, but I try to find the joy in it. And if you were to ask me why I do anything “unnecessary” in my life, the answer would be the same: for pleasure. There is no aspect of my personal hobbies that are done for anything other than the enjoyment they bring. While my historical studies of tea have taught me that medicinal qualities of teas have their place in tea culture, I drink tea because I enjoy it. It’s one of the reasons I can be so selective about the teas I accept as samples anymore, because it’s not worth it to me to drink a tea I don’t enjoy simply to build a brand relationship. I’d rather build a relationship with those whose teas I enjoy, even if they never decide to send me anything for free.
But that is my personal idea of pleasure. Everyone’s idea of pleasure and enjoyment will be different. In the same way that some people like bananas and I do not, some people enjoy being able to turn their passion for tea into a career by cultivating wide business networks. Or their passion for beauty, for skincare, for fashion. And that is their pleasure.
I think my favorite saying is “Don’t yuck someone’s yum.” It is a reminder to let people enjoy what they enjoy, whether it’s a 50-year-old, well-stored sheng puer from your favorite mountain, or a perfect red lip.
In my post on tea and travel, I mentioned that I didn’t need to pack any gongfucha essentials because if I needed my gongfucha “fix,” I could visit West China Tea House in Austin, run by the tea community great Sohan of the Tea House Ghost YouTube channel. Well, I didn’t just visit once, but twice! It’s a gorgeous space in an unassuming building off of I-35 and I had a blast.
The first visit was on a Wednesday evening, around 6pm, with a friend. We sat at the communal table, where you can have tea served by one of their tea-arts-trained staff for $5 a pot. We had Ben make us tea and he shared some of his favorites with us: the Sticky Rice Sheng Puer, the Haunted Plum 1992 Oolong, and the Ultra Violet Red Tea. The sense of community is palpable and my friend and I were able to both catch up with each other, as well as make new friends at the table. We met Sohan’s wife Lindsay and their baby, Lark, and just generally had a blast. Plus, I got to taste three new-to-me teas that I immediately turned around and ordered for my own collection so I could recreate my tea house session at home, at least in theory.
The communal tea table itself bears mentioning. It is a beautiful piece in dark wood, designed by a well-known tea practitioner in California and perfect for communal gongfucha. Despite practicing gongfucha for over five years, I feel like sitting at this table truly helped me understand the essential community aspect of tea. The semi-circular ledge of the table makes it easy for the host to reach all the guests from the central seat, creating a seamless tea experience that allowed the tea to be a centerpiece or an accompaniment to conversation as the session went on.
Of course, I did not get to meet Sohan that evening, as he was teaching a class the whole time. So I had to return. I went back on a Saturday afternoon, when the tea house was quiet and Sohan had just finished an Instagram Live. We immediately sat down and were able to converse like old friends, over copious rounds of teas, from oolongs to heicha. Every session was a revelation of the style of tea, and of course included stories from Sohan about sourcing each tea. I had mentioned that I had never had a truly memorable Dancong and of course was treated to an excellent one. I felt so special, treated to teas picked just for me from Sohan’s collection.
And of course, we talked. We talked about tea and tea houses. We talked about history and tea culture. We talked about our children and about life in general. We talked like it was college and we were staying up drinking until the wee hours of the morning. We spent three hours drinking tea and talking and I only left to make it back to my room before an event I had that evening. I could have easily spent all day at the shop drinking tea and talking with Sohan, Bernabe, and Montsho.
I will definitely be returning to West China Tea House the next time I visit Austin, but until then, I’ll be replenishing my own collection with teas from their site to help capture that thought and care Sohan puts into choosing his teas in my own personal practice.
Okay, so this is the one that I’ve been the most hesitant to write, not only because I think it might upset some self-avowed “teaheads,” but also because I pride myself on my use of good sources, and frankly, I can’t actually read many of the primary sources that I would really, really like to in this case. But I have phenomenal respect for Lawrence Zhang and his excellent article that is the main source for this post (also cited below with the one primary source I found in English). So here we go.
The concept of gongfucha as “The Chinese Tea Ceremony” is a product of political turmoil and erases the complexity and variety of culture in the country of China. And it isn’t the only way to make tea “in the Chinese style” or the pinnacle of tea brewing practice. There are not only other ways to make tea, there are other Chinese ways of making tea. And the way Westerners talk about gongfucha sometimes borders on fetishization (and it can even erase other, non-Chinese ways of making tea).
First of all, it’s important to understand that gongfucha is not an “ancient Chinese tea ceremony.” It’s not ancient, and until the 20th century it was largely unknown outside of a small area in the southeast of what we now call the country of China. Brewing loose tea leaves was not common practice among the noble class in Imperial China until the Ming Dynasty (the 14th-17th century), but loose leaf brewing may have become popular in the 14th or 15th century in the regions where the practices that influenced gongfucha originated. And while the 14th and 15th centuries are before tea came to Europe, it isn’t really “ancient.”
And then there is the fact that this practice was simply a regional method, unknown outside of the region it was practiced, until the late 18th century, when famed Qing dynasty poet and gastronome Yuan Mei published his Suiyuan Shidan in which he described the tea practice of the monks in the Wuyi mountains. And even then, he didn’t use the phrase “gong fu cha” to describe it. That came later.
Even in the 20th century, gongfucha was not a common style of tea in China. In 1937, Fuijian native Lin Yutang describes a method of steeping tea that sounds remarkably similar to modern-day gongfucha and then comments that this is “a strict description of preparing a special kind of tea…in my native province [of Fujian], an art generally unknown in North China.” The first dedicated writing on gongfucha comes in 1957 when Weng Huidong publishes his documentation of this process.
So why is this regional practice, largely unknown until the 20th century now considered “The Chinese tea ceremony” outside of China? Well, that comes from its association with the Han Chinese who fled to the island of Taiwan in the 1970s. You can read the details in Zhang’s paper, but basically, the Han Chinese who opposed the Communist Party in mainland China set about developing formal cultural arts that they felt connected them authentically to their mainland heritage.
And yet, when we practice gongfucha in the States or in Europe, there is very little acknowledgement of this history of displacement and political turmoil. We simply see it as a fancy art that makes us feel connected to another culture. And while it’s not a problem to share in a culture that has been shared with us, it is important to recognize that viewing gongfucha as the only authentically Chinese way to make tea is not only a product of deeply complicated politics, but also simply untrue. I’ve spoken before about how many people in China drink their tea in a way that Zhang dubbed “grandpa style” after the older men he saw drink this way. I personally saw that my Chinese friends in grad school drank their tea this way — loose leaves in a mug, often with a cover to keep it warm as it just steeped untimed, refilled with hot water as needed. Even in the famed Pu’erh-producing regions of Yunnan province, this is a common way to drink tea.
Finally, by focusing on gongfucha as the “true tea,” we are erasing other country’s tea practices (which is ironic, considering that Japanese tea practice directly influenced the framing of gongfucha as “the Chinese tea ceremony”), which can have deep roots in their resistance of colonialism. I have seen someone in a tea group ask for a way to make masala chai using gongfucha methods because he wanted to make it “better.” But this implies that the cultural tradition of boiling tea with milk and spices that makes masala chai masala chai is somehow inferior to our perception of what makes tea preparation “correct.” Gongfucha is not the only way to make tea (it’s not even the only Chinese way of making tea) and it is not the “best” way to make tea. And treating it as such, especially as a Westerner without a firm understanding of its complex history and modern origins, turns appreciation into fetishization.
So enjoy your gongfu tea practice. Collect your teaware. Tell receptive friends about it. But don’t treat it like it is somehow on top of a false hierarchy of cultural practices. And recognize that gongfucha, as we practice it, is not an ancient practice.
As you may be aware, the last year and a bit have been unusual. But recently, I received my second vaccine dose and not long after that, my job decided that it was time for me to start traveling for work again. What you may not know is that I actually haven’t traveled for work in almost three years, since I was pregnant, because I didn’t travel for the first year of Elliot’s life, and once I was ready to consider it again, we were plunged into isolation. So last week, I found myself back on a plane and plopped down in a new city.
And of course, I cannot travel without having a plan for my tea. Now, I love my travel gongfu set, but because I was visiting Austin, TX, I knew I could forgo a lot of equipment in favor of some simple grandpa-style brewing and teas that work well for that. Of course, if I needed a gongfucha fix, I could visit West China Tea House.
This gets at the heart of my travel philosophy: travel to the place you are going. You aren’t going to need all things for all places. If I were going to a small resort in the mountains of New England, I might prioritize different things, but going to a city where I knew there was a world-class tea house, I knew I could save space in my bag (I travel exclusively with carry-on) and focus on quick, everyday tea that wouldn’t immediately brand me as high maintenance or eccentric in my professional life. Well, at least not more eccentric…
My favorite travel brewing method is grandpa style because you just pop the tea in your vessel, add water, and go. I can use my trusty 16-oz. thermal flask that also doubles as a water bottle. And my favorite teas for brewing grandpa style are teas that don’t become unpleasantly bitter when steeped for a very long time, and teas that are large-leaf or rolled, like rolled oolongs or pearl teas. So this time, I brought my beloved Black Dragon Pearls from The Steeped Leaf, as well as a 10g sample of Pear Mountain oolong from Mountain Stream teas. I love samples for travel because they don’t take up space, I feel free to share them with interested colleagues, and I can usually finish the whole packet on my trip so they don’t take up space on the way back.
All I need at my hotel or room is a source of hot water. I try to choose teas that are not fussy about water temperature, so that I can plunk some tea into my vessel, add water, and go. In a room with a kitchenette or a shared apartment or house, I can relax with a mug and watch the leaves unfurl, but on a busy morning, I can go straight into my travel flask and be ready for my day.
If I’m going somewhere with good examples of tea culture — like when I visited Tetere in Barcelona three years ago — I try to look at my schedule and at least roughly plan when I might be able to visit the tea house during my trip. This trip, I was lucky to have two opportunities to visit West China Tea House: once with a fried as a sort of spur-of-the-moment decision, and once again on my own over the weekend. Of course, those visits deserve their own post, so watch for that this week. But exploring tea culture in the cities I visit is a wonderful way to connect with places I might not be visiting entirely by choice, but by necessity, and also scratch my tea itches. And sometimes, an enthusiastic tea artist introduces you to the most amazing aged oolong you’ve ever had…
Alternate title: “The Boston Tea Party is Relevant Today and Not For the Reasons You Think”
Yes, another one. Apparently, a follower on Instagram who had missed my previous three posts on the political history of tea decided to tell me that “tea should be relaxing, not political.” Obviously, I disagree. And plenty of my other followers immediately came into my DMs with “Yeah, have they never heard of the Boston Tea Party?!” Oh yes, we’re doing the Boston Tea Party today.
But guess what? The Boston Tea Party isn’t what you think it is. It’s come up a lot recently because of the violence, property damage, and looting that occurred surrounding the protests in support of Black lives this year. People on one side of the argument pointed out that looting is considered patriotic when it’s white people destroying tea, while others turned to refute that by ascribing higher morals and debunking that the Boston Tea Party was at all similar to looting Target.
So, in case there are people who aren’t familiar with the “Boston Tea Party,” as it has been come to be called since the 19th century, it was an event in December 1773 when a group of men disguised themselves and destroyed a shipment of tea belonging to the British East India Company. But the details of the event, and its significance in the motivations for the American Revolution, have been shrouded in the mythology of the noble founding fathers.
The myth is that a group of noble Sons of Liberty valiantly destroyed only the tea belonging to the British East India Company in protest of the taxes levied by the crown, selflessly refusing to take anything for themselves or to touch any private property. After this single, glorious act, the cause of liberty was begun, leading to the American Revolution, which freed the colonies and created the new democratic country of the United States of America. Well… it’s actually a lot more nuanced than that.
First of all, they were not protesting higher taxes. They were actually, technically, protesting lower taxes. The Tea Act of 1773 granted license to the East India Tea Company to import their tea without the typical duties levied against other teas coming into the colonies. This amounted to a decrease in the cost of tea for the colonists, if they bought EIC tea. Now, Malcolm Gladwell has argued that the real motivation was that the tax break for the EIC meant that smugglers were now getting undercut, but that seems to be a slightly reductive, naive reading of the situation.
Instead, the main concern was not that tea was too expensive, but that the colonists were protesting the levying of taxes without their input and the fact that the Crown was giving a specific tax break to one large company, effectively granting them a monopoly. The phrase “no taxation without representation” became a rallying cry, not because taxes were too high, but because they were too biased. In fact, the phrase “End Taxation Without Representation” still appears on DC license plates, as the District is federally taxed without full representation in Congress, and yet DC statehood is not supported by many conservatives for *reasons*.
And, yes, notable founding fathers like George Washington and John Adams wrote negatively about “the destruction of the tea,” as it was called at the time. While they supported the cause of colonial liberty (well, for them, at least), they spoke out of both sides of their mouths, lest they sever ties with their business contacts. In my video “Tea with Abigail Adams,” I discuss how, despite the perception that drinking tea was unpatriotic immediately following the destruction of the tea, Americans seemed to have quickly forgotten their newfound protest and return to tea-drinking rather quickly. Adams writes frequently in the years after 1773 about some new tea or other that he has tried and wanted to send home to his wife, and Abigail Adams includes bohea tea in her list of household expenses.
Plus, many of John’s business contacts were in the hospitality business and maintained ties to British ideology in order to serve foreign dignitaries. The politics of business has always been murky. So it is nothing new when a modern company posts support for a cause one day, but continues the practices that benefit them the next. In fact, this is part of the legacy of the Boston Tea Party.
Now, we get to the ideological effect of the Boston Tea Party. First of all, the term “Boston Tea Party” seems to have been coined around 1825 by newspapers referring to the historic event some fifty years earlier. At the time, it was simply known as the destruction of the tea or the dumping of the tea. Even a famous engraving from 1789, which has been come to be called “The Boston Tea Party,” was originally simply titled “Americans throwing the cargoes of the tea ships into the river, at Boston.”
Beyond that, the disguise as Mohawk indigenous people, while it has been explained as a statement of identification with the indigenous population of the continent and not as British subjects, was not as comprehensive as later depictions suggest. Contemporary accounts talk of people grabbing ragged clothing and blackening their faces with soot to suggest “savages” rather than donning well-thought-out costumes. That, combined with the secrecy surrounding the identities of the protestors, suggests that the disguises were just that — a way to avoid being identified. And the result was that the Crown, in the absence of specific people to prosecute, cracked down on the whole of the colonies. And THAT was what brought together politically disparate colonial leaders into supporting the Revolution.
As far as the issue of theft goes, while it was generally accepted that the purpose of the event was protest and destruction, not personal gain, the eyewitness account does point out the one or two were caught pocketing the tea and were “roughly handled” by their fellows, but one can imagine that there must have been some who were not caught. While many of the protestors had this ideal, it is apparent that not all of them did. So it is also unrealistic to claim that none of the protestors would stoop to theft. If modern protestors are caught stealing, perhaps it is only because we have a lot more first-hand evidence of current events on camera than we have of events of 250 years ago.
Finally, the protest at Boston is 1773 was not an isolated event. It happens to be the most well-known, but tea protests occurred throughout the colonies, both before and after the Boston event. In 1774, tea protests occurred in my own home state of Maryland in Annapolis and Chestertown. This was not a single, isolated event, carried out by proud, non-violent, non-self-interested people. This was a rash of violence and destruction throughout the country, as it was at the time, that prompted a brutal response from the Crown. And this response led to war.
I suppose the point of this article is 1.) as a reminder that tea has been used as a symbol of politics in the United States specifically since before our country was founded, and 2.) that protest is nuanced. When we view past protest, we are viewing it through the filter of time and the biases of the historians. They say that history is written by the victors, and it’s true here as well. So when criticizing politics and political unrest, it is occasionally important to take a step back and who might be trying to encourage your emotional response to align with their opinion. It turns out the Boston Tea Party is very relevant to modern protests, but not because it was invariably hailed as good and pure from day one, but because it is a perfect example of an event that was decried as violent and destructive at the time becoming a symbol of freedom.
I’m tasting another tea from my Tea Thoughts Halloween box today! This week, I’m tasting the Fortune Teller Nepalese black tea from Aera Tea Co. This is a pretty classic black tea and I was excited to sit down and taste it, at least for a couple of infusions, since I already knew it as a very cozy cup of black tea to just be with on a chilly morning.
But first, let’s talk about the name. Fortune Teller is an obvious reference to the archetype of the tea-leaf reader, which comes from Romani culture. The Romani people, originally from the Indian subcontinent, traveled throughout Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa, often following some of the same land routes that brought trade between Asia and Europe. They have communities all over the world today, and one of their most well-known cultural practices are those related to divination, such as tarot and tea-leaf reading.
While the practice became very popular in Britain, likely from existing folk practices of reading wax drippings and other nondistinct shapes, tasseography — divination from the leavings in a cup — originated in Romani culture and it is directly from their influence that these divination practices not only spread around the European world, but became wildly popular. It is important to remember these origins, as the archetype of the “fortune teller” often falls into the trap of stereotyping and harmful generalization based on racist tropes used against the Romani (particularly a certain word, beginning with G, that is often used as a synonym for “free spirit,” but in reality is a slur against the Romani). So I thought it was important to acknowledge the Romani contribution to the landscape of divinatory practices in the modern world, as their contributions permeate it, despite rarely being credited.
Anyway, on to the tea. I used 5 grams in my 120-ml fish teapot with boiling water. I warmed the pot and got aromas of black bread and raisins from the dry leaf. The first infusion was for twenty seconds, after which the wet leaf smelled of brown sugar and dark chocolate. The liquor itself had an intensely smooth, creamy texture in the mouth, a faint sweet aroma, and a sweet, bready flavor. The tannin was extremely mild and there was a very subtle bitter aftertaste, but like chocolate or coffee, and not unpleasant.
The second steeping, for thirty seconds, brought out some rose aromas on the leaf and liquor. The texture was still that same amazing creamy smoothness and the flavor was mellow and chocolate-y. After the third steeping, for forty seconds, I noticed that the flavors and aroma were remarkably consistent, so I stopped taking notes and instead chose to simply enjoy this tea as long as it steeped out. The lack of bitterness makes me wonder if it might be a good candidate for winter grandpa-style brewing.
So a short tasting session today, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. I’m excited to have had a chance to taste this tea because it has made me curious about Aera’s other offerings.
NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.
It’s been a stressful week, so while I’m about to talk politics (albeit, 100-year-old politics), I’m going to do it with what many of us consider to be a singularly comforting beverage: masala chai. Fair warning — while I did learn how to make masala chai from my Indian housemate, I am still a white lady talking about how tea fit into Indian politics. I’m largely drawing my distilled history from A Thirst for Empire, which I’ve used for other “Difficult History” posts, though I did look at a few other sources, which I’ll mention as they come up.
Alright. So, my ultimate premise is that masala chai, as we know it today, was originally a kind of culinary protest. The chaiwallahs who made it probably didn’t think about it that way, but the way that masala chai is made today, by boiling tea, spices, milk, sugar, and water together, stems from a practice of frugality which went in direct opposition to the purpose of introducing tea into widespread use in India in the late 19th and early 20th century.
You see, despite the fact that native varieties of Camellia sinensis were found in the Indian subcontinent, and eventually became the main stock from which commodity Indian tea was grown, tea was not widely consumed in India, traditionally. Accounts of “the history of chai” like to make the connection between modern masala chai and an ancient Ayurvedic drink, but in reality, that drink was primarily made from the spices that we associate with masala chai today, and did not include milk or tea leaves. But when the British production of tea in India began to reach large-scale economic viability, the primarily native-Indian workforce in factories and fields were seen as a potential new market.
Tea stalls were set up to sell tea to workers and Indian tea culture started to follow British tea culture — i.e., with lots of milk and sugar. But the sellers, called chaiwallahs, had little tricks to both stretch their tea leaves and appeal to the native Indian palate. They boiled the leaves, allowing them to get a stronger brew out of less leaf, or even using previously-steeped leaves, to save money on the expensive tea. The addition of spices and sugar also added flavor to the beverage without using the more expensive ingredient.
But the introduction of tea into the Indian diet was meant as a way to earn more money for the tea companies (similarly to how Henry Ford pushed for weekends off work so workers could become consumers and increase company profits), as well as a way to “civilize” them in the British fashion. So organizations, like the Indian Tea Association (ITA), which was founded in the late 19th century to protect the interests of colonizer tea plantation owners, started pushing for rules about “purity” of the tea sold by chaiwallahs, playing on the fears of adulturation that were common at the time. Excessive sugar and spices were considered “adulturants” and only allowed in approved quantities, or not at all.
After World War I, when British tea consumption faltered, there was more of a push to both encourage the consumption of “Empire-Grown Tea” in the British Isles (which led to the xenophobic advertising I mentioned in my post about the feminization of tea in Britain), as well as in India. But this time, the native Indians were organizing under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi to oppose British rule, and were thinking negatively about how the British commodities, like sugar, bread, and tea, had worked their way into Indian life. Gandhi himself wrote in his book The Key to Health that the tannins in tea were unhealthy and praised tea as only being healthful in the milk and sugar it contained.
So perhaps Gandhi would have smiled upon the current trend of using other bases besides tea in beverages called “chai” like turmeric chai or rooibos chai. But the main takeaway is that the chaiwallahs, while they probably did not think of their act as a protest, birthed a drink that showed how adding back Indian flavor into a drink pushed upon them by their colonizers could create not only a delicious beverage, but one that largely spat in the eye of the same organization that tried to capitalize on them by using a method that conserved as much of that expensive tea as possible.
Similarly to yoga, which was codified in its modern incarnation as a way to encourage native Indian strength and nationalism, only to be appropriated and watered down into white popular culture, so too has chai been removed from its context. While a barista can make a perfectly drinkable beverage from steamed milk and a “chai” concentrate without ever having to look at a tea leaf or a ginger rhizome, the real masala chai is boiled, pulled, and served up with a healthy does of resistance.
For anyone who is curious, my chai is made with ginger, cardamom, black peppercorns, cinnamon, Assam tea from Calabash Tea and Tonic, jaggery, water, and coconut milk. The cup is from Ivy’s Tea Co.
NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details, but you should know that if you want to sponsor a “Difficult History” post, the bar will be high.
Hallowe’en might be over, but I’m still in the spooky season mood, so what better tea than to brew than the most intriguing one from the Tea Thoughts Countdown to Halloween box? This was day eight’s gift and was the perfect tea to ring in the Hallowe’en season. Witch’s Broom from the Ohio Tea Co. is a raw puerh tea that is sold as a maocha, or loose leaves, and is so named because the long, large leaves (similar to a Tai Ping Hou Kui) look like besoms or brooms.
I decided to use MyTeaPal to brew because I was curious how it did with a more focused tasting, including notes, which I hadn’t tried yet, plus I seem to have misplaced my tea-tasting notebook. I brewed 5g of dry leaf in my 150-ml porcelain pot from Bitterleaf Teas with 190F water, as recommended by the package.
Immediately upon taking out the leaves, I noticed an earthy aroma, which only became more pronounced when I put them into the warmed pot. I did rinse them, as I tend to do with puerh, and noticed a damp earth and fragrant wood aroma on the wet leaf. I did my first infusion for ten seconds, after which, the liquor was very light in flavor, with hints of licorice and wood smoke.
The second infusion, which was for fifteen seconds, yielded a more pronounced juicy mouthfeel and smooth texture. The woody sweetness persisted, along with a stronger smoke note after the tea had been allowed to cool for a few minutes. The third infusion, for twent seconds, yielded a lighter flavor, though more smoke in the aromas. I was impressed by the utter lack of bitterness in this tea. Interestingly, while the packet says that this tea is aged for five years, the website says that the tea is from 2001, so it’s unclear just how long it has aged. My naive tastebuds suggest that the longer time might be correct.
On the fourth infusion, for thirty seconds, the leaf aroma seemed to be fading, but the texture was still smooth and juicy, with a slight fruity tang on the flavor, along with that subtle, but distinct, smoke flavor note. It’s interesting because this isn’t the kind of smoke note that would be on a smoked tea, but you can tell that there is some kind of smokiness to it, like when you sit near-ish to a campfire and still have some linger smoke aroma on your clothes, even after they’ve been airing overnight. In the puerh class I took with Victoria from MeiMei Fine Teas, she said that the smoke notes in puerhs usually come from the way that the teas are processed at the kill green stage, which is sometimes done in woks over wood fires, causing the leaves to pick up that subtle smokiness.
At the fifth infusion, for forty-five seconds, I noticed the flavor fading, but it still had such a nice mouthfeel that I was still enjoying the tea. That was the same for the sixth infusion, for a minute, so I decided to end the formal tasting there, though I might continue enjoying this tea throughout the day.
I will say, the shape of the leaves, and the little I know about the tea culture in the rural regions where puerhs were historically produced, suggests that this tea might be better enjoyed grandpa-style. Sadly, this does not lend itself well to a formal, note-taking tasting session, but I will likely try it in the future. The fact that this tea showed no bitterness seems promising for brewing it grandpa-style.
NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.