Kung fu tea

Kung fu tea
By: Dr Paul Lam



tea bushThe words Kung Fu mean "something you become good at after much practise." Because martial arts require lots of practise and time, the words Kung Fu have been misused when identifying a martial art. This article therefore, has nothing to do with martial arts. Instead it's about the ceremonial Chinese way of making tea. Many people have nicknamed this art "Kung Fu tea" because it takes time and energy to do it well.

While the elaborate, exotic and spiritual Japanese Tea Ceremony is well known, it is less known that the Japanese tea art actually comes from China. And the art of making Chinese tea is still thriving, still evolving and has become even more popular in recent years.

Tea drinking in China dates back more than 1000 years. I read somewhere that there is a tea tree more than 2000 years old growing in China. Although I have not seen the 2000-year-old tree, I have seen a 600-year-old tree from the Song Dynasty. While a lot of interesting literature on the art of making Chinese tea exists, the present method probably dates back to the Tan Dynasty.

tea mountain in Taiwan

The 600 Year Old Tea Tree

One day in 1999, my friend and Tai Chi colleague Peter Wu, who came from the same country town as I did (Shantou), told me ago that, near our country town in the southern region of China located at the famous tea growing Phoenix Mountain there was a 600-year-old tea tree dating back to the Song Dynasty. We decided to go to China to see this 600-year-old tree.

A friend in China arranged for a car to drive us up the mountain to see the tree. We needed an experienced driver as the road was not only mountainous but also treacherous. After a bumpy six-hour ride, we reached the top of the mountain and saw the tree. It looked like an ordinary tree, but slightly bigger than the rest among a huge tea plantation. The tea tree was about two metres high. It was drizzling when we arrived so we jumped out of the car, hurriedly there to take photographs, rushed back to the car and headed back down the mountain. All that trouble to get there we spent less than half an hour near the tree!

Despite the little time we were there the magic of Chinese tea has motivated me, and I want to share that magic with you.

How Tea is Grown

The methods of growing tea trees have progressed over thousands of years. The first requirement is good seeds. The best quality tea grows high up in the mountains where it's cool with no pollution, and preferably with morning mist. Fertilizing the soil with artificial chemical is not recommended. For real quality tea after harvest, the land is left barren for seven years for natural nutrients to regenerate. I assume this means the tea absorb a lot of rare nutrients from the earth to give that unique flavour and reputed health protection.

Harvesting the tea leaves during the different season's results in varying standards of tea. Spring gives you the best tea leaves with winter being the next best. Good quality Chinese tea often labeled "Spring Tea" or "Winter/Autumn" Tea. That refers to the time the tea has been harvested. Once the tea is harvested, it needs to be dried and processed. It takes over 30 different processes to make it into the tea we purchase.

Types of Tea

Similar to wine, there are numerous types of tea depending in which month it's grown, who grew it and how it's processed, although you can generally divide it into three different types: The first is unfermented tea, which does not have much colour and is called green Tea. It can be soaked for a long time, and the flavour comes out slowly, making it more suitable for casual drinking. It goes well with your daily meals.

For example, Jasmine Tea, the kind that you get at a Chinese restaurant, is unfermented. I don't particularly like Jasmine Tea because if the tea is good quality, it will possess it's own unique flavour and a flower flavour can spoil it. Adding Jasmine is like adding sugar to Chinese tea.

Semi-fermented is the most common tea on the market. While there are many varieties of semi-fermented tea the Oolong Tea, with a favourite sub-species, the Iron Goddess, is the most famous example. This tea, especially the high quality ones, is most suitable for ceremonial tasting. It is special, there are many tea houses in China that serve tea with special ceremony. An experience worth trying.

The last type is the fully fermented tea, Pu-Erh tea for example. This often comes in flat cake shape. Before you make it, you break it up into little pieces. It is usually very dark and doesn't have much taste but it can be kept for a long time. This is also a good tea for casual drinking. In recent year old Pu-Erh is reputed to mature to better quality and is fetching very expensive price.

What is Good Tea?

This is like asking what is good wine. There are certainly many sophisticated ways to classify tea just like wine.
Personally I believe if you like the taste of it, then it's good tea! I will outline a few simple guides how to choose your tea. Good quality tea looks clean and refined, not dusty. It has a healthy shine and feels solid. Refined tea is uniform. After soaking it you can see a complete tea leaf of similar size. Unlike English tea, refined Chinese tea is treated with the complete leaf intact. Chopped up Chines tea leaves render it less refined. High quality tea is well packed and preserved. At some tea houses, you can taste the tea before purchasing. That's a way to show you how confident they are of the quality of their tea. I certainly prefer to taste my tea before I buy it.

How to Make the Tea

1. To prepare new tea utensils, the cups and teapots should be submerged in a container with good quality tea and freshly boiled water for 24 to 48 hours before use. It's desirable to have two teapots for one kind of tea. One to make tea and the other used like a decanter to keep the tea before drinking.

2. Get all equipment ready, relax, wash your hands, and prepare to spend time serving tea. Rushed tea making will spoil the tea.

3. Boil water. Prepare to use the water as soon as it is bubbling. Over-boiled water will give you a hard taste.

4. Pour water into the first teapot. From the first teapot, pour the hot water into the second teapot and then from the second teapot to the cups. Then empty the cups.

5. Put tea into the first pot (about 1/4 of the volume of the pot pending on your preference of how strong you would like your tea.).

6. Pour in just enough boiled water to cover the tea. Then pour the water immediately without being in a hurry, into the second teapot and then the cups. (This is called washing the tea to cleanse the impurity and the roughness.) Then empty the cups.

7. Now pour boiled water again into the first teapot and wait 10 to 30 seconds, depending on how strong you like your tea. Now pour the tea into the second tea pot or the cups (if you don't have a second teapot). Serve tea while it is hot. Tea is best when fresh.

8. Repeat this process when you are ready for more. The timing of this can be increased each time you repeat the process. Good quality tea can be served up to 10 times. Tea should never be left overnight.

9. Wash everything with warm water and leave upside down to dry. Do not use detergent to clean the utensils because detergent will spoil the natural taste.

How to Drink Tea

As the photo shows, it's best to drink tea from these special little cups. The pot shown here is about the size of a small fist. Drink tea while it's still hot and freshly brewed. Be careful. Don't burn your mouth, but don't allow the tea to become cold, because the flavour will diminish. Let the tea stay in your mouth for a little while so you can slowly taste it. Then when you're finished, move your tonque a little around your mouth to get an after-taste. Most good quality tea will leave an aroma which lingers inside your mouth.

I believe the best part of Kung Fu tea is to enjoy it with good company. One of the most enjoyable topics while you're drinking the tea is Tai Chi. I have enjoyed these frequently, every time it uplift my spirit and makes me feel so good!

Photos One�a quality tea set. Most of them are made from a special "purple clay"only available in one southern region of China where porcelain production is world famous for centuries. This clay-produced pot and cup have a metallic sound when you gently knock them. They are heat resistant, unbreakable (well break resistant), and keep the warmth and the taste of the tea longer than other types of pots.

Looking forward to share Kung Fu tea with you one day!