There is a legend in China about the origin of tea. It is said that Bodhidharma — the Indian missionary who brought Zen Buddhism to China — was having trouble staying awake during meditation. He was a mysterious old man, prone to snubbing Emperors and staring at walls for years at a time. Frustrated with his drowsiness, he fetched his knife. With two quick jerks, he removed his eyelids. He flung the gory flaps to the ground where they magically took root, growing into the first tea bushes.
I have some issues with this story from the perspective of evolutionary biology, but it does conceal a kernel of truth. There is a long association between tea and eastern religions. The Buddhist monks of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 CE) popularized tea as a beverage with the miraculous power to relax the mind while stimulating the body (thereby keeping you awake during meditation, but not too awake).
When T’ang Buddhists travelled to other parts of Asia to preach, they brought a taste for tea with them. This religious association is still strong in Korea and Japan, where an appreciation for green tea is imbued with a sense of veneration that achieves its highest expression in elaborate tea ceremonies. Not only is the taste of tea a pleasure (as with wine), but the ritual of sharing it is an art-form with all the choreography of an opera.
My own love affair with the tea ceremony commenced five years ago when I spent a couple of months travelling across Korea. I visited dozens of temples, and at each one, I was greeted with a tea ceremony. I saw firsthand how the slow, silent brewing of tea created an intimacy that transcended my lack of Korean and my host’s lack of English. These tea ceremonies also had one vital feature: they always involved premium green tea that tasted like nothing else on the planet. Good green tea has an ephemeral complexity that can even eclipse Pinot Noir.
Green tea is distinguished from black tea (such as Darjeeling or Earl Grey) because it does not undergo oxidization. Black teas are oxidized (fermented) after picking so that they develop rich, tannic flavours — this chemical process is halted by baking the leaves, an ordeal which further blackens the tea. Green teas, on the other hand, are lightly heated right after the harvest in order to forestall any oxidization. This preserves the plant’s delicate flavours as well as its chlorophyll and anti-oxidants. However, because they aren’t fermented, they don’t age — green tea should always be drunk in the year that it’s picked.
There are radically different ways of preparing tea. As Kakuzo Okakura wrote in his classic work, The Book of Tea (Shambhala Publications): Like art, tea has its periods and schools. Its evolution may be divided into three main stages: the boiled tea, the whipped tea, and the steeped tea. We moderns belong to the last period … If we were inclined to borrow the much-abused terminology of art classification, we might designate them respectively the classic, the romantic, and the naturalistic schools of tea.
The “classic” period of boiled tea ended about 1000 years ago. During this stage, tea’s early enthusiasts cooked it like soup with salt, rice, fruit, onions and spice. The only place that preserves this early form of tea is Tibet, where salt and yak butter are still employed to create a thick and uniquely indigestible beverage.
The second stage in tea’s development occurred in Song Dynasty China (960–1279 CE) when aficionados began stone-milling green tea leaves into a fine powder. This powder was then whisked into hot water to create a frothy drink. Whipped tea disappeared from China long ago, but not before it was brought to Japan by Zen monks who made it an enduring part of Japan’s culture. It is this ground green tea (called matcha) that takes centre stage during Japanese tea ceremonies.
A full Japanese tea ceremony takes four hours and involves a series of painstaking rituals, right down to arranging the charcoal used to boil the water. When I visited one of Canada’s few Tea Masters, Yumiko Katsuya, she told me that it took eight years of study before she was given her own “tea name,” signifying that she was now qualified to serve the venerated drink. Every object in the tea room is a work of the Tea Master’s art. “There is always something to learn,” she said, “Even if you are over 90 years old: pottery, calligraphy, fabric, flowers, sweet-making, carving.”
Watching her make tea is a peaceful and meditative experience. Every gesture is part of an intricate dance. Throughout the ritual, the animating spirit is one of homely but precise simplicity. Ms Katsuya belongs to the Urasenke lineage, the largest school of tea ceremony in Japan. When I asked her what the major differences are that separate Urasenke from other schools, her answer displayed an otherworldly attention to detail. “I once saw a tea whisk from another school; it was a different colour,” she said carefully, “And we fold our cloths in a different way.”
Ms Katsuya’s tea was earthy, nutty and rich. She whisks it into a froth; as with champagne, the goal is to create a mousse of small, elegant bubbles. Matcha tea is also made less elegantly in tea shops in both Japan and North America (it is even served at Starbucks). But to get the highest quality of Japanese matcha is another matter — one of the few places that imports it into Canada is the Kono-en tea shop in Toronto.
Although a tea ceremony can appear silent and serious, some flippancy does sprout here and there. My favourite story involves the poet-monk Ryōkan (born 1758). It is said that during one ceremony, he occupied himself during a lull in the action by picking his nose. To dispose of what he found there, he turned to his left, but his fellow guest sitting on that side recoiled in horror. He turned to his right side, but the same thing happened. Unsure of how to proceed, Ryōkan resignedly replaced the offending item back into his nose.
The Korean tea ceremony differs from Japan’s. It revolves around steeped tea, in what Kakuzo Okakura called the “naturalistic” approach to tea. A good term to use, not only because steeped tea maintains the leaves in their natural form and flavour, but also because the ceremony is much less formal. The Korean tea ceremony is a relaxed affair — so relaxed, in fact, that I once saw a monk watch TV while performing it. Water is dribbled, rules are broken and each monk adds his own unique touch.
The green tea that I tasted in Korea was a revelation. The most prized variety was called Chak-sal-Cha or “swallow’s tongue tea” and sold for hundreds of dollars per canister. The leaves were bright green and as small as a bird’s tongue, giving them the concentrated flavour of a plant bud. They tasted like new life. Back home in Toronto, the best place I found for a similar grade of tea is at the House of Tea, where Marisha Golla Ranasinghe curates an incredible selection from all over the world. Her Japanese Gyokuro Hikki ($103/100 grams) and Korean F.O.P. ($23.95/100 grams) are spectacular.
Of course, if tea ceremony illustrates one thing, it is that the contents of a cup are not as important as having a simple spirit when you serve it or sip it. That is the true joy of tea.
how to brew green tea
The implements for making tea in the Korean style are a teapot with a side handle (for swirling the tea as it steeps), small tea cups, and a bowl with a spout for cooling the water. Before making tea, rinse and heat all these items with hot water.
Boil water and then pour it into the spouted bowl so it can cool. The better the green tea, the lower the temperature of the water — for the best tea, 70°C is perfect. You will know it’s at the right temperature when the steam stops rolling.
In the Korean style, lots of tea is used, but it is steeped for only a short time. Place 3 to 4 teaspoons of green tea in a medium-sized teapot. Add the water from your bowl to the pot. Let it steep for 30 to 60 seconds, swirling the teapot occasionally.
Don’t pour the tea directly from the pot into the cups — this will result in uneven flavours. Instead, pour the tea from the pot into the spouted bowl, and then distribute into the cups. Admire the colour, savour the aroma and drink the tea in 1 to 3 sips.
Repeat this procedure 2 more times with the same leaves. It is said that the first pot is strong like youth, the second is sweet like love, and the third is mellow like old age.
When you are finished, don’t throw out the used tea leaves. High quality green tea is not only edible; it is delicious. Mix the leaves with pasta, salt, and a little olive oil for a light lunch.
Gyokuro Hikki ($103/100 grams)
Gyokuro is the name given to the first Japanese tea harvested in the season. It is always hand-picked, and being such an early crop means that the leaves are tender shoots with lots of intensity. The quality of the Hikki Gyokuro is apparent just from its appearance: small, oily, dark green leaves. Its tea has a creamy texture with an aroma of malt and freshly mown grass. The finish is long and resinous. Exquisite.
Sencha Fujiyama ($49.95/100 grams)
Sencha is harvested a little later in the season than Gyokuro, so the leaves are larger and but less nubile. Sencha is often celebrated for its health benefits: lots of anti-oxidants and mood-enhancing amino acids. Although this is a common style of tea in Japan, Fujiyama grows an outstanding product. It has Sencha’s characteristic sweetness, but adds to this a rich, nutty flavour and an ethereal complexity.
Kabusencha ($25.95/100 grams)
Kabusencha (or “shadow tea”) is the poor man’s Gyokuro. Like its more expensive cousin, Kabusencha bushes are covered by screens in the days before harvest in order to draw more chlorophyll into the leaves, darken their pigment and enrich the flavour. As a result, it has good intensity and colour, but it lacks the subtlety and mouthfeel of Gyokoru.
Organic Lung-Ching Tea First Grade ($20/100 grams)
After this famous Chinese tea is picked, it is pan-fried rather than steamed (like most Japanese green teas) in order to halt the oxidization. This gives it a more savoury character featuring notes of chestnuts and fresh corn. This is not a grassy green tea — instead it is umber coloured and earthy with lots of character.