Sunday, March 31, 2013

Breakfast with a Touch of Class

Breakfast is probably the most neglected meal of the day. Few people would bother to spend time on boiling eggs, baking bread or preparing fresh orange juice before rushing off to work or school. On Sundays, some of us put in a little more effort, perhaps, but even then there's a rather limited range of foods to choose from: bread, bacon, eggs, cheese, fruits, cereals - that's about it. Most of the time, breakfast is repetitive, boring and forgettable.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Choose your tea wisely and it can transform your breakfast - adding class, complexity, and charm. One tea in particular we would like to highlight here. We ordered it directly from the source (check out here if you're interested). When Carolyn and I were sitting at the breakfast table and simultaneously took our first sip, we looked each in the eyes and knew we had found our ultimate breakfast tea. A magnificent experience.

It's called Jinggu "Golden Strand" Pure Bud Yunnan Black. As a standalone drink, it's a unique tea, rising above most of the other black teas we tried. As a breakfast tea, however, it was even better. The taste reminded us of  Baihao Yinzhen (also known as Silver Needle, see one of our earlier posts), but with more warmth, bite, and body. Not surprisingly, the two teas are visually quite similar as well, consisting only of previous leaf buds. The Yunnan black, though, looks more golden and darker, as you can see below:

Yinggu "Golden Strands" before steeping

The aroma of the dry leaves can be described as "sweet hay". When tasting the coppery-brown brew, we noted cocoa, banana, caramel and hints of pepper. The sweetness and the spiciness were nicely balanced and proved to be a perfect companion to the warm bread, eggs and bacon we had for breakfast that morning. We rated this tea a 9 out of 10.
One of the Yinggu "Golden Strands" after steeping, which we thought looked quite erotic
So the moral of this story is that if you want to turn your breakfast into a memorable experience, give special consideration to the tea you serve. Try out some black tea from your local specialist or an online store. See what works best for you with the foods you like. We believe it will make a huge difference.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

My first time solo

Photo by Sip-by-Sip
It wasn't even planned, it had been a busy morning but I have been craving for it and before I knew it, I was doing it, alone. Did I feel guilty? Yes. I mean, I have always done it with Vincent, so it felt like I was cheating on him, doing it solo. Would I do it again? Most definitely! The whole experience was so indulging that I would recommend everyone to try it, at least once.

I am talking about having tea, Gong Fu Cha style, alone. Usually, Gong Fu Cha aka Chinese tea ceremony we come across these days is a rather social thing. It's a time to catch up with friends or loved ones over a cuppa tea. But traditionally, the way of tea (茶道) was a philosphy, a way of living. Gong Fu Cha means brewing and serving tea (usually Oolong tea) with skills (功夫). The skill is not just in the performance of the tea ceremony. Since all types of tea need different handling and it can be so delicate and subtle, it takes real skill or knowledge to bring out the best and intended flavor of the tea.

So for this rendezvous,  I took out our (precious) newly acquired teapot made of Yixing clay, a beautiful teacup and the Shuixian Oolong tea I have been meaning to try but never really made time for it. So there I was, sitting down, performing the tea ceremony, for myself. The whole world faded away. I was focused on performing each step mindfully, I took great care to ensure that all the steps taken would do justice to the tea. For instance, I made sure that the teapot was warm (even before I scooped the tea leaves in) by pouring hot water over it. Usually in a social setting, I would have missed out on the opportunity to just admire the curves and color of the Yixing teapot. I might also have missed out on the more subtle changing notes of taste as the tea flows inside my mouth. In fact, I was a little surprised at myself for feeling a little emotional after I drank my first cup of tea this time. I did not understand why I felt this way. I realized later that I was moved. I have caught a glimpse of the beauty that could exist when there is harmony between the tea, the ceremony and the performer/drinker. It felt like things, I, was in balanced again. It truly felt like my soul has been cleansed and my day re-calibrated. It was a great tea-moment and I am ever so grateful for the fact that I have the opportunity to learn about Gong Fu Cha. And you can bet on it that it won't be my last one, solo.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Thousand Unnoticed Beauties

I met a girl once in Florence, Italy, who suggested that if I truly want to understand the work by an artist such as Van Gogh, simply spend three hours looking at one of his paintings. Three hours. Just looking at the painting. Nothing else. "There will be a point", she said, "that the sheer beauty and genius of his work will suddenly strike you. Then it all becomes clear."

I never actually tried it. However, in recent years I have come to understand that it doesn't just apply to art. If you take time to absorb, simple things, every day things, can touch your heart, and move you, just as much.
Photo by Sip-by-Sip
Preparing and drinking tea, as silly as it sounds, sometimes has this effect on me. This fascination has always been a difficult thing to explain to friends, family, and other casual tea drinkers (especially the wine enthusiasts among them!).  But recently I found just the right words. The following quote by John Bloveld from his book appropriately called "The Chinese Art of Tea", expresses passion for tea unlike anyone I ever read before:

The key to this attitude is mindfulness. The world today is so full of distractions that mindfulness, which must have come about spontaneously in times gone by, has to be cultivated. Once this has been achieved, a thousand hitherto unnoticed beauties will reveal themselves. For example, there is music in the hiss and bubble of a kettle, the spring freshness in the fragrance of the steam rising from teacups, and a gentle exhilaration—too subtle to be apparent to a distracted mind—results from certain mysterious properties inherent in tea itself. When the mind, having freed itself from the trammels of past and future, is fully concentrated on the Here and Now, a whole range newly of pleasures involving ears, eyes, nose, palate, and mood can be enjoyed by two or three people who have come together to make and drink fine tea. (John Blofeld, the Chinese Art of Tea).

So next time when you take a Sip from your cup, don't get distracted. Take your time. Be mindful. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

This is a sad song and it brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to it.

Life is full of uncertainties and things, "bad" things, happen to all of us at some point in our lives. So I think it can be very comforting to having some certainties, like love and a bit of "tea & toast" in our lives. 

From the bottom of my heart, I wish you love and cups full of tea on this Valentine's day.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Falling in Love with a Teapot

This may sound trivial to most people but for us it's serious business: Carolyn and I have decided to buy a new teapot. 

Of course we already have several teapots to brew our favorite teas: A Japanese earthenware pot with a cover that was broken in half (and subsequently glued together) for our steamed green teas; a cheap mass-produced blue-china teapot reserved for our beloved Sunday morning Earl Grey; a large egg-shaped and traditional-looking vessel made of grey clay for our dark oolongs; and finally, a huge round pot made of faded glass with a built-in plastic tea filter system. It's very ugly and I'm not sure why we're keeping it.

These pots do their job well but none of them are very exciting. What we are looking is a pot that captures the essence of tea drinking: beauty, simplicity, warmth, and wonderful flavors.

More specifically, we need a pot to brew oolong tea "gong-fu" style. This is a way of preparing tea that maximizes its flavor potential. It is also known as the Chinese tea ceremony (more about this subject in one of our upcoming blog posts).

Yixing Clay Teapot (photo courtesy of Flickr user WrongFuCha)

The ultimate in teaware for gong-fu style preparation are teapots made
of Yixing clay. This type of clay is only found in and around the city of Yixing, in the Chinese coastal province of Jiangsu. What makes this clay so special is that it can retain heat like no other material, largely because of the porous structure of its surface. The micropores also allow for a gradual built-up of tea flavors on the inside of the pot, adding complexity to the taste as it grows older. In addition, the color of the clay doesn't fade over time, so the pot remains beautiful for many years. Designs are generally simple but the pots often look stunningly beautiful and require a lot of skill to produce.

One can only truly understand the romance of preparing tea in a Yixing teapot when one realizes that tea is about the stimulation of all the senses, not just taste. It's the sound of the water pouring into the vessel; it's the appreciation of the love and craftsmanship that went into the production of the teapot; it's the sight and smell of the tea leaves as they unfold and release their delicate aroma; and it's the warmth and texture of the unglazed clay when you touch the surface of the vessel while your tea is brewing inside. 

It's quite unusual to find teapots made of 100% Yixing clay in local tea shops because the material is scarce, and if you are lucky enough to find one they are often terribly expensive. Fortunately, there are numerous online shops these days that offer teapots made of Yixing clay for a fair price. Some sellers are based in China and ship their products all over the world. You just have to be careful that what you are buying is the real thing. Checking website reviews certainly helps.

Anyway, we'll keep you updated on our search for the perfect teapot, which no doubt will result in a love affair that will last for many years to come.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Soupe de Légumes Délicieuse with Lapsang Souchong tea

Good tea can be used as a stock or broth, it can add an extra element to a recipe. In this case, the Lapsang Souchong tea adds smokiness and brings out the sweetness of the vegetables. This smokiness is a very pleasant reminder of smoky bacon or chorizo. So although this is a vegetarian soup, it still taste like there is meat in it. One of the things that I love about this recipe is that you can basically use any leftover vegetables in your fridge/pantry and it will taste different every time. In this recipe, I am using the following ingredients:

- 5 teaspoons of loose-leaf Lapsang Souchong (to make 1 litre of tea)
- Leeks
- Turnip
- Onion
- Cabbage
- Potatoes
- Carrots
- Celery
- Garlic (optional)
- 2 Bay leaves (optional)

Prepare Lapsang Souchong tea and set aside.

Chop and peel vegetables. Somehow, looking at these colorful produce always seem to lift the spirit and cheer me up.

Fry the leeks & onions in olive oil over medium heat until soften. Then add garlic, once the aroma from the garlic is released, add in the rest of the vegetables. I find the frying process, aka "sweating" eliminates the more aggressive aromas of fresh legume.

Add tea, bay leaves, pinch of salt and a dash of pepper. Bring to boil until the vegetables are tender. Turn heat down to a gentle boil. Remove the bay leaves and purée the vegetables. Usually, I prefer some chucks of veggies in my soup so I save a cupful before the purée process. I add in the chunky bits afterwards. Et voilà, your vegetable soup with smoky bacon aroma without the actual bacon! 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Elegant living

Matthieu Ricard
Wikimedia Commons
Tea can offer us an entry to an elegant life. A great deal of satisfaction can be derived for knowing that we are taking a moment for ourselves when we drink tea. That's because when we do, it's an opportunity to slow down life's tempo, drop those shoulders and just have a tea-moment.

I sometimes find living elegantly is living like a monk. Chinese monks practice being connected to the present while performing their daily chores like sweeping the floor, fetching water or eating. The point is, being present, is not a separate compartment in their lives. There is such simplicity, beauty and elegance in this manner of living. Just check out Matthieu Ricard's (right) recently declared by scientists as the happiest man they have ever tested.

However, it's not always easy in the "non-monk" lives that we lead. Although living in the present does not have to mean leaving everything behind and mediate (at least, not for everyone). It's not just about feeling good and relaxed when the stars are aligned. The challenge is finding the calm in the storm. For instance, as a mummy of two little boys, I would like to be able to stay focus while helping my eldest (Max) puts on his gloves as my youngest (Dorian) is turning the drinking cup upside down.

Having a tea-moment can be an occasion to practice being in-the-moment. The whole process does not even have to last for more than ten minutes, it can start from deciding on the types of tea to the actual drinking. So here is how it can go...

  • Tune in to what you would like to drink
  • Listen to the crisp-and-crunch of the tea leaves as they are being scooped 
  • Hear the water dance as it boils
  • Observe the flow of water as it's being poured 
  • Sit and wait while the tea is being steeped 
  • Inhale the aroma as you take a sip  
  • Experience the sensation of the liquid in your mouth before you swallow

You might be surprised at just how often the mind wanders off in less than 10 minutes. However, it's not about being "empty", it's about respecting the flow of the mind and gently guiding it back to the present. What you get out of this on a good day is a calmer state of mind while you enjoy your tea. On an average day, you still get to drink that cup of tea. It's a win-win or win situation, either way!