Tea and dumplings

Written by Brent on August 8th, 2010

Nigiro tea
Tea can be a confusing term. It may refer to any beverage made from pouring hot water over some part of a plant – fruit, flower, or leaf. True tea however, whether white, green or black, is made from a single species of the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis, native to south and east Asia. The differences rest in its few varieties (such as c. assam) and in the way its leaves are prepared through wilting, bruising, and fermentation. Earl Grey tea for example is treated with bergamot.

From China, tea spread across the world, engendering a variety of traditions. The Arabs, like the Russians, drink it from glasses and prefer black tea with lots of sugar. The Indians boil it with spices to make masala chai. Tibetans mix it with rancid yak butter to form a paste. The English add milk to reduce its astringency.

Thanks to the British passion for tea, we are as much a tea drinking as a coffee-drinking nation. Apparently, we consume 23 million kilograms of tea per annum, most of which is imported. Ceylon tea consumption has surged amongst the rising middle class, yet overall, recent market research suggests that coffee is taking away market share.

An awareness of the huge variety of teas that exist and an appreciation for quality and the finer points of preparation is a recent phenomenon. You still see guests at the Westcliff and the Mount Nelson hotels looking slightly bemused when a glass teapot arrives with a separate filter and an egg timer. The tea for these Orient Express establishments is specially blended by Ming Wei, tea master of the Nigiro tea company.

Partitioned off by a glass wall inside the Origin coffee shop, is the tranquil, softly lit, Nigiro tearoom, where they offer a Taiwanese tea ceremony. A wall of clay pots is a showcase for the nearly 100 hundred varieties of tea they sell.

Seated at a black marble table, which has a slight depression in the stone to serve as a basin, Wei’s assistant, Nehemia Simons explains that the tea ceremony is about “sharing each other’s experience”.

First, all the vessels are warmed by filling them with boiling water (filtered) from a large and handsome earthen pot.

In this ceremony, oolong tea is chosen, as it is has a complex structure, somewhere between black and green tea, able to unfold over multiple infusions.

With a bamboo spoon, Nehemia gently places a layer of Ali High Mountain tealeaves in a tiny, clay pot. Ali is one of five mountains on Taiwan. The tea is grown at 2000 feet above sea level where the slow growth produces more intense flavour in the leaf.

After pouring the hot water over the leaves, Nehemia seals the clay pot by pouring over its lid the water used to warm the receptacles.

For this first infusion, the tea is left to steep for one minute, before it is decanted into a medium-sized, glass pot called ‘the sea of tea’. If poured directly from the clay brewing pot, each cup would be weaker. The sea ensures everyone enjoys equal strength.

The tea, a beautiful golden colour, is now poured into small, ornate, cylindrical, porcelain cups – the fragrance cups. These are capped with equally small, matching, porcelain, bowl-shaped drinking cups. With thumbs on top of the inverted drinking cup and fingertips holding the fragrance cup, one flips them over.

An air bubble is left trapped in the fragrance cup. You slowly release the fragrance cup, feeling the tug of the air pressure. Then you channel the empty cup to the nose. I can taste the tea just from the smell, the tannins at my sternum.

We now enjoy our first sip of the tea. Nehemia holds his drinking cup delicately on his fingertips with his thumbs up in the air. There is a buttery scent that becomes floral.

For the second and all the subsequent infusions, the tea brews for only 45 seconds. The clay pot is sealed with the remaining tea from the previous infusion. The aromas are very similar to the first, perhaps more subtle, and feel ‘warmer’. Nehemia finds it less milky now.

He opens the pot and takes out a few leaves with a pair of bamboo forceps. You can see the leaves have unfurled. Oolong always has three leaves, the first, second and third of the plant. Each leaf has a specific purpose. The first is the newest and most tender, used for white or green tea. Larger and more matured leaves are used for black tea. The floor sweepings and tea dust, politely called fannings, are used in Ceylon tea bags.

By the third infusion, we are picking up jasmine and sweetness. The water in the earthen pot has gradually cooled to about 80 degrees. It is not advisable to use boiling water on leaves that have already opened.

The fourth infusion Nehemia says is usually his favourite. The tea is now noticeably smoother, but we notice a grassy zest has mysteriously recurred that wasn’t present in the second and third tastings.

The tea is sweeter by the sixth infusion, and by the final seventh infusion we are relaxed and enjoying cup after cup of delicious smooth tea.

The second part of the ceremony is a demonstration of show flower tea. Dan gui piao xiang is a tea ball made of sweet-scented osmanthus, lily flowers and Yin Hao (silver needle white tea). The tea leaves are moulded into a tight ball (it takes up to 45 minutes to make one) and tied with almost imperceptible string. Placed in a glass pot of water at 80 degrees, the acorn-sized tea ball steadily unfolds, opening up like a flower.

One is now offered a pot of tea of your choice together with a delicious vegetable filled dumpling and sticky rice wrapped in a bamboo leaf from a bamboo steamer that has been cooking away during the ceremony. It is accompanied with a delicious, syrupy oyster sauce and a chilli sauce on the side.

The tea ceremony with the show flower, a pot of your choice, and the meal costs R125 per person. Gift tags are available, and this relaxing, novel ritual makes a superb present indeed.

Nigiro Tea Room, inside Origin, 28 Hudson Street, De Waterkant, Cape Town. Open Monday to Friday, 9am–5pm; Saturdays, 9am–2pm. Tel: 021 421 1000.


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