Wednesday, August 02, 2006

What is in a Cup of Tea?

The other weekend, I had an interesting conversation with my father-in-law about teas while I was greedily tucking into a second helping of my mother-in-law's super succulent pork loin (carré de cerdo).

He told me they were initially surprised on their first visit to Mexico, not so long ago, that when they asked for tea, a té verde (green tea) was served whereas the té comun (common/regular tea) in this country would be a té negro(black tea). Then he went on to ask me about the subtly scented tea I served them when they came over to ours.

The name of the leaves I use is Dragonball Jasmine, obviously just a translation. Jasmine leaves make a green tea. The commonly encountered jasmine tea, in a teabag or loose in a tin, are broken and brittle; some even look like greyish sawdust. Whole jasmine leaves are green and thin, about 2 cm in length; the Dragonball part of the name comes from the shape and size of each rolled-up leave.

When each ball comes into contact with hot water, it opens up like a flower, giving off a faint, yet elegant scent. Of course, "jasmine tea" may not be brewed with jasmine leaves at all. I had come across dried jasmine flowers blended with black tea leaves. Depending on the quality of leaves in use, it could just be a matter of taste and preference.

Our conversation turned a lot more technical when I revealed to him that teas have been overly generalised as black and green here. Negro or verde actually say nothing about what we are drinking except to give us a clue to the colour of the liquid.

The words "black tea" only tell me it is a tea made from leaves more heavily oxidised than the white, green or oolong varieties. Black tea is generally stronger in flavor and contains more caffeine than the more lightly oxidised teas.

Some of the leaves which spring to my mind that fit into the black category are Ceylon from Sri Lanka, Assam and Darjeeling from India, Pu-er and Lapsang Souchong from China. Earl Grey, of course, is one of the most famous blended black tea which owes its distinctive fragrance to the addition of bergamot oil.

Then, even more confusingly, in Chinese and some other Asian languages, black tea is known as red tea (紅茶 in Chinese, Kocha in Japanese, and Hongcha in Korean), which gives a more accurate description of the colour of the liquid. However, in the west, "red tea" commonly refers to rooibos and tisane which are not, strictly speaking, teas but infusions.

The trend of drinking green tea in the west is probably health driven. Green teas are known for being rich in antioxidants and vitamin C. Some of the most famous Chinese teas fit into this catergory: Longjing is a tea from Hangzhou province; most prized are those leaves picked just before the Pure Brightness Festival in April. These leaves are then graded according to colour, aroma, taste and shape, with flat, even leaves being preferred. There is also the revered Bi Luo Chun (碧螺春) from Jiangsu province; due to the scarcity of supply, it was only drunk by the old monied families of Shanghai in early 1900s.

Green tea is so ubiquitous in Japan that it is more commonly known Japanese tea. However that, again, is just a broad description. Gyokuro tea which refers to the pale green colour of the brew, is regarded as the highest grade of tea made in Japan.

Matcha (抹茶) which is all the rage in France right now, comes from Gyokuro leaves that have been steamed and dried. The tea bushes are shaded from sunlight for 3 weeks before harvesting, producing amino acids which sweeten the taste. All stems and veins are removed from the leaves. The pure dried leaves are then stone ground into a super fine powder that is the consistency of talc. Matcha powder is used in the traditional tea ceremony and also widely used in sweets, pastries and ice cream in Japan.

At the end of a meal in any good Japanese restaurant, one should be served Genmaicha, a blend of Bancha green tea (bancha, second flush tea which has a coaser texture but more robust taste) and genmai (roasted rice grain). The robustness is desired to balance the taste of food left on one's palate after a meal. The proportioning of tea to rice is important; the more aromatic Genmaicha have a higher amount of roasted rice.

If all these names ever become overwhelming, gunpowder is a good green tea with an easy name. The tea bushes are grown in Ceylon, Taiwan and Zhejiang province of China. The tea takes its English name from the fact that each grey-green leaf is tightly rolled into a tiny pellet, "exploding" into a long leaf upon being steeped in hot water; not unlike my Dragonball Jasmine. When buying gunpowder tea it is important to look for shiny pellets, which indicate that the tea is relatively fresh.

I have yet to come across Matcha or Genmaicha in this city; we were served generic té verde at places like Dashi and Osaka from beginning to end. Hopefully this would change when more of their clients become knowledgeable about the cuisine and its underlying culture. When we go to our preferred Japanese restaurant, Gaijin, Guillermo and I just stick to Asahi Dry beer throughout the meal.

If I could get my hands on some matcha, I'd love to try making this Matcha Walnut Cookies...

120g unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tbsp icing sugar
Pinch of salt
1 cup (120g) plain flour
3/4 cup ground walnut/ almond
2 tsp matcha
1/2 - 1 cup icing sugar, for dusting

In a large bowl beat the butter and icing sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the salt and ground nuts, and mix. Sift in the flour and stir until mostly blended. Stir in the Matcha and mix until just blended. Cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes and preferably overnight.

Preheat an oven to 180C. Shape the ball into 2.5cm balls and place 1 inch apart on a baking tray. Place the tray in the preheated oven, immediately lower the temperature to 160C and bake until the biscuits are just golden on the bottom, 12-15 minutes.

Transfer the baking tray to a wire rack and while the biscuits are warm, sift the icing sugar over them to cover the surface entirely. Let cool the biscuits completely, and roll them in the icing sugar to give the second layer.

Dashi, Fitz Roy 1613 tel: 4776-3500
Gaijin, Paraguay 3521 tel: 4823-4250
Osaka, Soler 5608 tel: 4775-6964

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