Art of tea preparation teaches culturesTea drinking in North America is a hot or cold, black or orange pekoe and usually sweetened with sugar and seasoned with lemon or cream. It’s either a tall glass with ice cubes in summer or a mug or tea cup in winter with a saucer and tea bags.
By: Sharon Cox, The Jamestown Sun
Tea drinking in North America is a hot or cold, black or orange pekoe and usually sweetened with sugar and seasoned with lemon or cream. It’s either a tall glass with ice cubes in summer or a mug or tea cup in winter with a saucer and tea bags.
It’s a thirst quencher and an energy booster. It tastes good and those who don’t drink coffee often enjoy tea (camellia sinensis) for the same reasons.
We are familiar with Britain’s afternoon tea ritual. It is a small meal, with a light savory starch (think cucumber sandwiches) and crumpets with strong black tea. Many take it with cream and some with lemon and sugar. At the better tea house the tea is whole leaf tea in a strainer basket in some sort in a tea pot. Tea utensils usually match: as in the cup, saucer and small food plates are one design. If the teapot is porcelain it usually matches as well. If silver, it will usually have a number of pieces that match that design and fits well with the cups. Napkins and flowers, hats and even gloves are common. Tea service at a commercial tea house is usually a dressy affair.
Tea drinking has a much different, and culturally unique manner of serving and tea varietals in other countries, especially the far east.
Tea was grown in India for health and taken to China by Buddhist monks to help keep them awake during prayers. The tea ritual in China uses tiny cups and more than one for gongfu tea drinking. Different provinces seem to prefer different teas, and even the ritual can be adapted to meet regional preferences.
Whole leaf tea, whether black, red, green, yellow or white, is the tea of choice. Each color refers to a time and location of the picking, as well as a fermentation or drying method. Some teas, such as Earl Grey, look like little round pearls when dried. They open up in water and exude the essence of the flavorful leaf. The Chinese use an Yxing clay tea pot of specific colored clay (unglazed) for specific teas. The tea, when brewed and used for that one tea, begins to absorb the tea flavor until the pot can be filled with hot water, without the tea, and when sipped, tastes just like the tea it has brewed over the years. Those pots become priceless treasures.
Japanese tea is both leaf teas and powdered. Usually, we think instant tea when explaining powdered tea, but that would be incorrect. Powdered tea, or cha, is shade-dried top new leaves, still green and grassy-flavored, that is ground on a wheel, much like wheat grains are ground for flour. What is produced is a special tea used for the tea ceremony, cha-no-yu or chado.
The Japanese love whole leaf tea and drink it daily using a cup sans handles, about the size of a small British tea cup.
Their teapots for leaf tea is a smaller pot than British, with handles off to the side (for right handed pourers). Older pots may have bamboo and metal loop handles, but the newer side-handled ones are preferred.
Counter to their leaf tea, everything used for the powdered tea ceremony, cha-no-yu, is different and deliberately mismatched.
The tea cup is large. It is the size and shape of a hand-formed cereal bowl. Usually, and this depends on the season it is served, the bowl is about 5 inches across and 3 inches high. The bowl’s wall-thickness for winter or early spring, is usually thick, in order to hold in heat. Summer bowls are wider, lower and thinner, in order to cool the tea slightly before drinking.
A black, thick walled raku tea bowl, considered a Korean Rikyu style, is a standard and beloved type for the green tea. It is beautiful to see in the shiny black “soft” walled bowl.
Female tea masters wear kimonos that have the right arm and side more beautifully decorated than the outer left. Because guests being served sit to the master’s right, it makes sense. They get the prettiest side (if a woman is serving). That service began with Samurai however, and the men’s kimono, called a haori, is usually black and very plain compared to the women’s kimono.
Whoever conducts, they use a sacred red or purple cloth (for women or men, respectively) and a white linen cleaning cloth that both clean and sanctify the service. The bowl sits on the floor, resting about 12 inches in front of the server’s knees near the furogama or chagama. The furo or cha-gama is a small portable or in-floor furnace (a hibachi) where a charcoal fire is built under a lidded kettle called a kama. It holds spring water and is usually made of iron.
The server has a lid rest, a tea caddy, a bamboo tea scoop, a long handled, hand-made bamboo water ladle, and a fresh water container on the right side and a waste water container on the left of the chagama.
Once the purification has been done, the tea is scooped into the bowl, a ladle of hot water is added and then the bamboo chasen, a whisk-like implement, is used to whip the green tea mixture into a froth. After a few turns of the bowl, the tea server lifts the bowl up and places it on the tatami in front of the guest, who lifts up the bowl, turns it and sips.
It sounds very simple. It is an elegant and ritualized set of movements that are meant to be visually efficient, as well as logical. Movements are based on martial arts and the Japanese dance of Noh theatre. It is fluid, masculine and yet powerful. It was used as a chi balancing activity before battle.
Every item used in any tea service is a type of art work. Some are pure artisan crafts, but many are unique items made for one specific time and season by an artist. Frequently, it was the tea master who did his own carving.
Jamestown College’s East-West Art History class learns several Asian tea rituals and in April conducts a cha-no-yu ceremony, complete with kaiseki meal and wagashi. The students make their kimonos, their tea bowls, and a number of items used for the ceremony. It is an art form that in Japan, is conducted at temples by monks yet today.
Search the Web if you are interested in learning about the Chinese gongfu and Japanese cha-no-yu tea services. It is an interesting study and worlds of fun to do yourself. But probably even more valuable, is what it teaches us westerners about the beauty of eastern cultures and the art forms used in their practice.
If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.