Tea, at your local chinese restaurants January 08 2015
Most days when I crave my hometown flavors, we visit our favorite local Chinese food joints. I, who lived in the US for way too long, no longer possess the ability to whip up Taiwanese cuisine that satisfies the craving. Dimsum at Golden Phoenix and pickled cabbage rice at Taiwanese Pork Chop House are typically the ones we end up due to proximity. Occasionally, our neighbors and good friends would drive us to Jersey or Flushing for the much desired authentic and delectable Chinese food. And inevitably the trip would cause us deep nostalgia for Taiwan. In most Chinese restaurants we were sure to be greeted with a pot of tea and a stack of white cups along with the menu, or at times the tea set would arrive even before we sit down. Rarely do the these restaurants offer a tea menu. And usually it surprises us if the tea was somewhat memorable the next day. We have generally accepted the way it is because that's the norm for as long as we can remember. Surprisingly, it is not dissimilar to our experience eating across Taiwan. Some are definitely more fluent in their tea options, especially if their offerings surround the teas indigenous to its locale. As much as tea is a staple in the Chinese dining experience, it has rarely made the priority list.
It wasn't something I pondered much about until we started selling our teas at fine dining restaurants in the city, most of them western cuisines. Dining at Chinese restaurants, I often get asked why couldn't tea be more prominently featured in the cuisine of its own heritage? Similar to what we would expect from a French restaurant offering decent wines from Bordeaux to accompanied the dishes. Outside of the obvious reason that restaurants want to put more focus on their food instead of diverting attention to tea, the real reason could lie in the lack of knowledge in tea. Drawing from my own humble journey through the learning of tea, I recognize it wasn't a subject which knowledge is abundant and easily accessible. Unless one grew up on a tea garden or in a family business of tea trade, it's uncommon for one to know the difference between green, oolong and black teas let alone sampling them from different regions and elevations.
In our sourcing visits to various small family-run tea gardens in Taiwan, we realized the notion of tea is actually quite subjective even amongst the producers. The family who made Oriental Beauty would almost intuitively think of tea as the Oriental Beauty oolong they sell and grew up drinking. And "Tea" to them means that specific cultivar grown in the terrior where they lived, and "good tea" should most certainly possess the distinct aromas perfected by their family's generations of tea making. It's actually not hugely different from how the we think about pizza or hotdogs relative to where we are from here in the US. The New York pizza is much different from the Chicago deep dish. And if you are a true New Yorker, deep dish is not what you recognize as pizza.
Observations aside, we do hope the dining industry starts to look at tea differently. Similar to wine and coffee, there is so much knowledge and excitement behind the making of tea, not to mention the plethora of historic references and generations of tea stories we hear from the producers. Just oolong teas from Taiwan itself is already rich in heritage and incredibly wide in aroma profiles. Genres of tea coming from Japan, Korea, India and China all have their own unique character, gifted from its natural environment and people. Tea, as much or little as we know, is certainly an under valued living human artifacts that is worth our continuous exploration.
For those who are enjoying deliciously garlicy and spicy Chinese food at the comfort of your own home, below is our recommended varietals to cut through the grease: