24 April 2009

The State of Tea

A wild Camellia sinensis leaf falls off a tree 5,000 years ago, and drifts into a cup of hot water next to the Chinese emperor Shen Nung. The fragrant liquor that wafts to his nose invites a sip, and the worldwide dominion of tea is born.

Regardless of whether you believe the legend, it's hard to dispute tea's permanence- even in the face of the lackluster Coffee and Tea Festival, which I walked through on Sunday. It may have been just end-of-show fatigue, but the event seemed emptier, the exhibitors quieter, than in previous years. It was depressing to think that the current economic climate- which, while dire, is not all that significant from a thousands-year perspective- is to blame. Tea has lasted through upheavals of empires, world wars, and nearly every major human milestone. How could it possibly fade into obscurity now?

Of course, I am as prone as a heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel to fits of melodrama, and it seemed a bit premature to draft a tea obituary. So I decided to stick around for a seminar on the green teas of China, Korea and Japan by Yoon Hee Kim, president of TeaClassic. I figured that drinking those in particular always elevates my mood, so learning more about them could be as effective.

It started out a bit basic for a green-tea junkie, but Kim was a captivating speaker, not so much for the planned presentation but for her entertaining anecdotes and descriptive side tracks. Her passion for tea truly revealed itself at those moments, and I was moved (and annoying enough) to wrangle an invitation to come back to the TeaClassic booth and taste some mao feng, a Chinese green she had spoken lovingly of.

The tea was everything she promised: round, smooth and clean. It was an honor to share a pot with such a tea master, and made sweeter by her generosity. I'm so often drawn to the solo, quiet contemplation that a cup of tea brings, I sometimes forget how equally ideal it is for a more magnanimous serving to others.

Buoyed by my unexpected gift, I headed to Amai tea house (a festival participant a few years back), which was closing that day, to get a first and last taste. The dragonwell was lovely and the mini yuzu cupcake a tender, citrusy delight, even if the towering buttercream had a tendency to find a way up my nose with each bite. (I don't like it when frosting gets overly architectural, but I was still bereft when the final dollop of it ended up on the counter instead of the cake.)

It was a bittersweet snack. Why did it have to be so good if I could never taste it again?

When I got home, I read that Tafu, too, was closing the following day. Why, tea god, why? That was one of the only places in Manhattan to get a bowl of matcha that was practically a religious experience. The green-tea lattes were better than crack (and almost as expensive).

I need to get through this. And during the week, I've thought about how the recession can take many, many things away. But I like to think that even if we all end up sitting under a tree, just waiting for that leaf to fall in our cups, tea will be there.


Alissa said...


anna said...

I'm so sad I didn't get over to Amai before it closed, but I'm even sadder that Tafu is closing, because I went there and adored it.

Heavenly Housewife said...

You should come to England! Tea is all the rage and has been for centuries (though not green tea). Actually I have seen a lot of places are actually getting people in to glam hotels and stuff, even during these times by promoting afternoon tea. When you go there, they even give you tea menus, though I don't really know enough to know what to pick. Yes, i like the tea, but to be completely honest, I love it most for all the accompanying goodies!

dunny said...

This is the first I've heard about Amai closing. I'm totally bummed--especially as I've been craving one of their green tea cupcakes. I'm going to go sit on my couch and sulk.

cindy* said...

how sad...so sorry to hear about those tea houses closing. i don't know very much about tea, but i know i love it. one day i want my mom and i to travel back to korea (where she is from) and visit a fancy tea house.

and your last paragraph, love it. beautiful words.

Cha sen said...

I think there will always be a coterie of us who will not let the tea culture die so don't get too disheartened, Ana!

I know what you mean about feeling like a Hardy heroine (here's to Eustacia and Tess!)

Anonymous said...

Poignant, bittersweet & beautifully written

Anonymous said...

Great Post:
I heard that it is very advantageous to drink Matcha Green Tea. What you say?