Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"What teapot should I get?" Part 1

My friend T called me this afternoon to tell me he broke his only zisha (紫砂) teapot and wants to get a replacement. He wants a small teapot but is unsure exactly which is right for him. So he asked me what kind of teapot he should buy.

"What teapot should I get?" is one of the FAQs I come across often. It is a question with many answers. To find the right teapot, a few key factors should be considered, such as: How you prepare your tea? What tea do you drink? or How many people you have tea with? etc. In this post I am just offering what I know about teapots and my way of choosing the right teapot. If you have other opinions about this subject, please post your comments to share your thoughts with me and the readers.

The typical large teapot used
in most Chinese restaurants.
Before I write further, let me just say that most seasoned tea drinkers have at least 3 or 4 teapots of different shapes and sizes. I am not saying you need a few teapots to be a serious tea drinker. It's just that in order to make the best out of your tea leaves in different settings, you need to use different teapots.

My 1-cup teapot. Great for testing
Getting back to the topic, let's first talk about size. Teapots come in sizes/volume from 1 gongfu teacup to about 1 liter. The ones used to make Chinese tea typically aren't bigger than 500mL, like the ones used in Chinese restaurants. Big teapots of this size usually cannot make very good tea. (There are exceptions when steeping aged fermented tea like Pu'er). In gongfu tea, the right teapot size depends on the number of cups of tea to make in each steep. The teapot should be just big enough to make the number of cups needed. The reason here is that a teapot too small will not produce enough tea in one steep. A teapot too big will produce more tea than you need, which results in waste if you pour the excess away or you "destroy" your tea leaves by oversteeping if you leave the excess in the teapot. (In traditional gongfu tea we pour straight from the teapot to the cup, so there is no other pot to collect the tea from the teapot).

In Minnan and ChaoShan
Area, people traditionally
pour tea straight to the
teacup, without using the pot
shown on the lower left of
this picture. This pot made
its presence in gongfu
teasets less than ten years
Another aspect here is that most tea expand when steeped and take up space, reducing the available water volume. How much the tea expands depends on the type of tea and the amount of tea leaves you use. Tea like Gunpowder and Tie Guan Yin expand more, while dragon well and Pu'erh don't expand much. If you like to make strong tea, you also need a slightly larger teapot because the more tea you use, the less room there is for water in the teapot.

Okay I need some tea now. I'll be back for Part 2.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Martial Art Tea

What does martial art have to do with tea? For those of you who really know why gong fu tea got its name and understands written Chinese well, you probably already know where I am heading with this post.

Okay, to answer the initial question, let me BRIEFLY cover how gong fu tea got its name as well as give you a short lecture in Chinese 101. So gong fu tea or kung fu tea, whichever you prefer, got its name from the Teochew dialect commonly spoken in the Teohew area (aka ChaoShan area) in Guangdong Province of China. This map shows you where the ChaoShan area is:

****ChaoShan area includes Chaozhou and Shantou, hance the name ChaoShan.

Gong fu tea, correctly written in Chinese as 工夫茶 is pronounced Gun Who Theh in Teochew dialect. Gōng fū chá is the Mandarin pronounciation of  工夫茶. In Cantonese it's Gōng fū Chǎ. So we got the term gong gu tea from Mandarin and Cantonese. Worth noting here is that the term Gun Who (工夫) is unique to the ChaoShan area and has an unique meaning of doing things the proper way, following every step. Let me emphasize: the written term 工夫 is not commonly used in written Chinese.
When the ChaoShan people introduce their Gun Who Theh (工夫茶) to the rest of China, they communicate in Mandarin, the official dialect of the country, and introduce 工夫茶 as Gōng fū chá. Remember I said the term 工夫 is not used outside of the ChaoShan area? So when the Mandarin or Cantonese speakers hear gōng fū chá they natually think of the commonly used written term of gōng fū - 功夫. 功夫 has two broad meanings: 1. martial art, or, 2. skills. So when 工夫茶 is mass marketed to the general Chinese consumers and to the rest of the world by people who don't understand the Teochew dialect, it becomes 功夫茶, or martial art tea! Interesting right? Another classic example of lost in translation.
So when I see tea label like this, I always joke that drinking it would make you a black belt. Really, it's what the label suggests.