After the tea ceremony, Erin asked me if I would like to learn how to make tea. I said yes (of course!), and so I gave Erin 600rmb (about $100) to buy me a red clay teapot. I think that the red clay teapots are the pretty because they have a great old look to them. Over time, they will absorb the flavor of the tea they carry, so it’s best to brew only one type of tea in a red clay pot. They will also change color, developing a rich patina after many uses.
If you are a fan of the new Sherlock Holmes series “Sherlock,” then you should recognize the following tea pot from the episode “The Blind Banker.” The historian at the museum does the tea ceremony in order to keep the tea sets beautiful.
Lily provided me some oolong tea to use – so my traditional red clay pot will be an oolong tea pot, which is also very traditional.
Before I can use my teapot, I have to learn the ceremony. Erin teaches me a modified version, so that I don’t have to pause after each motion. “This is if you have friends over,” she explains as the water boils. We’re using her tea set, and my cups.
In essence, with oolong tea and a red clay pot, it’s rinsing, heating, and repeating. The first infusion is used to rinse the cups and then discarded. With the second infusion, one overfills the pot, then uses the lid to scrape the bubbles off in a circular motion.
The hardest thing about the whole deal is holding the pot while it’s piping hot. In the proper serving of tea in China, one does not grip the handle of anything. Erin adjusts my fingers on the pot, making me feel like I have hands like mutton roasts. I know this is not true – I actually feel as though I have graceful hands – but there is nothing like someone chuckling at your finger placement to get you reevaluating. Then, to pour, you place two fingertips on the side of the lid. It sounds straightforward, but to make oolong tea you rinse the outside of the pot with boiling water to equalize temperature, so you are touching extremely hot clay. And you have to maintain grace.
Beauty is supposed to be worth a little pain, right? Based on the complements, this seems correct.
Each cup is rinsed by holding the outsides with the thumb, index, and middle fingers and rotating in opposing circles. The second infusion of the tea is poured first into a glass pitcher, and then into the taller smelling cups. The tasting cup is put over the smelling cup, and then (this is tricky), holding the two pressed together between the three fingers, the pair is flipped over in one smooth motion. The smelling cup is lifted gently up, making small circles along the interior of the tasting cup. This releases the tea.
Smell the remains of the tea in the smelling cup. Some suggest rolling the cup along the face, as the heat is like a mini massage. I would smell the tea cup first, even if you don’t roll the cup along your face. Always pour from left to right.
This, in my halting explanation, is the basics for one type of tea.
I’ve never seen a guy do the tea ceremony, not in all my months here. Perhaps if I stay long enough, I’ll see it. The whole thing – the time commitment, the burning fingertips, the need for grace, the expectations – I can’t tell if I think it’s sexist or not. Perhaps it’s just a different definition of what makes something “feminine.” And perhaps I’ve been conditioned to balk at any attempt at such definitions.
Now that I have learned, Erin instructs me on how to season my red clay pot before I use it. Like seasoning cast iron, there are steps which need to be taken in order to ensure my teapot will have a new life.
How to season a red clay pot:
1. Put the teapot in cold water and then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Remove and let cool completely.
2. Fill the teapot with tofu (bean curd).
3. Put in cold water and simmer until you can “smell the bean curd in the kitchen.” Remove and let cool completely.
4. Wash/rinse pot in warm water. DO NOT USE SOAP.
5. Add sugar to a pot of cold water. Put teapot in water and simmer again, until you can “smell the sugar.”
6. Remove and rinse in warm water. Let cool completely.
7. Take one package of tea (tea to be used in future) and add to cold water. Place teapot in water, and simmer for one hour.
8. Rinse and let cool.
Note: If the teapot goes unused for a few days, rinse in warm water and let dry completely – roughly eight hours was the recommendation I got.
Got it? Go forth, and enjoy your tea!