Thursday, May 24, 2012

Salty, milky Mongolian tea, with music

A lovely Chicago indie-pop band, Canasta, went on a serious world tour earlier this year — to Mongolia, part of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Arts Envoy Program. In the dead of winter, they suited up and hauled their gear halfway around the planet to this remote republic, where the ancient tea trade once thrived.

Mongolia, in fact, has a contentious relationship with tea. The Mongols conquered China in the 13th and 14th centuries, but they lost control after the death of the great warrior-unifier Ghengis Khan. For the next two hundred years, the Mongols were cut out of the tea trade (which the Chinese then facilitated chiefly for as a currency for the purchase of horses) until tea seeped back in during the 16th century. When we talk about tea in this context, we're talking mostly brick tea, usually chipped and brewed in a mixture of butter and milk.

The members of Canasta — engaging young, urban musicians — encountered the remnants of that tea culture on their February excursion.

"They serve this hot, salty, milky tea," said singer-bassist Matt Priest during our recent interview. "I never quite got used to it."

"I liked the buttery one," said singer-violinist Elizabeth Lindau (pictured, enjoying it). "The other one just tastes like salty milk."

"It's cool that wherever you go, they serve you tea right away," Priest added. "You walk into your room, and even though the room was incredibly spartan and the shower was dangerous, still there'd be some hot tea waiting for you."

The one native beverage the Canasta folks did savor was seabuckthorn juice, the pressings from an orange berry complete with crunchy edible seeds.

Canasta celebrates its 10th anniversary in concert June 2 in Chicago. Their latest album, 2010's "The Fakeout, the Tease, and the Breather," is delightful.

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