Monday, June 29, 2009

New spot in T-town. Make that Tea-town.

A little quiet here last week — I was on the road. As Michael Fracasso sings, I was "headed back to Oklahoma to see my ma and pa." (Also, my new play premiered there! I co-wrote a one-act with a former colleague of mine, and it was produced last week ... and sold out!)

But while in Tulsa, I stopped by a fairly new tea shop there. The Dragonmoon Tea Co. in Tulsa, Okla., (can't find a Web site; newspaper review here) is a splendid spot for tea ladies and tea dudes alike. I love, in the video below, how they stress, "Men, we're not too fussy in our decor." 'Tis true. It's a clean, comparatively minimalist space inside a rehabbed two-story home built in 1924. The only wacky decor are the dog paintings (a parody titled "Mona Lulu," etc.). Not a square inch of lace in sight!

My buddy Chris and I grabbed lunch there on a busy afternoon last week. The chow was darn tasty — not just a hastily assembled backdrop for the tea — and filling. Chris had turkey pita pockets with a sublimely simple fruit salad; I had what I gathered was a house special, a "Calcutta chicken salad" sandwich, with apples and peanuts and just the right amount of curry. Delish. Desserts fell a little short, though. The croissant chocolate bread pudding is really heavy, with the dense bread fighting against the overpowering chocolate, though the honey baked custard reached for, and almost made it to, nice and light.

Fabulous teas, though, nicely presented in glass pots with tea-light warmers. I had two pots: first, the yellow tea (Wild Kwan Yin Sparrow Tongue), because I've read much about yellows and always wanted to try one — very light color, a whiff of cinnamon, flavors of peach and rose (a woman behind me called it "buttery," but I didn't think so) — and then, with dessert, the Versailles Lavender Earl Grey. What a winner. I'd never thought of adding lavender to already-flavored Earl Grey, but it's a mellow contrast to the sharp citrus. And if you love the smell of regular Earl Grey, well, this is heavenly stuff, wet and dry.

The yellow tea at Dragonmoon

Co-owner Sara Creed-Piper and manager Melanie Loucks were attentive and chatty, in addition to our server. Came to find out Loucks is a recent transplant from Chicago, where she worked at both Second City and my beloved Argo Tea. Small world, big kettles.

Here's a video shot by the Tulsa World, showing the place and its owners. I know Tulsa's largely a drive-through kind of city for folks on the interstate, but even with a Teavana opening soon in Oklahoma City you're likely not to find a nicer tea joint in that very red state ...

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tea adds life

A little while back, I mentioned that Coca-Cola has released — in Japan only — a new green tea-flavored Coke. Well, I went looking for a bottle. Had no luck through official Coke channels, but God bless eBay. Ten bucks and as many days later, one small bottle of the stuff was on my kitchen counter ...

The tea taste, if it's there at all, is very subtle. In a glass, it smells exactly like regular Coke. The overall taste is largely the same, too, just ... cleaner, fresher, a crisper finish around the edges. I kept coming back to the word "fresh," which is not one I've ever used in describing Coca-Cola, I can assure you. I'm tempted to add that the rum I splashed in the last of it perked up, too, but that's probably just the rum itself talking.

Be on the lookout for an American launch later?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sunday, June 21, 2009

All the tea in China

Photo from Harvard Business

via ChineseTea: Here are some pretty cool photos showing aspects of the tea trade in 19th century China. The photo above shows workers packing the tea tightly into chests. (Wouldn't you kill for a handful out of that mound o' tea?) The page displaying these photos is from, of all places, Harvard's business school, and thus gives a slightly interesting commercial slant on the age-old history of this beverage.

Friday, June 19, 2009

It's hailing tea, hallelujah!

We were awakened at 3 this morning by some killer storms thundering through Chicago. I padded through the dark flat to shut the windows. The wind through the sunroom window had knocked over my heavy stoneware teapot. Impressive, but no harm done. I'm off work today, sleeping in, gloriously — and was awakened again at 10 by another round. It was perfect: I came to, hearing the soft patter on the leafy tree in the courtyard, with a low rumble in the distance ... that got louder ... and closer ... and louder ... until we were rushing around yanking plants of window ledges to save them from the hail. Lightning crackling, thunder crashing, dime- to quarter-sized hail battering the trees and flowers. Yee-haw! This is what I miss about Oklahoma.

And there's another round charging in from the west, stronger. So I'm posting while I have power, and finishing off the Tea Hawaii black in Tanya's new mug. And I unearthed one curious, useless tea-and-thunderstorms theory whilst poking around on the Google:

"Keriche, Kenya, averages 132 days per year with hail. This may be by far the highest frequency anywhere in the world. One theory holds that large amounts of pulverized tea leaf litter from the local tea plantations get stirred into the atmosphere and serve as excellent "ice nuclei" once in the rain clouds overhead."

Another reason to drink loose-leaf.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tea time with Tanya

Tanya, dahling — the mug is finally in my tea cabinet, where it belongs. It's beautiful, and I plan to baptize it tomorrow morning. Thanks, and a thousand times thanks.

Tanya, dear readers, is an old friend. Way back. Mardi Gras madness together, nights at Pink's drowning various sorrows, husband Mitch and I foolishly studied the craft of journalism together. After all that, Ms. Tanya found herself an artistic streak, and nowadays spends time at the IAO Gallery making pots and mugs and pitchers and such. It's all very Demi Moore in "Ghost," though I'm guessing with significantly better music.

She's sent wonders from her wheel before — a nifty milk pitcher, two other cups come to mind — but recently she mailed a new mug. I say "recently." She mailed it back in April, to our former address. It sat underneath the mailboxes in that building for nearly two months before an intrepid resident took it upon herself to find us. Long story short, I picked it up from her yesterday. And a bonus: This gal plays in a local band. Might write about her.

It's a beautiful dark blue, spotted with pretty lined, tan dots, each with some blue cloudy stuff underneath. They look like little wet Jupiters, or bearded Saturns. The handle's great, perfectly balanced. The inside of the mug is cream-colored, so it's great for appreciating the color of tea. I just love it. Tanya, alas, has no Web site that I know of. Readers should email me if they want hooked up to her claymation nation.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

'Imbibing of a good dose of history'

Happy Bloomsday, tea lovers!

I'm overdue for another plow through Joyce's seminal novel, in which Stephen and Leo wander the streets of Dublin on a very thoughtful June 16. I don't want to be the kind of blogger who stretches like Plastic Man to connect his subject to just about anything, but I'd feel remiss today not to drop one of Joyce's bits into the cup. From the "Lestrygonians" chapter:
"He walked on past Bolton's Westmoreland house. Tea. Tea. Tea. I forgot to tap Tom Kernan."
Stream of consciousness, baby. Nobody did it better. The full name of the place Bloom was walking by was the William Bolton & Co., Grocers and Tea, Wine and Spirit Merchants. He pauses on the "tea" and repeats it — a reminder of the 4 p.m. (tea time) tryst coming up between Bloom's wife, Molly, and a fellow named Boylan (perhaps also a triggering echo in the shop's namesake, Bolton). "Tea. Tea. Tea" ... it reads like a ticking clock.

And here's a ’toon poring over a few tea-related quips from the master — an image from the James Joyce Quarterly, published in (of all places) Tulsa, Okla.:

Tuesday tea tunes: A voice like cream

Tea For Two - Sarah Vaughan

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tea in Hawaii: Chado demonstration

I confess: At first, I dreaded a recent trip to Hawaii. Five days with in-laws, and only in Waikiki. It smacked of touristy buffets, crowded beaches and the same exhaust fumes I inhale every day in Chicago. But when I began researching things we might do for fun, a footnote on the Fodor's map of Honolulu put my kettle to boil. The Urasenke Foundation "exists to promote a better understanding and appreciation among the American people of the rich cultural heritage of Japan as expressed through the art of chanoyu," which is the Japanese tea ceremony — and they have an outpost in the heart of Waikiki, offering twice-weekly demonstrations of the ceremony in their own tea house. Y'all enjoy T-shirt shopping. I was there.

The Urasenke location in Honolulu is in the shadow of Donald Trump's latest monolith, in a nondescript, low old building with hardly any signage on Waikiki's western boundary. At 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, they demonstrate the tea ceremony in a tidy, open-air tearoom (pictured, before I entered) — specially constructed according to traditions — for a suggested donation of a whopping $3. (Just call to let them know you're coming, 808-923-3059. I was one of three people on a stuffy Wednesday morning.)

Visitors first sit for a brief video (on VHS, played through a "Magnum P.I."-era TV set) explaining the basics and history of the ceremony, all through a quaint narrative about a mother and daughter off to visit a friend's house, where he prepares the whole shebang for them. It's got a very grade-school, turn-the-knob-when-you-hear-the-chime feel to it, but there's a good bit about the taste and traditional differences between thick and thin teas.

You're then marched along a tranquil stone path to the tea house in back. Shoes off. Sit on a woven mat. Two women then run through a demonstration of the ceremony. The real deal can last up to four hours and include a full meal; this demo is half an hour, tops, and limits the culinary experience to a couple of cookies. After narrating their way through it, serving each other, the women then repeat the ceremony, serving the visitors. Cookies first, light and sweet, waking the palate. Then individual bowls of matcha tea are whisked on the spot. Not too thick, not too thin, and bracing. Lots of bowing. At my request, they showcased some of their wares. I was particularly intrigued by the bamboo water ladles, and I've been looking for some ever since.

Here are a couple of videos of a similar Urasenke demo, via YouTube ...

Any fellow Chicago tea lovers want to take a two-hour chanoyu class here? The local JAS offers one every now and then, but there's a minimum of four students, which they don't often meet. Let me know.

Later, we escaped to the Big Island and visited some of the burgeoning tea plantations there. More on that later, stay tuned ...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Digging a look inside SF's Samovar

San Francisco is a wonderful tea town — hip, chilly, foggy, plus international influence, especially from the eastern tealands. One of the tea shops I hope to make a pilgrimage to one day is Samovar. Here's the thing about this post: First, just last night a friend of mine rolled through town and crashed on our pullout. I knocked together a veggie paella, over which she told us tales of Samovar's wonders. Then, just this afternoon, I happened randomly (at Tea Club for Men) upon the following video. It's an episode of "Diggnation," a podcast from the Digg media bookmarking site — from last month, but it's a nice glimpse of the shop, its teas and Kevin Rose's other ephemera ...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The going ups and the coming downs

Yesterday's post hawked a cool old poster print crying, "Tea Revives You." Just this week, the reason why that's true has been making the news rounds. It's L-theanine, an amino acid native to our beloved Camellia sinensis. Within 45 minutes after the first sip, it helps focus the mind ("I've got to concentrate, concentrate, concentrate ...!").

This is not a new discovery. Well, it's not new to tea lovers through the ages — the fact that tea both revives and calms you. It is, however, a new discovery of beverage makers who are desperate for a fancy new ingredient to tout and sell. As described in this article, energy drinks and vitamin waters are coming out "NEW! With L-theanine!" Thanks, I'll stick with my cuppa.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Truth in advertising

My other half is a talented graphic designer. Perhaps he would appreciate the awesome design of this print, reviving an old 1930s advertising slogan that I love.

Could be a great holiday gift for either of us. But, ahem, the hint is being dropped on my blog.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I'd like to teach the world to steep ...

The cola wars battle in anime. New this week in Japan: green tea-flavored Coca-Cola. That sounds like either ... mixing tea with coffee, or a vast improvement on an omnipresent beverage-slash-American cultural icon.

So says MSNBC: "It contains tea antioxidants called catechins, leaves a slight green tea aftertaste and is mainly targeted at health-conscious women in their 20s and 30s."

Rival soda giant Pepsi is planning to counter with Pepsi Shiso. Shiso is an herb, kind of minty, sort of basily. Again, I both cringe and crave it.

Anybody know how to get some of these?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Where wine country meets the tea slopes

Here's an interesting Q&A — where wine blogs and tea blogs meet. The intrepid couple behind Catavino talks to Henrietta Lovell, owner of the Rare Tea Company, about how teas and wines can complement each other. A sample, this discussion of which teas to use at a wine tasting to cleanse the palate:

Oolong is the most flexible. Good oolong has such depth of flavour it can stand up beside the richest reds but is subtle enough to work with delicate white.

Generally I would suggest using whole leaf green teas with white wines. With softer red you need a good oolong and as you move into really full bodied reds the best pairing is a rich black tea like the malty caramel of Emperor’s Breakfast.

The important thing to remember is the first sip of tea is overwhelmed by the residual wine in you pallet. It is the second sip that the flavours are revealed.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tea shop: The Green Teaist

In this economy, the last business I'd want to start would be a very high-end tea shop. Excuse me, tea salon. But here's to Hoken Seki and the fulfillment of his dream. "It's his passion," said the salon's manager during my visit to The Green Teaist (Salon de The Vert et L’Atelier), speaking of the place's owner, Seki, an attorney in international law who opened the shop last fall in the swanky suburb of Lake Forest, Ill.

Friday was — finally — a gorgeous sunny day here, and I had the day off (on furlough, so please buy a newspaper today!), so I hopped the train up the North Shore. Lake Forest is one of many such ’burbs north of Chicago, an old stop on the train line that's been adorably gentrified with a lovely green plaza and a level of shopping supported by the same demographic that would keep an expensive tea shop in business. In fact, there they were, a gaggle of seven upper-crust ladies, fortysomethings, the only other patrons in the tiny salon when I arrived. Pick a little, talk a little, sip sip sip ...

The Green Teaist is a dream, a living chapter from The Book of Tea. Comfortably sparse, impossibly tidy, subtly inviting — the essence of "a clean, well-lighted place." The menu is an impressive list of high-quality green teas — senchas and shinchas, gyokuro and genmaicha, some special offerings and an intriguing house blend — all overnighted from Japan and stored in the beautiful tea cellars (they look like big refrigerators designed and organized by a serious and possibly envious case of OCD). This is not a "grande to-go" kinda place. Here's the run-down of my delightful visit:

Heir aperitif
After perusing the menu and making a difficult choice — alas, there is no offering of samples, so pick a pot and stick with it — the server brought a complimentary treat. I was about to ask her for a glass of water, having heated up a bit on the sunny walk to the shop. But who needs water when you have gyokuro frisson, I ask you? Delivered in a small cordial glass, this was a strong green tea chilled, thick and almost briny. "Meant to be sipped like a fine wine," my server instructed. Surprisingly refreshing, just shy of tart, and exactly what I needed!

Sweet stuff
The shop has a limited array of pastries and sweets from a nearby bakery. There's no menu: the server brings out a tray of the day's half dozen or so choices, and you can pick three. Make no mistake, these will not in any way fill you up. They are tiny little things, presented for complementing flavors only. Which is nothing to scoff at, mind you. I opted for an almond-currant tart (more the latter than the former, subtle flavors, OK but nothing to blog about), a miniature slice of matcha pound cake (just the right amount of sweetness, but dry) and a custardy lemon tart (the winner, perfectly light and sweet and an excellent partner for green tea). Three bite-sized treats: $7.25. Hmmm.

The tea
I selected something I'd not had before. Why not? A pot of Kukicha — leaves and stems, baby. Here's the thing: The Green Teaist prepares the tea at your table. It's like ordering guacamole at a showy Mexican restaurant but considerably classier. The server came to the table with a tray containing a small kettle, a glass pot, strainer, timer and the tea. The tea was already measured out into a bamboo scoop, which was presented for my inhaling pleasure. The Kukicha had a fresh green scent, with a hint of moss. She dropped it into the pot, poured enough water to get it wet, swirled it around, then added all the water. She set the timer and then ... chatted with me. This has the potential for an awkward three minutes in some company, I'm imagining; fortunately, for her I hope, I was interested and inquisitive. She taught English in a small Japan village for two years, drank bancha at school every day. Qualifications! The tea that she poured was a beautiful yellow-green. It looked as buttery as it smelled, and tasted grassy and barely sweet, with a smooth finish. Delish. One pot poured two decent cups: $12.

There's a shop in the back with some really nice pots and accessories, as well as books (including at least four different editions of The Book of Tea) and teas from the cellar. The clerk said Mr. Seki hopes eventually to open Green Teaist locations in Beverly Hills and, er, Zurich. Do they drink tea in Switzerland?!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tea tasting on the assembly line

My spouse is a Science Channel junkie. This weekend, we vegged out during a marathon of "How Do They Do It?" shows, which included this report about a professional tea taster (via YouTube):

I can't quite decide if that would be the coolest job on the planet (drink tea, get paid) or the worst (drink tea, spit it out).

Note the narration: "Their loyal customers expect every tea bag to taste the same." Thus the tea-tasting gig for this guy, to insure consistency. Which pretty much spoils the whole point of enjoying tea, right?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The ice(d) tea cometh

It's still alarmingly autumnal in teasquared land, but we're seizing upon and relishing the occasional slivers of summer that slip through. Any day now will be warm and sunny enough to place a pitcher on the porch for the afternoon — sun tea. This was Mom's summer staple. She'd throw three or four bags of Lipton into a glass pitcher and set it out on a table in back. I used to sit next to it and meditate on the changing color. Ever. So. Slowly. My young hair going blond in the sun at about the same rate. That night, on the table next to Mom's chicken or Dad's steaks, there they'd be — those tall plastic tumblers, stacked with ice cubes, filled with tea.

We call that ice tea where I comes from. Not "iced." As my friend and fellow native Okie, Mark Brown, once wrote in his food ’zine, Argentfork (now topped with bloggin' goodness):
"I tried to type that 'iced tea,' with the 'd,' even spoke it aloud as I wrote it, but it just got in the way. Only folks who live north need that 'd.' My people can't wait for the consonant to catch up before they move from the adjective to the subject. It comes out, 'Ice-tuh ... tea,' which isn't clear to anybody. Tea on ice is not Tea Party tea. It's William Faulkner tea. It is ice tea. It is our'n."
Mark also made a fine argument for the unadorned beauty of ice tea. I, too, shy away from the flavored varieties, not only because I'd like to avoid the extra sugar (usually of the highly fructosey, corny and syruppy variety) but because I'd like to taste the actual tea. If I wanted to taste raspberry, I wouldn't be drinking tea, ma'am. I don't even want the lemon. "Tea's flavored already," Mark wrote. "It needs dried apricot only if you hate the taste of tea and, hence, require fruit to diffuse it." (That didn't stop him, however, from including some fruity-tea recipes in this newspaper story a while back. Also, check out the recipe there for Lapsang Souchong burgers!)

What do you make ice tea with? Ceylon? Keemun? Assam? Others?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Put the chai in the coconut, drink it all down

Photo from 5 Second Rule

Maybe out of season, but I found this recipe for Coconut Chai enticing — especially given the context in which this blogger found it. She was at a gala at an aquarium, eating seafood (is that cruel, eating seafood at an aquarium?), and the flavors in this concoction were a perfect foil. And I admire anyone who goes home and re-creates a recipe on their own.