I spent the last weekend attending my first tea festival, the 2020 International Virtual Tea Festival. Although it followed US time zones, the organisers had thoughtfully made the sessions available for the duration of the festival. There were free sessions, paid sessions, vendor booths to visit, and one-on-one meetings. Since the lineup included some of the best-known tea educators and advocates, like Babette Donaldson and Bill Waddington from the US and Jane Pettigrew from the UK, it was a great opportunity to learn and interact. If there is any positive takeaway from covid-19, I would say it is festivals without borders.
For me, a big takeaway from the festival itself was a better understanding of gong fu, the Chinese brewing style. I have often felt it demands more attention and patience than I have. But it’s a ritual whose set rules make the choreography look both beautiful and relaxing. During one session, Rainy Huang, a Chinese tea expert and founder of Serene Tea in Seattle, US, talked about needing nearly two months to get the hang of it—and this with a teacher. So I won’t try to replicate her lesson here, all I will do is try to offer an introduction.
Gong fu works very well for Chinese or Taiwanese tea (and Indian white, green and aged teas), with tea being steeped for 3-5 seconds at a time, many times over, going up to 20 steeps. This allows the more complex flavours to unravel. Depending on the tea, and the steep (first or subsequent), water is poured from a different angle, rarely on the leaf directly. This is where it gets complicated. The gong fu arrangement is beautifully simple, and everything has a reason. A bamboo base holds the paraphernalia while a tray below collects any spillage. The main piece of equipment is the gaiwan, a cup with a saucer and lid (when water is poured over the tea and the lid is closed, some of the water should come over the lid. This indicates “water sealing”). There is a sharing pitcher (the tea is poured into the pitcher before it’s served in cups to ensure that it’s uniformly mixed), an accessories kit (whose Chinese name translates to “six gentlemen”) with six tools, including a spout cleaner and scoop, and finally, a tea pet! Yes, you read that right. The tea pet is part mascot/part bringer of good fortune—a tea drinker’s companion.
Not much is known about its origins. Yixing craftsmen (who made the eponymous clay teaware famous) would make little clay figures as companions for tea drinkers. They come in a range of designs, mostly of mythical and real creatures and gods, and include the Buddha, a dragon, a frog, a pig and more. And like any pet, this one too needs tending, with tea.
I did wonder about the copious quantities of tea in gong fu brewing and was relieved to hear that it’s okay not to finish it, and that one shares it by pouring it over the tea pet. Over time, the flavours will be absorbed by the clay—that is desirable.
I might not be ready to embark on gong fu brewing yet but a tea pet, now that is going to be hard to ignore.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.