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A tea-house chronicle

A Chinese tea tasting ceremony in Hong Kong offers surprising nuances to this delicate brew

Vivian Mak at MingCha. Photo: Bhavya Dore.
Vivian Mak at MingCha. Photo: Bhavya Dore.

The flower blooms in the transparent cocktail glass like a sea anemone, its saffron petals unfurling as the hot water seeps through the tightly wrapped ball. The martini glass is meant to add a speck of drama to the proceedings, and we watch as the pinkish-centred jasmine blossom takes its final shape. We are at MingCha, a tea house in a repurposed factory building in Hong Kong’s Taikoo area studded with ceramic teapots and saucers—some so delicate and small that they feel alien in adult hands.

“This one," says Vivian Mak, of the jasmine tea in our respective glasses, “is visually stunning".

Mak is the founder of MingCha, a middle-aged, short-haired lady with a no-nonsense mien and a chiming laugh. She wants you to have a good time, and drink lots of tea. And she wants to make sure you do it the proper, aesthetic way. “It’s not complicated," she says. “It’s about touching and feeling."

After some exploratory sips from the sepia-coloured glass, she wants to see more effort. “Now," she says. “Try and slurp." Say what? But we demur, making impolite gurgling noises as we decant tea into our systems. “It’s good?" she asks. “I’ll tell you why. It opens up your palate. By slurping, you are forcing it to go around your mouth." She might be right. I feel orally ventilated all of a sudden. “And that," she says. “Is fun."

Tea appreciation has all the trappings of a wine tasting. Swirling and sipping, tossing out pretentious-sounding adjectives to put a finger on sensations, changing around the drinking equipment and talking about pairing teas with foods. The vocabulary is the same, as is the faux body language of playing at being the epicure. But at least you get to drink each cup, tiny though it might be.

Mak is very serious about her teas. We must bite off the bark-like pieces of dried tea leaves and swallow them. We must practise turning the cups and pouring from them. We must make notes on a piece of paper she has provided, expounding on aroma, body and aftertaste. Most of all, like true connoisseurs, we must talk about our feelings. “How do you feel?" she urges on. “Look at it, smell it, eat it."

At some point during the 2 hours we spent there—perhaps some time after making us eat the leaves—she stops to ask if we are having fun. “I don’t want you to feel like it is torture," she says.

There are four types of tea to drink: Apart from the jasmine, there’s white peony supreme, Phoenix osmanthus and teguanyin classic. We are walked through their features and their histories. Each has its own calling card: from anti-oxidizing powers to blood cholesterol-lowering ones. None of them involves milk and sugar; naturally that makes all of them suspect in my eyes. As a good Indian citizen raised on a strong brew, this is cute but hardly the real thing.

But I am mistaken, as I am about to find out over the course of the next few days. Chinese tea will very much be the real thing.

That realization is arrived at after being besieged by a meat-heavy menu meal after meal; as I eat mostly vegetarian fare, I find nothing to my taste. Beef brisket, pork noodle soup, fish sauce: all my enemies assembled together on a single plate. So every time when the waiter, unasked, brings us tiny porcelain cups of tea—dark, aromatic, bracing—with every meal, I ingest the tea quickly, allowing its energizing powers to wipe out the smell and taste of meat. I sniff, smell, taste, swirl and slurp. And how does it make me feel? Oh, very good indeed.

A one-and-a-half-hour tea-tasting session at MingCha costs HKD 350 (around Rs2,800).

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