Monday, September 19, 2016

Bitter Melon Tie Guanyin - 苦瓜鐵觀音

Several months ago while drinking tea with my friends Jason and Andrew at Smacha, I received (among other things) a little sample of Bitter Melon Tie Guanyin (苦瓜 鐵觀音) oolong tea.

These days I typically choose either an oolong or a hongcha for my daily brew, and I tend to stick with teas I know. But today I was feeling more adventurous so I decided to give this novelty a try.

I was surprised to find the tea leaves are actually packed into a dried bitter-melon rind shaped like a little bumpy cylinder! The leaves themselves look and smell pleasant. It is a roasted oolong tea.

I used freshly boiled water and gave the "unit" a three second rinse in my gaiwan. It smells quite good, roasty, sweet and mellow.

The first infusion was about 30 seconds and poured pretty light. As you might imagine it took the water a few infusions to get into the center of this "wheel of leaves" and start to push the real flavor out. I continued to do short steeps because I was afraid of the bitterness that actually never came. After the second infusion, with the leaves pushing their way out of the melon rind, the liquor turned a medium-dark amber color. I enjoyed the flavor but it does have a weird vegetable note. The sweet caramel-like oolong flavors are muddied up by a tart cucumber-skin aftertaste. 

After 15 years as a heavy tea drinker I have a pretty good understanding of what my body craves. I drink tea for the satisfied feeling it gives me, the flavor, and the energy (qi) (). Maybe it's because I do not have any sentimental connections to bitter melon or it's potential health benefits that I found that this tea was ultimately not worth my time.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

10 Years Ago Today

On May 8, 2006, during my second trip to Taiwan, my friend Shiuwen treated my buddy Darald and me to an unforgettable tea tour. We met up with her bright and early in Taipei and had a hearty breakfast of steamed vegetable buns, fried youtiao and fresh soymilk. After our meal, and after we took care of a few errands (including sending my mom a Mother's Day card), we proceeded via metro to Xindian station, which is where we got the bus up to Pinglin.

It was a very hot day in Taipei and the air was barely moving but once we got off the bus in Pinglin we were soothed by a lower temperature and a gentle breeze. The air in Pinglin is sweet and the surrounding hills are lush and green. Our first stop in town was Shiuwen's friend Farmer Chen's tea shop where we drank some unforgettable Wenshan Baozhong tea. After tea we had a satisfying lunch of tea oil noodles (a local specialty), fried tofu, and soup with lotus flowers.

After lunch, we headed up to Farmer Chen's tea farm by car. Once at the farm I was excited to learn that we would be able to pick tea leaves. Darald and I were shown the basic technique, given a hat and basket, and put to work. In one hour I had plucked less than one tenth of the tea the locals had harvested. I watched as their hands moved quickly and skillfully over the tea bushes while my hands brought to mind those of an intoxicated sloth. I was still given a pat on the back and told that I didn't do too bad for my first try. It was a wonderful experience that left me with even greater respect and appreciation for the professionals.

After tea picking time we spread our leaves on rattan trays to wither...

...then we walked over to the neighbor's farm to see Dong Fang Mei Ren (東方美人) oolong tea in various stages of production.

As we walked around the misty, green farms, Chen and Shiuwen pointed out the different cultivars of tea bushes we passed. Qing Xin (青心) was the most common, but Jin Xuan (金萱), Fo Shou (佛手) and even Wuyi Mountain Shui Xian (水仙) tea bushes were planted in this area.

(This one is Fo Shou.)

We drank some more fresh tea and then traveled back to town. Shiuwen, Darald and I visited a large facility for de-stemming and sorting hundreds of pounds of Wenshan Baozhong tea. It was fascinating.

We stopped into another tea shop where I purchased some baked Baozhong for Teacup (the store I was managing at the time), and two clay teapots (for myself). I also took a small shot of Baozhong wine offered to me by some locals. It was strong stuff.

In the evening we said goodbye to Pinglin and hopped aboard a bus headed back to Taipei. The ride was somewhat eventful because an air conditioning unit was leaking water all over one vinyl seat. About halfway to Taipei the bus was full except for that seat. An old lady came in with two plastic bags. She looked all around for a seat and was dismayed by her only option being soggy. I was close by so I sprung up to offer my seat. She tried to protest but I insisted and she sat down while I stood. Then she gave me a present. It was a special local food. Some type of gummy rice pocket with a bright, artificial-red, raw-onion-tasting filling. I thanked her and ate a little bit. I gave the old lady a smile and a big thumbs up... but I really didn't like it, so I put it in my pocket to deal with later.

The evening in Taipei was not too hot and we all had a great dinner at a Buddhist buffet. Then we headed over to Shiuwen's friend Lao Ji Zi's shop for even more great tea.

(That's our own fresh picked Baozhong leaves on the tray.)

Although we were already quite tea drunk we made room for some more amazing tea. I had an Alishan High Mountian Oolong that was so incredible. It was the type of tea that makes a tea-person empty out their wallet and say, "How much will this get me?"

We also cupped up the Baozhong leaves that we picked that afternoon. By this point they had only been withered slightly and jostled about in our bags during the commute back to town. They had a subtle sweet floral aroma and clean clear broth with notes of lilac and dew. A very refreshing way to end the night.

(Those are our jade green leaves in the large bowl.)

All in all it was a wonderful day in Northern Taiwan. I can never thank Shiuwen enough!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Been Scribbling

Back in high school I would draw and paint all the time but during the last ~15 years the only art I've been involved with has been tea related or musical. 

Recently my family has been getting together in the evenings to make art which has been a really fun way to spend time together. 

My style is pen scribbles with random marker and crayon highlights added later. Here are a few pieces I made these last few weeks:

Band Camp





Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Treasure Trove of Japanese Teas

Last Saturday I attended the event "A Treasure Trove of Japanese Teas" hosted by Northwest Tea Festival, Heather Porter of Hanamichi Blog, and Cinnabar of Phoenix Tea.

The Luminaries at Work

Some of the incredible teaware used during this event:

Heather has been to Japan many times and has some great tea connections. At the event, Heather told us charming stories from her latest trip to Japan while Cinnabar brewed and distributed perfect cups of tea. Below are my tasting notes on the 8 wonderful teas presented.

Kuradashi Sencha
This first tea was light, refreshing, buttery, and sweet. A great start to the tasting.

Kamigokoro kabusecha
From a family in Uji that has made tea since the 1500's. It was buttery, grassy, with a slight artichoke note. Super delicious.

Baisen Hiirecha
This tea had a rich toasty note. Very hearty and brothy compared to the first two. Loved it!

This is a super fragrant tea. It's a little floral and also crisp, clean and brothy. It was my favorite tea at the event!

Harigane Hojicha
This Hojicha was strong and fragrant. Most guests really loved it but I wasn't too into it. It was good, but I got a slight burnt popcorn aftertaste.

My second favorite tea at the event! It was like drinking pearls (in a good way :). Very brothy, nutty, and luscious.

Fukucha (good luck tea) sencha
This tea was cheerful and bright. I liked it, but compared to the other greens we tasted it was lacking complexity for me.

Wakocha (black tea)
I'm very into this tea! It's peachy, and floral with a note that reminded me of an heirloom tomato. I would drink this often if I could.

ありがとう Heather and Cinnabar!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Monday, February 8, 2016

Welcome the Year of the Fire Monkey

新年快樂 - Xīn nián kuài lè
恭喜發財 - Gōng xǐ fā cái
Happy New Year !

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Red Miso's Second Birthday!

On January 26, 2014, I started my first batch of red miso using the recipe in Sandor Ellix Katz's book Wild Fermentation. I'm sharing the process here for anyone who is also a fan of home fermenting!

First I cooked 4 cups of dried soybeans until they were very soft. I also boiled a clean stone to use as a weight.

This is the koji (rice with Aspergillus oryzae) that I purchased from a local Japanese supermarket.

After the cooked soybeans cooled, I mixed them and mashed them with the Koji and a brine made with 2 cups of the beans' cooking liquid and 1 cup of salt.

I'm fermenting it in my Rumtopf crock. I cleaned and dried the crock, salted the bottom, and then pressed the miso inside (taking care to eliminate any air pockets). Then I sprinkled more salt on the top.

I used a ceramic plate and a heavy rock as a weight.

Then I covered the crock with a thick tea towel, labeled it with the date, and stored it in a dark cabinet in my basement.

Exactly one year later (January 26, 2015), I checked on my miso for the first time. It had a tiny spot of fuzzy mold on top and looked a little bit redder than it had when it started. I scraped off the mold and tasted the miso. It was great but not as mellow as I would like. I sprinkled some new salt on top, replaced the weight and cover, and put it back in the cabinet. (Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures that day.)

Now it's time for my miso's two year check-up. Let's take a look!

Looks great. A wee halo of mold grew around the edge. Quick and easy to scrape that off and toss it in the compost.

Definitely looks redder than last year. Smells good too. My wife and I each took a little taste. Very nice flavor with a delicate caramel note. Mellower than last year too!

I'd say it's getting there! I cleaned it up, sprinkled in some fresh salt and put it back to bed. Sandor's book hinted that the third year (or maybe even later) is when the real magic happens. He teased that some 9 year old Red Miso he tasted was "sublime." Not sure I can wait that long but I will update you all again in 366 days!