Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Amazing Race 18, Episode 5 (Tea in China and India)

Kunming (China) - Kolkata/Calcutta (India)

This week The Amazing Race 18 turned its attention to tea: The racers had to visit tea shops in China and India, carry a brick of tea from China to India, and correctly identify a particular tea they had tasted in Kunming from among hundreds of tea varieties at a tasting in Kolkata (Calcutta), the leading tea-dealing center in India and perhaps the world.

For a tea drinker like me, the chance to explore the world’s teas is one of the delights of world travel. Tea, not coffee, is the world’s principal source of caffeine and most commonly used mind-altering drug (and legal almost everywhere, even in Utah where orthodox Mormons consider it sinful but have never been able to restrict it to the degree that they have the sale of alcohol).

While most of the world’s tea is grown in just a few countries in Asia, there is still an enormous variation in varieties of tea, and even greater variation in how it is prepared. You can often tell what part of the world you are in by what you are served, and how, if you ask for tea.

The best Japanese green tea has a fresh, pleasingly vegetal flavor, while some Chinese and Indian black teas have deep earthy flavors. In Japan, tea is whisked in a bowl using water that’s been carefully heated to avoid having it actually come to a boil. In Turkey (where Turkish tea, not Turkish coffee, is the standard caffeinated drink), tea is served in small glass cups and brewed using vigorously boiling water or live steam from the jet of an espresso machine.

In China, tea is typically green and drunk “black” (without milk or sugar), while in India or Pakistan most people who can afford it drink black tea boiled with milk and sugar. Water-buffalo milk is preferred to cow’s milk in Indian tea. It’s the distinctive smooth richness of the buffalo milk that makes it impossible to replicate the taste of the tea you get from ordinary chai-wallahs while you are travelling in South Asia, even if you get the right sort of tea and prepare it the same way at home but with cow’s milk.

Tea in some places is infused with spices along with the tea leaves, from mint in Morocco to cardamom in Kashmir. And that’s not to mention the infusions of other leaves, flowers, and grains that go by the name of “tea” in other places I’ve been: barley tea in Korea, rooibos in South Africa, mate in South America, and “tisanes” in France.

In the USA, tea north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River is usually served hot, while tea in the South and Southwest is almost always iced, even in winter — with a choice of black (iced) tea or sweet (iced) tea, the default usually being “sweet tea”. It’s hard to predict which you’ll get in the central states, Great Plains, and Pacific Northwest. If you order “hot tea” in the USA, you are apt to be served a cup of once-hot water (substantially cooled by having been poured into a cold cup) with a tea bag on the saucer next to it, not yet steeping.

Tea in the USA is, with rare exceptions, not only of uniformly poor quality but extremely uniform in character. Despite the diversity of the world’s teas, most Americans have encountered only three types of tea:

  1. A standardized blend of insipid Wal-Mart-grade black tea bags (made from what most Indians, or people familiar with ordinary Indian tea, would disparage as “sweepings”).
  2. The cheapest and lowest-quality “jasmine tea” served by Chinese restaurants to non-Chinese people who don’t ask for any different tea.
  3. Fast-food restaurant soft-drink-dispenser iced tea made from instant tea or concentrate.

Unfortunately for American tea connoisseurs, the recent growth in “specialty” coffee sales in the USA has not been matched by any comparable growth in sales or availability of high-quality varietal or blended teas.

If I were to make an analogy to coffee, it would be that the only tea readily available in the USA, including the tea served in most restaurants, is the equivalent of the worst supermarket coffee. Americans are often surprised when they find themselves in countries where instant Nescafe is the norm even for people who could afford brewed coffee. But they don’t seem to apply the same standard to their own tea drinking, and the majority of the tea drunk in the USA is iced tea made from instant tea or concentrate.

When I was growing up, forty years ago, my mother brought back a large stash of tea each time she went to Canada, having found that the same international brands packaged a substantially better grade of tea for sale in Canada than in the USA. Presumably, they figured that people in the USA were less sophisticated tea drinkers who would be satisfied with the worst tea. More expensive, fancily packaged, and herbal teas are more widely available in the USA today, but genuinely high-quality tea is only marginally easier to find, and only because of online mail-order importers and the spread of Indian and Chinese grocery stores.

Carrying tea from China to India, or vice versa, makes no sense. But tea bought in either of those countries, or in Japan, Taiwan, or Sri Lanka, may make a souvenir or gift that would be hard to find and/or much more expensive back home. I’ve brought home tea from China, India, Japan, Taiwan, and Hawaii, and enjoyed it long afterward as a memory of my trips.

If you’re not a tea connoisseur, be forewarned: Tea is a delicacy highly valued by wealthy Chinese and Indians as well as connoisseurs worldwide. Only so much of the best tea can be produced, and there are ever more wealthy Chinese and Indians competing for it and willing to pay more for it than most foreigners less steeped (so to speak) in the culture of tea.

If all you want is “everyday” Chinese or Indian tea, you can find it in any “Asian” (which in the USA usually means mainly Chinese) or Indian grocery store in the USA. If, however, you want to find out what really good tea is like, expect to have to pay real money for it. It’s cheaper at the source, just as fine wine is often cheaper at the winery. But you can no more get fine tea for supermarket prices, even directly from the grower, then get fine wine at the vineyard for what you’d pay for jugs of Gallo at the supermarket. Some of the best and most expensive teas are grown only in small quantities and are entirely unavailable outside the countries where they are grown.

High prices for souvenir teas may, in some cases, reflect price-gouging of tourists. But they may also reflect real value for fine teas that you won’t find abroad at any price.

Some years ago I was on a tourist bus on its way through the mountains to a national park in Taiwan. Most of the other tourists on the bus were Taiwanese, Taiwanese-Americans, or other overseas Chinese, and my traveling companion and I were the only Europeans. We pulled over at a roadside stand selling tea from the plantation we were passing through. I bought some of the least expensive grade of tea on offer. But the most knowledgeable of the Taiwanese tourists who were familiar with this particular plantation were buying the better grades at upwards of US$100 a pound — still a bargain compared to what it would cost in Taipei, much less in the USA. You can find similar prices for some of the most coveted Indian tea in Darjeeling or Assam, or from tea dealers in Kolkata (Calcutta).

Most Indian and Chinese grocery stores in the USA stock only the most common brands of tea sold in mainstream food shops in Indian and China. You can get better grades of Chinese tea from Chinatown specialty dealers, although it may be difficult if you don’t speak Chinese. High-grade Indian tea is generally available in the USA only from specialized mail-order dealers like Upton Tea. The best artisanal Japanese teas are produced in especially small quantities and aren’t exported in bulk at all. Outside Japan, the only way to get them is by mail order directly from Japan — or by buying them in Japan and bringing them home as a souvenir.

If you’re thinking of bringing back tea as a souvenir from Asia, check out prices from Upton Tea or other importers for the varieties that interest you before you go, so you have a sense of what to expect — just as you’d check out prices from your local wine shop before spending a lot of money at vineyards in the Napa Valley or Bordeaux.

This doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive tea in India or China to enjoy it, any more than you have to buy the world’s most expensive wines to develop a taste for something better than Charles Shaw. At their tea tasting in Kolkata, the teams on “The Amazing Race” were faced with more than a thousand cups of different teas. Most of those teas could be purchased in China or India for not much more than the most ordinary teabags at Wal-Mart.

Time to go make myself a cup of tea, while The Amazing Race 18 takes a week off for the Country Music Awards, with no race episode on April 3rd and broadcasts of the race resuming on April 10th.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 27 March 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I've drunk many a cup of tea with my son, Edward. In fact, when we are together we are constantly making a fresh pot. And I want to emphasize two of his comments. First, something made by pouring water of any heat into a cup with a tea bag in it is NOT tea. I do drink it when I want something to drink, as at a meeting or restaurant, and there is no option that is better, but it is not "tea". Second, I recommend Upton Tea as a place to look for the real stuff.

Posted by: Marguerite, 7 April 2011, 09:29 ( 9:29 AM)

I am not sure where my tea comes from except that is British Tea, over 2 decades ago I was introduced to Yorkshire Gold Tea, which from that day has been a staple in this American household all these years. Compared to American "Rot Gut" tea, this tea is always smooth and pleasing to the palate. Always consistent in flavor and quality.

For an American, yes I would be considered a tea snob, but so be it, American Tea is an absolutely horrible beverage at best.

Posted by: Mitchell Webster, 7 April 2011, 10:52 (10:52 AM)

Actually, in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, the Asian grocery stores are primarily Korean. H-mart and Lotte are both huge, Korean supermarkets with several branches in northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.

Posted by: Miriam Nadel, 13 April 2011, 01:36 ( 1:36 AM)

Also, I have traveled quite a lot in the southern U.S. and have never been asked if I wanted "black tea" or "sweet tea." You do have to specify HOT tea if that's what you want, but the choice for iced tea is invariably phrased as "sweet" or "unsweet."

Posted by: Miriam Nadel, 13 April 2011, 01:38 ( 1:38 AM)

Hi there, here in the Philippines where I live, tea isn't as popular as coffee, so it's a bit frustrating not many local stores sell many varieties of tea, most of them are just tea bags. To think that we are neighbor with China.

Posted by: Jenna Bloom, 29 September 2011, 02:18 ( 2:18 AM)
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