Friday, March 9, 2007

My Secret Obsession

When I was growing up, every time any of us felt sick, my mother always made us tea and toast. Lipton, of course. It was supposed to make me feel better, and I suppose the simplicity of it made sense, but the effect was always the opposite her goal. One lump or two made no difference - I would sip the tea and immediately feel nauseated. I guess it had a Pavlovian effect on me in later years, when the smell of tea would make my stomach queasy. I loved watching English actresses pouring tea into china cups and passing around lumps of sugar. It was all so civilized and lovely. I would have loved to have lived that civilized and lovely life, I thought, wearing those dresses, pouring that.....tea? Oh dear. I needed a substitute.

I really cannot remember when it happened. Honestly, I don't recall if I was still living in New Mexico, or if I had moved to California, but at some point in the distant past, I was with some acupuncturist friends who offered me a cup of bancha tea. "Um....I'm not really a tea drinker...." And before I could explain my Pavlovian response, they insisted that this was not like black tea, and I should try it. "Well.....OK...." It was not in my nature to argue with my hosts, after all.

I said a silent prayer and took my first sip. This is tea? Really? For those of you unfamiliar with it, bancha is a traditional , daily use, Japanese green tea variety that is made from mature leaves, plucked in the summer or autumn. Bancha's like a mature samurai - the extra time it's had to mellow in the sun makes it a bit toastier in color, with a sweet, earthy taste. It has nothing in common with the black tea favored by Europeans. It's ability to strengthen the metabolism and aid in digestion, makes it a favorite among those following a macrobiotic diet. All I knew was that it was delicious.

Bancha led to sencha and matcha - all from the same tea plant, but picked earlier in the year. These familiar green teas are slightly more arrogant - they have an edge to them, and an astringent quality. As long as they're not steeped too long, they are delicious. Leave the bag in the water for too long and you're probably not going to like the bitterness. Of course, it's easier to put up with the attitude when you know their antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties.
From there, I branched out into Earl Grey. The Earl was a huge step for me, as the basis here is black tea. But it is flavored with bergamot oil, which lends a distinct citrus flavor and aroma. With citrus as it's leading edge, I managed to sail past that black tea flavor without my stomach noticing it. I was making progress. The Earl and I are friends now, but we don't see each other too often.

Then I discovered Spiced Chai, or Spiced Chai Tea, as Trader Joe's calls it. Funny name, that. Since chai is another name for tea, it means that this tea's name is Spiced Tea Tea. Be that as it may, I used to take a teabag and pour boiling water over it, letting it steep for a while until it reached the right color. Then I'd add milk.
But back in 2000, a friend of mine who is a photojournalist went to India to photograph the first Kumba Mela of the new millenium. The Mela is an enormous Hindu festival, and that year it was held in Alahabad. There were about 75,000,000 people from all over the world who converged on Alahabad for the celebration, and my friend was swept up by the colors and sounds and smells of it all. He told me about drinking tea from a street vendor, who would have a pot of water with milk boiling over a fire. When someone ordered some tea, he'd throw a handful of tea and sugar into the pot, then ladel some into a small, low-fired ceramic cup. The cup was "disposable", meaning people would throw them away when they were done.

I was intrigued by the idea of boiling the milk in with the water, and wondered if it would make a difference. I don't eat much sugar, but I figured a teaspoon of it wouldn't make all that much difference.

With my first sip, I became a convert.

Ever since then, this has become my standard morning drink. Yes, I will still have a cup of coffee from time to time, but my morning chai has become my morning comfort. Different brands of chai will have different spices in them, but ginger and cardamom are fairly standard additions. In Chinese medicine, both of those spices are used to benefit the digestive system, and there is a whole school of thinking in Chinese medicine which says that all chronic diseases stem from a poor digestive system. As a student of mine once pointed out to me as I sipped my chai in an herbology class, declaring that my digestion was actually quite good, "Yes, but you self-medicate every day!"

She was right. I do. And intend to continue to do so, enjoying every sip!

I now have an entire pantry shelf devoted to teas. I don't know how that happened. Do they breed in there? And I've discovered something about me. I'm fickle. I'll fall in love, it will last for a while, and then I move on. So while bancha was my first love, my relationship with Earl Grey was more of an affair. Spiced chai is my steady partner in life. But I confess to having a few flings from time to time. There's genmai cha, a green tea with roasted brown rice in it. Genmai has a kind of popcorn flavor, which is appealing from time to time, but not as a steady romance. His first cousin houji cha, a handsome brew made from roasted bancha leaves. With a chestnut color and light, almost sweet taste, I flirt with him in the summer. (He's the most decafinated of the green teas.) And then there's a very special, decafinated rooibos (Afrikaans for "red bush") tea, which a local pastry maker calls Marco Polo Rouge. Marco is from the legume family, and he's oh so sweet and slightly nutty. Someday, I hope we travel together to his homeland. So far, he's been silent on the subject.

This is my entry into the Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted by Anna at Morsels and Musings.

For more health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture


Unknown said...

Another thing we have in common, Toni, only you are far more knowledgable than I am in this area. I knew about matcha but not bencha and sencha.

I love the passing of tea, too, and the sound of the tea cups clattering against the saucers.

Great post.

Cyndi said...

For years, I, too thought tea was all like Lipton. Then I tried British teas - and I"m sure I didn't try the "right" ones. But about two years ago I tried some jasmine tea by TenRen - wow. So different from all the other teas I'd tried. I even drink it as my iced tea now, too. I've only tried one kind of spiced chai; didn't care too much for it. I wish I could get "single" samplers so I could try different flavors. I don't want to buy a whole container of something I might not like!

Anway, I learned so much from your post!

Anna (Morsels and Musings) said...

i agree with you entirely: i always giggle when i hear people say chai tea. it's like saying wagyu beef or ATM machine.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! We missed you this week - welcome back :)

Stella said...

I'm not a real tea drinker myself, in fact, I cannot drink tea with milk, it makes me nauseous! I get along only green tea or Hoolong tea:)

You've got beautiful packs of tea here, and I think the only tea I can handle with milk is the Chai Tea:)

Toni said...

Mimi - Every time I look at another one of your posts (or another one of your blogs!) I discover more and more in common. Glad you liked the post!

Cyndi - I love jasmine tea! The other one I didn't write about but love is oolong. It's the stuff they serve in Chinese restaurants. Give it a try!

Anna - First of all, I read something on someone's post that you're newly married - Congratulations! I've never heard of wagyu beef. Where does the "wagyu" come from?

Chris - Thanks! I know I kind of dropped off the map there. Been overwhelmed with work. Not that that's an excuse, of course. Mimi posted a wonderful photo of some cheese and sundried tomatoes. Of course, the writing was fabulous and thoughtful, as every one of her posts is.

Valentina - I'm still not a great fan of black teas. The only time I ever liked Lipton was when I went to an Indian couple's home and she made us her version of chai. It was made from Lipton (to my surprise!), but boiled with 2% milk. Boiling it with milk completely changes the flavor of the tea. I don't understand how, I just know that it does.

And I love oolong!

Anna (Morsels and Musings) said...

wagyu is a special type of cattle breed from japan. some countries know it as kobe beef.

in japanese 'gyu' means beef and 'wa' means japanese. so basically 'wagyu beef' is 'japanese beef beef'.

wagyu is really the name of the breed though, rather than the origin of the animal. australia has a lot of wagyu and the us does too.

the reason wagyu gets so much attention is because it has such exquisite marbling. it's all the rage here in australia, but it does deserve it since it's really very delicious.

Freya Erickson said...

You would do well in the UK, nation of tea drinking addicts!

Toni said...

Anna - Thanks for the clarification. I've heard of Kobe beef, and have eaten it. Yes, it definitely deserves it's reputation.

Freya and Paul - Iwent to High tea at The Claridge Hotel, (Claridges? Don't recall the name), and loved it. What I love most about it there is the whole "tea time" thing. I love the notion that people stop at around 3 or 4pm and have a cup of tea with some scones or other wonderful nibbles. Very, very civilized!

Kalyn Denny said...

Very interesting. I know practically nothing about tea. I have had a somewhat toasted tasting type of green tea in restaurants that I liked a lot; wonder if it was matcha.

Toni said...

Hi Kalyn - Depending upon the restaurant, it could have been any number of teas. There's jasmine and oolong, both of which are popular and fairly common in Asian restaurants. To find Matcha, you'd probably have to go to a Japanese restaurant, and it wouldn't necessarily be your corner sushi bar. Most sushi bars don't serve Matcha. But it's not out of the question.

But as long as you enjoy it, that's all that counts!

Patricia Scarpin said...


I'm not a big tea fan - not strong enough to drink strong types of tea! lol

I love chamomile tea, though. It's light and I use a little honey to make it a bit sweet. Delicious.

Helene said...

Well, I´m a friend of teas. All kinds of mint teas, just ordered four different ones for my garden. And of herb teas as well. So welcome to the world of flavour and new tastes.

Toni said...

Oi Patricia - I understand how you feel. Chamomile is very nice, especially in the evening. If you like chamomile, you might like mint - especially in the summertime in Brazil. Mint has cooling properties.

Helene - I have 2 kinds of mint growing in my yard - one commercial one that I bought, and one that a friend of mine found growing wild in the mountains of New Mexico. Guess which one I prefer? ;-)

Unknown said...

I made a cake this weekend with chai and cocount. Dairy free and delicious. I wasn't expecting much, but it was teriffic. I want to try using tea in more baked goods now.

Toni said...

e - What a GREAT idea! I never thought of that. It sounds delicious!!