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Have I Mentioned the Tea?

Fuzi Miao 001

While in China, I had a short list of things I wanted to do, some of which I was able to accomplish and some of which I was not. 

I wanted to see Sun Yat Sen’s tomb (check). 

I wanted to go to the Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse in Shanghai because it shows up in both Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age — in which it is one of the two main hangouts for the mysterious Dr. X along with KFC — as well as Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine (unchecked). 

I wanted to track down the location of the old Russian Saint Nicholas Cathedral, which I believe was the cathedral where St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco –- a Serbian monk who eventually became a bishop and a saint venerated in America by the Russian émigré community – served (unchecked).

I wanted to try certain Chinese delicacies including fermented (through burial) duck eggs and shark fin soup (check).  The latter particularly impressed my nine-year-old son, a fan of the Japanese show Iron Chef.  

Finally, I wanted to taste and ideally purchase some Dragon Well Tea.  I had first heard of Dragon Well a few years ago when I came across a long article about it in the New Yorker – or it might just as easily been The Economist, Harper’s, since I cannot find any reference to the article on the Internet.  As I remember the article – or perhaps as I remember remembering it – it involved the obscure history of the tea, the peculiar manner in which it is harvested – once a year in spring, under a new moon, handpicked by virgins – and the devotion it has acquired among tea connoisseurs, with some sacrificing a year’s salary in order to purchase a few grams of the highest grade of the long jing leaf.  And so I’ve carried this story around in my head for many years, wondering if I would ever have a chance to taste this particular brew.

Fuzi Miao 009

I should point out that I am not any sort of tea connoisseur, myself.  I suspect I may even be a philistine when it comes to teas, my palate already distorted and ruined by years of coffee drinking.  Nevertheless, I knew that I wanted to try this tea, purported to be the greatest tea of China.

When the moment finally came, it was not anything revelatory.  The tea is, quite frankly, nice.  It has a beautiful grassy aroma and a pleasant, gentle flavor with very little bitterness.  I’d drink it again.  I could certainly see why the tea is considered to be special, but the experience was not like my first encounter with a $300 bottle of red wine in the south of France or my first mug of cold Czech beer in Prague.  Of course, I was not tasting the highest grade of long jing, which needed to be acquired back in spring – and in truth have no guarantee that the tea is even from Zhejiang Province, much less the West Lake region – though the package is marked with the official state PGI label. 

Fuzi Miao 010

In any case, drinking it at home, long jing cha has grown on me.  The smell of it immediately soothes me and the experience of drinking it requires a suitable and respectful ambience – a quiet and clean space with, ideally, a view.  The tea has not given up its secrets to me yet, but I intend to be persistent.

Ah!  But I forgot to tell you about the buying of the tea!

My Chinese colleague and I were passing a Ten Fu Teashop – one of a chain of over a thousand in China – in the Fuzi Miao and heard several young ladies, none older than 17, singing out to us and beckoning us in.

Fuzi Miao 008  Fuzi Miao 002

Upon entering Ten Fu, one of the ladies took us to a special tasting table.  The table had a smaller special wooden table on top of it with slots to catch and drain away any spilled tea.  Here the hostess went to work intricately preparing the tea for us.  I had trouble following all of her hand motions as water was brewed, then poured into receptacles, then disposed of, then poured from one receptacle to another until the hot water finally touched tea leaves. 

Fuzi Miao 003  Fuzi Miao 004   

All the while the hostess described the particular qualities of the teas she was preparing while also suggesting how they should be drunk, at what time of day, and what sort of meals they would go with.

Fuzi Miao 015  Fuzi Miao 007

When the water was poured into the cup that contained the tea, the hostess began brushing it with the lip of the cup, guiding the tea leaves this way and that along the surface of the water as she told us the history of each tea we would be tasting.  This lasted for perhaps thirty seconds and then the tea was strained into yet another receptacle.

Fuzi Miao 012  Fuzi Miao 006

From here it was finally poured into our tiny tea cups.  She then picked up my tasting cup and dumped the contents out.  The first pour was to warm the cup, only.  A second pour and I was finally allowed to taste.  By this time, the whole experience of watching the tea preparation had already overshadowed the actual tea itself.  Did I mention that the hostess was flirting with us the whole time?  We sipped our tea and asked for more.  When the hostess asked us if we would like to try another tea, we could not bring ourselves to leave for dinner as we had originally planned.  And so the whole intricate process started all over again.  The graceful hands of the hostess flitted over the various appurtenances of the tea ceremony as she smiled, laughed, scolded, cajoled, and mocked us in a fluid delivery that had us hanging on her every word – none of which I actually understood.

Fuzi Miao 017

At last we had tried three different teas — which I could barely tell apart until the oolong with osmanthus came along — and when it was clear that we would be purchasing nothing beyond my bag of Dragon Well Tea, we sadly parted ways with our hostess.  When we asked her for her name, she laughed at us and said she couldn’t possibly tell us since we had only just met her, and that we would have to come back to her many more times before she would reveal it.

Have I Mentioned the Food?

Nanjing Skyline

Have I mention the food in China?  I have been spending most evenings wandering the streets of Nanjing looking for interesting street food vendors.  Most of the afternoons, however, the corporate hosts take me to try the different regional dishes and traditional favorites. 

Today, for instance, I finally had a chance to try fermented duck eggs at lunch.  These eggs (according to my host) were only buried for a few months before being dug up and served.

Fermented Duck Eggs

I had eel yesterday (by pointing to something swimming in a tank and insisting that I wanted it) but have no picture of it.  I do have pictures of the Beijing Duck we ate for dinner a few days ago.  The bones left over from the preparation are served either fried or in a soup.  Since we had two ducks, we had the remainders served both ways.

Beijing Duck    Beijing Duck

I was surprised to find out that Sweet and Sour Chicken is an authentic Chinese dish.

Sweet and Sour Chicken    Soup

As is Kung Pao Pork and Sesame Chicken.  We also had Mo Po Tofu several times for lunch and dinner.

Mo Po Tofu    Grilled pork backs

A fish dish or two was present at almost every meal.

Sezhuan Catfish    Nanjing and Shanghai 049

And, of course, we had veggies.

Beans    Cabbage and Mushrooms

As I mentioned, following my nose through the streets of Shanghai and Nanjing has also been extremely fun.  There are lots of variations on the dumpling to be found as well as various ways to cook a noodle and deep-fry dough.

Street dumplings    Street Crepe


The most interesting meal, however, was the one I had tonight with Lu Bing.  The rest of the team from America has returned to Shanghai, so Bing and I went to the Fuzi Miao – the Old Confucius Temple – to do some shopping.  Bing suggested, tentatively, that we go for a traditional Nanjing meal and I jumped at the chance.  We went back and forth trying to find the right term for a meal that involves offal, duck blood soup, funky tofu, an egg cooked in tea, pickled vegetables and periwinkles.  I think we call it “country” cooking in America, though that is not quite appropriate in this case since the dishes are notably old-school “city” cuisine.

Nanjing Traditional    Fuzi Miao 023

Exile and the Celestial Kingdom

Street Caligraphy (Shanghai)

For the past week I have been working in Shanghai and Nanjing for my company.  The flight from Atlanta to Shanghai involved two legs: first three hours to Detroit and then another fourteen to Shanghai.  Most of the flight from Detroit to Shanghai was over icy tundra, so the view over the right wing of the plane was mostly of frozen rivers and crevasses.  Shanghai is a sprawling and quickly growing city on the south eastern coast of China.  Unlike other cities in which high rises are concentrated in the center, Shanghai has buildings everywhere reaching upward into the sky, the only space it can grow into since the Yangtze River does not deposit dirt quickly enough onto the coast to provide land for the Chinese perpetually migrating to this industrious city in order to fulfill their dreams of prosperity.

Misunderstanding the nature of travelling for work, I made the mistake of bringing eight large books with me to fill up the many hours I thought I would have to myself.  Instead, of course, the time has been filled up with presentations, meetings, long commutes, and exhausted evenings – not unlike Atlanta.

And so I find myself going through my regular routines in a thoroughly exotic environment.  Perhaps this is why, unlike Albert Camus’ famous description of his two weeks in a foreign city, I feel comfortable in China rather than — well — existential.

Each night the employees of the Chinese company for whom I am consulting take me out to remarkable meals.  On the nights when I am left to my own devices I have the opportunity to walk the avenues of Shanghai and Nanjing sampling street food.  Nanjing is particularly well known for its beef dumplings – which I believe I tired last night at a literal hole in the wall advertised in English as “Wu’s Famous Meat Buns”.

Nanjing is sometimes called Duck City (at least according to a website I visited) because of the quantity of duck consumed here.  Lu Bing, one of the managers of the local Nanjing branch, took me and my colleagues to a restaurant that specializes in Beijing cuisine which included, of course, Beijing Duck.

Beijing Duck

Here is a picture of our host, Bing, ladling duck soup for us:

Bing Lu 

I could talk about what a wonderful tourist destination Shanghai and Nanjing are.  Hotels and restaurants are relatively inexpensive.  The people are friendly without being fawning.  Neither city is overrun with tourists, and so one has the illusion that one sees the city an-sich rather than fur-uns.

There is another side, too, however.  The economic reforms of the past twenty years or so have brought prosperity to China — especially in areas like Shanghai and Nanjing — but have also accelerated the deracination experienced in America since the 1950’s as people increasingly move about and change jobs.  Two income households, separation from one’s home town and ancestral graves, the constant task of reinventing oneself and forming meaningful but short-lived relationships – all the symptoms described in America as “bowling alone” – are quickly manifesting themselves in China.

Nanjing streets

I wish I could say where it all leads, but I’m not even sure where this all leads in the West.  Perhaps to existential angst, after all – and perhaps it is this aspect of the modern China that I find so familiar.