Saturday, December 13, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (vi): Potential Dangers of Pu'er


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: The series continues with this, Niisonge's fourth instalment. Parts i, ii, iii, iv, and v of the series can be read here, here, here, here, and here.]]

The Dangers of Pu’er: Fact?

Everyone should know by now, as we have seen in the global financial crisis, there is an upside and a downside to everything. Pu’er is no different.

While we all may be enthusiastic drinkers and collectors of pu’er tea -- you have to admit, pu’er is pretty irresistible -- drinking too much pu’er may not be as good for your health as you expect. Though there are many health benefits attributed to pu’er, such as claims that it can cut down on cholesterol, aid digestion, and detoxify the body, it seems that these claims are touted too much while ignoring the negative or "down" side to pu’er.

I’m not saying that drinking pu’er in moderate amounts everyday is harmful. But perhaps for heavy drinkers, there should be some pause for thought.

Let’s examine some of the potential dangers of pu’er.

While some of the information on the dangers of drinking pu’er is debatable, and certainly merits conclusive scientific study, here you can at least be forewarned, and make an informed decision before blindly gulping that next cup of pu’er. So drink up now, and then read the following.

First, you should know that while most studies on pu’er scientifically demonstrate the benefits of pu’er consumption, few pu’er books or pu’er studies have examined or even discussed the potential risks to drinking pu’er.

OK, as you take that last gulp, brace yourself, and get ready to cringe.

Excessive consumption of brick tea can lead to Tea-Induced Fluorosis.

This has actually been scientifically studied and proven in China. A high incidence of Tea-Induced Fluorosis (茶叶型氟中毒) is especially prevalent in ethnic Mongolians and other minority peoples in China who regularly consume brick tea as a staple of the diet. The disease affects the teeth and bones (dental fluorosis and skeletal fluorosis).

How could this happen? Tea plants naturally absorb high levels of fluoride from the soil. And higher concentrations of fluoride tend to be found in the older, coarser leaves, which naturally spend a longer time growing on the bush before they are picked (as opposed to the buds or first flush of tender tea leaves). Generally, it is the coarser, old leaves that form the primary material for making tea bricks and bings. So tea bricks (zhuan cha) and tea cakes (bing cha) would have much higher concentrations of fluoride than, say, tea made from young tender leaves only, or even tender buds.

See the following for more information (in Chinese):



Consumption of moldy pu’er tea may lead to mycotoxin poisoning in some individuals.

This is not something that is mentioned in most pu’er literature; it is something I stumbled upon when researching the microbes that are naturally present in pu’er during the aging (fermentation) process. So this is "evidence" by association -- not really scientifically proven fact. And no studies seem to even have been done to test for presence of mycotoxins in pu’er anyway. So someone should do a careful scientific study and let us know.

Should we put a biohazard sign on our pu'er? According to an academic paper published in Modern Food Science and Technology for 2008, investigating pu'er and compressed teas -- “Identification of Microbial Species in Pu-erh Tea with Different Storage Time” -- the authors, Fang Xiang (方祥) et al., identified several strains of molds, a number of which are listed on other sites on the web as producing harmful mycotoxins.

I may have been the very first person to suggest a link between mycotoxins and drinking pu'er. It’s a logical assumption. There are many different molds found in pu'er. All of them have the potential to produce mycotoxins.

Here’s a look at the molds found in pu'er, and the mycotoxins they can produce:

Aspergillus niger 黑曲霉
Malformin 畸形素
Oxalic acid 草酸

Aspergillus clavatus 棒曲霉
Patulin 展青霉素
Cytochalasin E 细胞松弛素 E

Aspergillus glaucus 灰绿曲霉
Ochratoxin 赭曲霉毒素

Rhizopus chinensis, Rhizopus sp. 根霉
Rhizoxin 根瘤菌素

Penicillium chrysogenum 产黄青霉
Citrinin 橘霉素

Trichoderma sp. 木霉
Trichodermin 木霉(菌)素
Satratoxins, F,G,H 暴霉毒素 F、G、H

Briefly, the most dangerous of these mycotoxins to human health appear to be ochratoxin and patulin. Ochratoxin is a nephrotoxin. Patulin is suspected of causing hemorrhaging in the brain and lungs. Other mycotoxins are carcinogens.

Though most of our information indicates that the types of mold found in pu'er are only occasionally pathogenic, and that the immune systems of healthy people are able to protect against them, what about those who have very extensive exposure to these molds? What about people who get a double-whammy of inhaling microscopic, spore-containing mycotoxins, and at the same time drink pu'er? What about people who have a lowered immune system due to medications, illness, advanced age, etc? What about people who have allergies and have reactions to these mycotoxins? What interactions, if any, are there between mycotoxins and those who must take medications?

What is a safe limit for mycotoxins? And that is a big question. Pu'er is itself variable, as is the mold growth in pu'er. Mold thrives when the temperature and humidity conditions are right -- and it is thus that the potential to produce more mycotoxins increases.

Clearly, more scientific research needs to be done to investigate these questions, and to prove or disprove these hypotheses. Of course, other types of teas are perfectly safe, because they haven’t undergone the post-fermentation process that pu’er has. So don’t worry about those.

Related articles:

Consumption of pu’er bings or bricks may lead to psychological trauma.

I’m not making this up. It’s true. A recent discussion on the Sanzui tea BBS about pu’er drinkers’ findings of extraneous materials within their pu’er bears this out.

Basically, the discussion goes along the lines of many people finding extraneous items -- some tolerable, some intolerable -- when they break apart a new bing. Now, you should keep in mind something about the production process of pu’er tea as it is pressed into cakes or bricks. First, much of the time the tea is spread out to dry in the sun and air. Or even within the warehouse, there are just piles of loose mao cha ready to be pressed lying around. So along the way, it’s natural that some things may unintentionally find their way into the tea, and then be compressed and locked within the matrix of the tea.

The tolerable items may include yellow tea leaves, tea stems and the like. Intolerable items include string, plastic binding material, thread, and other man-made materials. There is a whole list of things people are finding in their compressed tea when they open it up, such as insect shells, cigarette butts, flowers, pebbles, insect feces, and many other things.

And some people have found what appears to be a suspicious hair. And no, this is not hair from the head; it’s from the other end. This has so disgusted tea drinkers that they immediately had to gag and discard the tea that they were just drinking, and leave pu’er alone for a few days. At least, until they forgot about the hair incident, and started to drink tea from the very same bing again. I guess we could say that someone had a bad hair day.

See thread here:

See photos here:

Of course, the tea companies have hygiene certificates from the government. But perhaps it is not that some of their practices are unsanitary; maybe the quantities of tea that are produced in the factory are just so great that it’s virtually impossible for humans to examine and catch every single item that shouldn’t be there -- especially something as fine as a hair. Just like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Yes, drinking some forms of pu’er can lead to psychological trauma. Have you been traumatized yet?

So pu’er might be hazardous to your health in a variety of ways -- not to mention your pocket book. You could get fluorosis if you drink too much of it, or maybe even mycotoxin poisoning. At the very least, you might suffer some traumatic psychological episode cause by pu’er.

And so a new industry is born: Tea Medicine. Perhaps we can now start to build specialized hospitals -- one wing dedicated to curing diseases with tea like cancer and heart aliments; a second wing dedicated to preventative medicine with tea, to prevent aging, and to increase beauty and vitality in the skin through tea cosmetics, and tea diet plans. And there could be a third wing to treat all the ailments suffered from tea: the hot water scalds, mycotoxin poisoning, tea-induced fluorosis, and all the psychological ailments suffered from tea. In this ward, not only would you find the psychologically traumatized, there would also be patients addicted to tea, those suffering from hysteria brought on by buying pu’er -- any pu’er at outrageous prices, no matter the cost. And perhaps now, we should start building new wards for a whole new group of patients -- pu’er tea merchants suffering from suicidal tendencies brought on because not only did the price of pu’er collapse, so too did global stock markets collapse, and global recession leading to negative cash flow and higher debt levels for the merchants.

But all is not lost. Perhaps the Tea Hospital will accept tea instead of cash, just as in ancient times when tea was used as currency in China.

And next to the Tea Hospital, we could build a Tea Temple, dedicated to the God of Tea, so that, when our time expires, we can ensure a pleasant tea-filled afterlife. The teacup runneth over.

Standard Medical Disclaimer


Nutrition is a field of study that finds itself moving daily closer to medical science. Both disciplines depend heavily, for example, on research in allied fields such as biochemistry and physiology; but, more fundamentally still, both are centrally concerned with health.

Insofar as tea is a beverage ingested by humans, our discussion of tea will from time to time raise issues of nutrition, and may impinge on the realm of medicine. Please be aware, in all such cases, that the essays on CHA DAO are in no sense meant to diagnose, treat, or otherwise assess any reader's health or medical condition; they are intended as descriptive only, not prescriptive. In view of that, CHA DAO explicitly disavows all responsibility for the good or ill health of its readership.

When it comes to your own individual mental and physical health, please take no chances. Consult your physician before undertaking any new regimen, and before ingesting any substance about whose impact on your health you may have any question.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Eating Leaves 玉露滿喫

Whenever I'm in Osaka, Uji-ko en is a must visit, the tiring weaving between seas of shoppers in Namba makes this little teahouse even more inviting. The only Japanese tea I really enjoy drinking is probably gyukuro, and the teamaster at Uji-ko en makes the best I've tried in many places. The delicately brewed gyukuro is creamy, with a slight bitterness that reaches deep down the throat and returns refreshingly sweet. I can never brew a gyukuro this good...

This time though, I was treated to a surprise. The teamaster told me that she would brew the gyukuro four times, then - she gestured rather than told me plainly, since I cannot speak Japanese and she speaks no English - she would prepare the leaves for me to eat.

What appeared before me at the end of the fourth brew was a small dish of blanched gyukuro leaves in ice water, and a small flute of soya sauce. I was to dab a little of the sauce on the leaves for flavor.

I had expected the leaves to be slightly bitter but surprisingly, it tasted deliciously sweet with a hint of kelp, and none of the grassiness one expects from a Japanese green tea.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tasting Wuyi Tea: Three Da Hong Pao Selections


How oddly paradoxical that we attach elaborate verbal descriptions to visceral, sensual experience. But how else could we, at such a far remove from one another, communicate about tea?

The range in tea is wide enough that experiencing it is rather like reading the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Tea comes at me in phases or in waves: Darjeelings, Assams, Wuyi Yancha, Taiwanese Oolongs, Nascent Sheng Pu’er, Aged Sheng Pu’er, Shu Pu’er, Non-Pu’er Heicha, Yunnan Hong Cha, Jiang Su Hong Cha, Chinese Lu Cha, Japanese Green, White Tea, Yellow Tea, Matcha, Tie Guan Yin, Dan Cong ... and then back, perhaps, to Darjeeling. And within each genre of this library of tea, there are various provinces, mountains, regions, factories, vintages, blends, recipes, altitudes, vessels, and parameters. When I have made my way through the Complete and Unabridged Norton Anthology of Tea, even merely skimming as I do, I have little exact memory of what I read when I started. There are too many thousands of pages, and my memory is far from eidetic. And to make it all even more complex, I’m not the person I was when I began the journey. But just as the greatest poems taped to the desk and re-read daily remain great all of one’s life, so do the most comforting of teas remain forever in one’s memory.

I’ve returned recently to oolongs from the Wuyi region of Fujian Province, and I’ve tried to distill what I have noticed into the simplest terms. First, to my senses, the range of quality in teas purporting to come from Wuyi is even greater than the range of quality in other teas, and price paid seems to be no predictor of the quality one finds in the SAL parcel when it at last arrives. Buying Yancha through the mail is truly a roll of the dice!

Next, there are certain dimensions of taste or sense experience that can be expressed in bi-polar adjectives especially apt to this genre. Here is my twice-distilled list:

Thin vs. Thick
Sour vs. Sweet
Bitter vs. Smooth
Fruity vs. Spicy
Lighter Roast vs. Heavier Roast

Only two of those descriptors always carry negative denotations: Thin and Sour. And too often the Wuyi tea one finds in the box from China is indeed thin and sour.

In addition to those dimensions of taste, there are other qualities to be considered when brewing a Wuyi tea. These seem more common to the panoply of tea in general: among them are leaf size, aroma, aftertaste, strength, and brewing endurance.

Perhaps the most common Wuyi tea on English-language tea vendors’ websites is Da Hong Pao, variously translated as "Big Red Robe," "Great Scarlet Cloak," and so on. Much can be said about whether we can correctly term any tea not from the original DHP mother bushes as “Da Hong Pao,” and whether teas made from bushes cloned or styled after those old, original plants should be called “Little Red Robe” or some other name entirely. I leave that discussion for enthusiasts with a scholarly bent. I find it easier to refer to a product by the name the vendor appends to it. I drink tea for the sensual experience.

Today I am remembering three versions of Da Hong Pao that I quite enjoy:

Dai [sic] Hong Pao Heavy Roasted Strong Taste, 2008 production, sourced from GrandTea

Dai [sic] Hong Pao Medium Roasted Fragrance, 2008 production,
sourced from GrandTea

Premium Da Hong Pao Chinese Oolong Tea 2008 production, sourced from Dragon Tea House

These produce excellent beverages, and they show the range available at a price I can afford. All three are big and thick in the mouth, and they are not sour in the least. So they easily pass the first test. They are strong, and in my fashion of brewing, I can enjoy one gaiwan session for hours with any of these three Yanchas.

GrandTea’s Heavily Roasted presents a very pleasant bitterness. The flavor is not bright, exactly, but it is bracing. The aftertaste is strong and pleasant. I consider this to be among the better of the espresso-style of Da Hong Pao products. The appeal is such that I bought it twice.

GrandTea’s Medium Roasted could hardly present a more different character. It’s big in the nose, fruity, sweet, and surprising. It presents sugary fruit flavors akin to Tie Guan Yin or other balled oolongs. Drinking it is rather festive. The lively aftertaste is long lasting. While this tea is certainly worth the money I paid, I would likely prefer to drink GrandTea’s Heavily Roasted. (I state this preference not to deprecate the Medium Roast; in fact, many might prefer it.)

The Premium Da Hong Pao from Dragon Tea House is smooth, spicy, sweet, subtle -- and my favorite of these three. It is a tea for cold nights, for contemplation and quietude. It offers sophistication and a wide flavor band. I am not one to judge the degree of roast, but I’d guess that Dragon Tea’s Premium falls somewhere between GrandTea’s Heavily Roasted and Medium Roasted. That quality alone, however, would not explain my preference. The Premium DHP’s leaf itself seems to be of higher than usual quality for the price range, and for the money, I think Premium DHP from Dragon Tea is a great buy. I love the tea. (As a side note: I’ve bought a quantity of this tea for the purpose of aging it for two years. Will it improve during that time?)

I can roll the expensive dice, spend five or six times more money, and perhaps end up with fancier Da Hong Pao, but long experience shows that the results might not be that much better.

If I find myself reaching for a container of tea without thinking, then by my definition it is good tea. If I am hungry for a tea, it is good tea. I can distinguish between having an interest in a tea and having a craving for a tea. The former triggers the itch of curiosity; the latter gives voice to that which cries for comfort. The former is cognitive; the latter, primal. What draws me at this point to each of the three fine teas discussed here is craving. I come to my senses reaching for them, up there, on the shelf. But had I not been curious, had I not been interested in discovering, I would not possess the comfort of them now.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (v): Concepts and Methods of Storage


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: The series continues with this, Niisonge's third instalment. Parts i, ii, iii, and iv of the series can be read here, here, here, and here.]]

What do you store your pu'er in?

In storing sheng pu'er, people want to be clear in what ways storage is possible. Here we will discuss a few methods that some pu'er lovers use to age pu'er. But first, you need to understand some storage concepts:

1. Aging

Aging -- what exactly is it? Aging pu'er has the goal of developing the scent and flavor characteristics in both dry and brewed infusion; and to stabilize and complete the quality of pu'er tea. The factors that affect the aging process are: temperature, humidity, oxygen, light, extraneous scents, moisture content, time.

2. Dry Storage Vs. Wet Storage

There are two approaches to aging pu'er: “dry storage” and “wet storage.”

Dry storage means to store pu'er in relatively dry conditions and allow the aging process to naturally take place. But too dry of an environment will slow down the aging process. So a certain amount of humidity is required. Dry storage requires decades for the tea to age satisfactorily. Pu'er that is dry stored will have a mild taste. It is the preferred method for storing tea.

Wet storage means to store pu'er in a relatively humid environment, and can speed up the aging process dramatically. Since humidity can be controlled, you can get varying speeds of aging. Indeed, wet storage can be divided into 3 main forms: heavy humidity storage, medium humidity storage, light humidity storage, which then begets the following: heavy humidity aged pu'er, medium humidity aged pu'er, and light humidity aged pu'er. However, too high a humidity in storage will lead to speedy mold formation, which is not good for pu'er. Wet stored pu'er will have a stronger flavor than dry stored pu'er. And it will have a characteristic earthy, moldy flavor.

Because wet storage can cause mold formation relatively quickly, it is not considered a suitable way to store pu'er. And the molds that form on the pu'er may contain elements like mycotoxins that are harmful to the body.

3. Segregation or Quarantine in Storage

In storage, you should segregate or “quarantine” bings. That is, sheng should be stored with sheng, shu should be stored with shu; and partially aged pu'er should be stored with partially aged pu'er. Because they are all at various stages of microbial development; so you don’t want your sheng bing’s microbe colonies to be overpowered by those of a shu or aged bing. And more importantly, you don’t want a moldy bing to spread and infect other bings in your collection (think microscopic spores here).

4. Storage Environment

The storage environment should have ideal conditions such as away from sunlight, rain, and clean. It must also be airy; there should be air circulation -- because the microbes in pu'er are oxygen-loving critters. And it must be free from extraneous odors. So no kitchen smells, perfume smells, etc. And be careful of what you store pu'er in -- cardboard gives off odors, so does particleboard, stained/varnished wood, and even some woods like pine emit odors. So unless you want a piney scent in your pu'er, better to keep it away from odor sources; which will absorb into the tea, and impact the delicate flavor.

5. Mold Growth

Mold is the enemy. About every 3 months or so, you need to thoroughly check your pu'er collection for signs of mold growth. Mold is not good. Once bings go moldy, the mold will spoil the flavor of the tea. Instead of becoming aged tea, it will just be moldy tea. This is where moisture content of pu'er is important. When the humidity is too high, the tea will suck up more moisture -- leading to mold growth. So mold can be kept in check by controlling humidity, and therefore moisture content in pu'er. Ideally, pu'er should be about 10% moisture content.

But you do have to acknowledge though, that microbes like Aspergillus niger, Penicillium chrysogenum, Aspergillus clavatus, Rhizopus chinensis, and others are all molds that are naturally present during the aging of a sheng pu'er. But, in minute quantities they have a beneficial effect. If under humid conditions, they are allowed to explode in growth -- then, that would just change the tea for the worse -- into a moldy mess. So it’s best to avoid mold on the surface of your tea. You might want to air out moldy bings on a shelf to reduce the moisture content.

6. Time

Time is important. A sheng pu'er needs at least 10-15 years to age well, before you get a good result with the tea. And so there is the common saying, “the more aged the more fragrant” pu'er becomes. And this is especially true when sheng pu'er is stored properly to age.

7. Post-aging Storage

Post-aging and pre-drinking storage is important, but we will get into that later.

Pu'er Storage Methods

1. Original Packaging 包裝紙

By far the best way to store pu'er is in its original packaging. Bing chas should be kept in their individual paper wrappers. If you have a tong of bings, it should be kept intact as a tong. Let bings of the same ilk be together. But don’t mix shengs with half-aged pu'er, or with shu bings.

2. Dedicated Pu'er Storage Room 專門貯藏室

Ideally, there you should have an entire room dedicated to storing pu'er, that is temperature- and humidity-controlled and has good air circulation. Ideally, the temperature should be about 25 degrees C. and at 75% humidity maximum. Again, with shengs stored separately from shu and aged. And a dedicated storage room should be free from filth, pollutants, extraneous odors, and light. Of course, you know that already, don’t you?

3. Wooden Shelf 木架

For bing cha, tuo cha, and any other kind of large pu'er, they should be stored to age on untreated wooden shelves, to facilitate air flow. The wooden shelves themselves should be of a scentless wood, to avoid tainting the pu'er with an extraneous scent.

Every three months, you should turn them over, and examine whether there is any mold development, insects, etc. If you find mold, then you need to move your collection out, and determine the extent of the mold, and clean any bings of mold infection. Excess mold will cause undesirable qualities to develop in the pu'er, which will cause the aroma and flavor of the tea to change -- for the worse. If you do find mold, and lots of it, that means you probably have a humidity and/or ventilation problem. See what you can do to remedy the problem.

4. Large Earthenware Jars 陶缸

These are very large jars, with a wide mouth, meant for storing a lot of pu'er cakes. They provide a dark enclosed environment for aging sheng pu'er, allowing the pu'er to “incubate” together, and age together. Although the earthenware is porous, it’s not as airy as a wooden shelf. Storage in such a closed environment, like these large earthenware jars means the scent of pu'er will develop together -- and not be tainted by extraneous odors -- like say, sitting on a shelf in a room where smoke happens to waft by. But you wouldn’t be smoking or burning incense around your pu'er, now would you?

Some pu'er people in Taiwan actually like to “improve” the scent and flavor of their bings by adding camphor wood in between the bings. The camphor aroma will then be absorbed by the pu'er, and be present in the tea. But is that really a good idea? There is some logic to it though. In the wilds of Yunnan, pu'er trees grow alongside cinnamon trees. And the scent of cinnamon is absorbed by the pu'er -- which is a desirable quality. Maybe putting cinnamon bark into an earthenware jar with some bings to age for a time could improve the flavor? I don’t want to try.

5. Cloth Bags 棉普洱袋

There are simple, round, heavy muslin cotton bags in China that are used especially for storing pu'er bings. These are actually useful, because paper wrappers get torn, but the cloth bag is breathable, yet keeps out dust. They can be large enough to store a tong of bings. So that’s also a storage option to be considered.

6. Earthenware Jars 陶罐

Small earthenware jars are good for storing loose pu'er. And once your pu'er has aged for a desirable amount of time, you can then break up a cake, (or -- for tuo cha -- steam it, break it apart, and dry it reasonably), and put it into porous earthenware jars. Cover the jar with paper or cotton cloth for a time, not the lid.

The Other Side

There are some people who say that mold is natural for pu'er. They claim it’s a natural part of the aging process. And they even tolerate the generations of mold growth on their bings -- white mold and yellow mold, green mold or black mold. But is that really a good idea? Why risk mold and possibly tainting the tea, and worse, ruin years’ worth of effort to store tea? A small amount of mold is tolerable, even expected. But when found, it should be dealt with quickly. And the mold should be cleared away. A very moldy bing will likely end up tasting moldy; and at the very least, vigorous cleaning will have to be done to take care of the mold problem. By far, it’s much better to avoid mold, if at all possible. Just because a bing has turned moldy doesn’t mean it has aged. Mold growth can happen fairly quickly (as I have demonstrated already) -- especially in a hot and humid environment. Aging pu'er takes years. And besides, who wants to run the risk of consuming mycotoxins?

Then there are those who say that the aging process for shengs can be sped up by storing them in a large earthenware jar with some aged pu'er. They advise you to remove the wrappers, and let the microbes “mix.” The microbes in the aged pu'er will migrate to the new pu'er, and this supposedly will “quicken” the aging process. Also, the aged scent of old pu'er is supposed to be sucked into the new pu'er. But could this method really work? First, you should know that microbes in pu'er -- some start out during the manufacturing process -- but quickly recede after processing and then after the first year. And during successive years various microbes live and die, with mainly Aspergillus niger remaining. So adding Aspergillus niger from an aged bing to a new bing isn’t really going to have any effect -- because Aspergillus niger is already naturally present during the aging process. You’re not doing anything that nature won’t do itself. So why bother? You might however, end up adding lots of unwanted, invisible mold spores to your new bings which might get moldy if neglected for a long time. Here, let me spore you some tea!

Just remember, when looking at storing pu'er, you need to think about the long term if your pu'er is to age and mellow. Time is an important element in storing pu'er, maybe just as important as what you choose to store your pu'er in.

Post-aging Storage

Ok, 30 years or so have passed, and your shengs have now become aged pu'er. You take one out, break it up with a pu'er knife, and then ... yeah, you still should store it for a while longer. Use a small earthenware jar. Put the broken pieces into the jar. Cover with cotton cloth -- not the lid of the jar. You want air to circulate in the jar. Why should you not drink it right away? Think of the pu'er in layers. There is the surface layer, and the inner layer. For all these years, the surface layer was exposed to everything -- all the air, etc. And the inner layer wasn’t so exposed. The surface layer will be a bit mellower, while the inner layer will have a stronger scent and flavor. So you want to mix these 2 layers up in an earthenware jar and sit for (say) two weeks, just so that everything balances out, and reaches equilibrium. Then, you can better enjoy the tea. And the teas flavor and scent will be better balanced out. We call this the “Tea Qi Blending Method” (茶氣調和法).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (iv): How to Store (and Not to Store) Pu'er


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: The series continues with this, Niisonge's second instalment. Parts i, ii, and iii of the series can be read here, here, and here.]]

What’s the Best Way to Store Pu'er?

People always ask: “What’s the best way to store pu'er?” But that perhaps isn’t the question to be asking. Maybe the question to ask is really: “In what ways should you not store pu'er?” Let’s take a moment to look at some dos and don'ts of storing pu'er.

Storage Environment

What kind of an environment is not good for pu'er? I currently live in Fuzhou (Fujian Province, People's Republic of China) and I have also lived in Longyan, in southwest Fujian. Both areas are tea-producing areas, by the way. And the climates of the two places are similar. Summers are very hot and humid. In the house, the relative humidity often tops 90% -- day in and day out. In the autumn and winter, it rains quite often, though it’s drafty and cold in the house. But still, the humidity in the house is quite high, usually around 80%.

Mr. Pu'er

You know, I’m quite famous in Fujian now. Everyone calls me Mr. Pu'er. Just looking at me, total strangers know me well -- but from smell rather than from sight. See, all my clothes smell of pu'er. They all have that characteristic scent reminiscent of an aged pu'er. But I didn’t get this moniker because I know a lot about pu'er. In fact, my knowledge of pu'er is as infinite as the Yellow River as it flows into the sea. Ok, maybe I made all of that up. People don’t really call me Mr. Pu'er, but I swear, all of my clothes really do smell like aged pu'er! (And in case you didn’t catch that, the Yellow River sometimes does not flow, or even trickle into the sea. The water gets all used up before it reaches its destination.)

I store my clothes in a wardrobe. And some are stored in suitcases; and others are just hanging in the bedroom. After only a week, they all smell like pu'er. But I never actually store pu'er in my bedroom (well, maybe I did briefly -- for a month or so -- but that’s it). No, that distinctive pu'er fragrance (and we all love that fragrance, don’t we?) comes from the fact that both the humidity and the temperature are high in Fujian (as they would also be in Guangdong, Guangxi, parts of Yunnan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.). Because of this combination of high temperature and high humidity, things get moldy quickly.

Here are some examples:
• My nice suit got moldy. (stored six months in a wood cabinet)
• This white cotton shirt was stored under a few other clothes, in another cabinet. It’s not white anymore. (Stored six months)
• We have a healthy spore population in the bathroom -- which is quite exciting. (Over one year of growth). OK, nobody ever cleans that area of the bathroom -- it’s too darn scary!
• Some flecks of mold in the cupboards. This was post-cleaning; it was much worse before. (Six months)

I would have to point out that time is not really much of a factor here. I stored a seldom-used briefcase for just three months, after which it was fully enveloped in white mold.

Under these conditions, in this environment, if this is what’s happening to my other belongings, then it is also happening to my pu'er.

Is this a good thing? Ok, maybe some kinds of fungi are delicious, like tea mushrooms (Agrocybe aegerita) -- 茶樹菇 (cha shu gu) as they’re called in Chinese, which grow on tea-oil trees (油茶樹, you cha shu or Camellia oleifera) -- and these are some of my favorite fungi to eat. This kind of tea fungus is good; but not the kind of fungi that tend to grow on top of pu'er.

If there are fungi growing on my things, and this quickly, think about what they can be doing to pu'er stored under the same conditions. Kind of scary, isn’t it? How is that kind of growth -- at that speed -- going to affect those bing chas? And how, especially, is it going to affect the flavor and aroma of pu'er? Of course, the tea will have a moldy flavor, and a moldy aroma, but how pronounced or strong that mold flavor and scent are, in comparison to the delicate flavors and scent of the tea leaf, is something to be considered.

Pu'er stored in this type of environment (high-humidity, high-temperature) is known as wet-storage. In natural environments where this occurs naturally, such as in Fujian or Hong Kong, sheng pu'er will tend to age relatively quickly. But the downside is that this quick aging, like the quickly aged factory processed post-fermented pu'er (shu pu'er) just won’t have the flavor and aroma and quality of a pu'er that has been stored properly and slowly aged over a number of years.

Moldy pu'er is not synonymous with aged pu'er. Though some aged pu'er is moldy, and the mold growth on top of the pu'er can tell you something about how that pu'er was stored -- it was at one point wet stored, thus creating all the mold growth -- it is not indicative of a good, aged pu'er, because it wasn’t properly stored.

And if you were to break open that cake, and brew it up, you would know from the aroma and taste that it’s just not as good. How exactly would it taste? It would taste moldy! That cake of pu'er would taste better if it had not been wet-stored.

Yes, wet-storing pu'er can speed up the aging process, often dramatically. But the resulting “aged” pu'er is not the same. So storage in a high-humidity, high-temperature environment is NOT GOOD. And when you see a moldy bing cha, then you will immediately know: improper storage. Improperly stored = flavor won’t be as good = not a good buy.

Have Mold, Will Go ...

Ok, before you all go running off to the Gobi or the Taklamakan desert to store your cache of pu'er in the driest conditions possible, you should know that storing pu'er to age it in such a dry area is also not good. Of course, you could go to Death Valley too. But, unless you’re there because you’re into extreme tea drinking, too dry is not good for pu'er. So when you take your bings to the Burning Man, it’s not going to be beneficial to aging that pu'er. Neither is sunlight good for your sheng. So don’t take your pu'er along with you when you go for your fun in the sun. And no beach parties for the pu!

On the other hand, the microbes in sheng pu'er are oxygen-loving (just like you and me), so make sure you give them plenty of ventilation.

It’s Alive! It’s Alive!

Pu'er actually has quite a few organisms (fungi and bacteria) in it, like Aspergillus niger (黑麯黴, hei qu mei); 青黴 (qing mei) or blue mold -- actually a type of Penicillium; Penicillium chrysogenum (產黃青黴, chan huang qing mei); Aspergillus clavatus (棒麯黴, bang qu mei); Aspergillus glaucus (灰綠麯黴, hui lü qu mei); Rhizopus chinensis (根黴, gen mei); Lactobacillus thermophilus (乳酸菌, ru suan jun); Saccharomyces (酵母屬, jiao mu shu, a yeast); and other beneficial or benign organisms. These colonies of organisms live in the pu'er. So think of your pu'er as itself a living organism. And treat it as a living thing. Living things need conditions conducive to life, such as air, comfortable temperatures, comfortable humidity level, and so forth. So pu'er should be stored in an odor-free environment, yet be allowed to get some air. And pu'er ages best (ideally -- slowly) stored under the same conditions that people find comfortable for living in -- that is, similar room temperature, and comfortable humidity levels. Likewise, changes in seasons, changes in ambient temperatures, changes in humidity, and regular air flow all are beneficial to the organisms in pu'er. These all act to help pu'er to age and mellow gracefully. The colonies of organisms in pu'er will grow, expand, and die back; some microbe nations will rise, some will fall, some will dominate, etc. This is all a natural part of the aging process. So get with the cycle, and remember: your sheng pu'er is alive.

Now you know how to store your sheng pu'er. What to store your pu'er in -- that’s another question.

NOTE: 'Wet Storage' is not to be confused with the post-fermentation process, 渥堆 (wo dui, i.e. 'moist heap'), which is meant to speed up the processing of pu'er, or shu pu'er (熟普洱) in the factory.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (iii): Buying Aged Tea -- But Why?


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Continuing our series on storing and aging pu'er teas -- of which the first and second parts can be read here and here -- are three essays by Warren Peltier, known to tea aficionados the world over as Niisonge. Today's instalment is the first of his three contributions.]]

A Brief Historical Perspective

Not so long ago, aged tea could be had for pretty cheap. But all of a sudden, a lot of people in Asia got pu'er crazy, and started buying up all kinds of aged pu'er -- any pu'er -- regardless of quality or price. Let’s take a glimpse at some of the historical highlights of all of this:

Hong Kong has a long history of Pu'er drinking. Pu'er is used here for its medicinal properties, and has long been a favorite tea for consumption during dim sum meals in Hong Kong teahouses.

People’s Republic era: Hong Kong became the “tea storehouse” for pu'er tea. It was sent from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, where some was consumed locally by Hong Kong people, and some was exported to South East Asia.

1950s: one tong of good quality pu'er bing cha cost just a little over 3 HKD. By that time Guangdong people knew that the older pu'er gets, the better it is. But at that time, even old pu'er was only 1 yuan per pound more expensive than newer pu'er.

1986: One 30-year-old aged Hong Yin (Red Label) bing was selling in Sheung Wan-area tea stores for a little over 170 HKD; some Lao Hao bings aged to 50 or 60 years were selling for 800 HKD. At that time it was already considered very expensive. But today it would be worth in the tens of thousands of HKD.

Starting in the 80s, Hong Kong’s economy started to boom, creating wealth, and a wealthy class of people. Some of these people started collecting pu'er teas as a kind of investment speculation.

In the mid and late 90s, some of the big teahouse owners went overseas -- because of uncertainty about Hong Kong’s future. But after 1997, they came back, started to clean their storehouses, and discovered that there were many kinds of good-quality aged pu'er in their stores. They then proceeded to sell off these stores to collectors in Taiwan and overseas. And two teahouses in particular -- Gam San Lau (金山樓) and Long Moon Lau (龍門樓) (see end-note) -- had stores of Tong Qing Hao Lao Yuan Cha (同慶號老圓茶), aged to almost 100 years in their possession.

Pu'er collectors, especially from Taiwan, would go to the tea farms and factories in Yunnan, sometimes buying up whole crops of tea leaves before they could reach market -- and thus securing their own private stock of tea to be privately pressed into bings for aging.

And that is what kicked off the big pu'er mania -- where everyone who was anyone had to have 100-year-old aged pu'er in their collection. And then supplies of good pu'er, even recently produced, became scarce. Of course, the likelihood of finding 100 year aged pu'er nowadays is virtually impossible.

Value Decisions

Just assume that there were some real, verifiable 100-year-old aged pu'er available for purchase to lucky you. And best of all, that you could actually afford it without going broke. Would that particular brick or bing of pu'er be worth it? That’s the question that has to be asked with any aged tea. Is it worth it to buy this tea? First of all, you probably don’t know the whole history of that tea. Sure, you can research wrappers and factories and batch codes. But that doesn’t tell you anything about how Person A, who first bought the tea, stored it. It doesn’t tell you whether the tea happened to come in contact with any extraneous odors. It doesn’t tell you that Person B stored the tea on a shelf next to a pair of his stinky shoes. It doesn’t tell you that Person C, who then bought the tea, brought it home in a rain storm, and it got all soaked. It doesn’t tell you that Person D doctored the tea by adding extraneous scents from camphor wood to the tea, just because that person thought that the tea smelled kind of like stinky shoes and mold, and thought that it would smell better (and perhaps taste better too) if it were scented with camphor wood.

Since you don’t know the exact storage methods used during the history of that tea, and since you haven’t tasted that tea, how will you know if that tea, aged 100 years is really good or not? You can’t know. And you also won’t know if it’s worth the price you paid. It just may be too big a risk to take.

So how pu'er teas are stored is important, not just for drinking, but also for resale value, if one were to ever be insane enough to sell part of his/her pu'er collection. Of course, pu'er manufacturers know how to age and store tea. And they know how to ship it. So you don’t have to be worried so much how the tea was stored in some warehouse at the factory.

But whether a tea is aged 10 years or 100 years, how the tea was stored is an important factor that will affect the quality of the tea over time. The longer the period of aging, the more important how a tea was stored during all those years becomes. And because of this, one should keep in mind that just because a tea is old doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. Of course, Chinese have a saying with pu'er: “the more aged, the better the tea becomes.” But that’s all relatively speaking. If the pu'er was stored improperly, or under non-ideal conditions, then it may be mediocre -- or bad -- aged tea.

In the past few years, in Mainland China, many extremely wealthy people (including many who don’t know a thing about pu'er) got into collecting pu'er as an investment. They speculate in pu'er, driving up the prices -- and driving real pu'er lovers out of the market. There are now many pu'er drinkers who are extremely negative about buying aged pu'er. And they refuse to buy any pu'er until the prices start reflecting the actual value of the tea.

I myself refuse to buy any aged pu'er, partly because of outrageous prices, and partly because I’m not sure how that particular tea was stored; and also because there are so many fake and forged aged teas that it’s too complicated to keep up with. Now, when I buy pu'er, I visit several reputable dealers where I can sample many relatively new (aged 3 years or less) sheng pu'er bings; and compare prices. If I taste a particular sheng pu'er and I like it now, then when I take it home and store it away for say 7-10 years (or even longer), surely it will taste much better after proper storage and aging.

Did the Pu'er Bubble Go Bust?

Pu'er prices rose dramatically in the first half of 2007, with prices of mao cha doubling. But this didn’t last long. By the end of June, prices had fallen dramatically as the following examples illustrate:

2007 Price Comparison Prices of Mao Cha

April 1, 2007
Banzhang Ancient Tea Tree: 1400 yuan/Kg
Bulang Shan Ancient Tea Tree: 600 yuan/Kg

July 1, 2007
Banzhang Ancient Tea Tree: 600 yuan/Kg
Bulang Shan Ancient Tea Tree: 300 yuan/Kg

According to market reports, in July 2007, pu'er mao cha prices remained calm, but tea farmers in Nan Nuo Shan (南糯山) and Bu Lang Shan (布朗山) were unwilling to ship their harvests because the going price was so low. And factories in Menghai stopped receiving shipments of tea; many factories reduced the production of shu pu'er.

So overall, the market was in a bit of a turndown in 2007. No longer were consumers driving the market based on quantity: by the end of the year, they were demanding quality. And that drove prices back down. The demand just wasn’t there anymore.

Today’s Pu'er Market

At the end of June 2008, in Guangdong’s Fang Cun Tea Market, we see pu'er tea prices going down -- sometimes dramatically. A 357-gram 2008 Da Ye 0622 Sheng Bing is selling for 350 yuan per tong. With seven bings in a tong, that comes to 50 yuan per bing. Don’t take my word for it -- see for yourself at this page.

If the prices of pu'er continue to fall, that will be good for consumers. And maybe now is the time to start stocking up on pu'er. A recent trip to the Dong Pu Tea Market, in Fuzhou’s Jin An district, seems to verify suspicions. Tea vendors there say business is slow. Shu bings were selling for a mere 30 yuan. A 400-gram 2007 Meng Ku Large Tea Tree shu bing sold for 80 yuan. And that was the vendor’s asking price. I didn’t even try to bargain him down. If I had bought a tong or two, I probably could have got them for 60 or 70 yuan each. Keep in mind, Dong Pu Tea Market is a backwater tea market with only about 20 vendors. Much larger Pu'er markets, like Guangzhou or Shenzhen, or even Fuzhou’s larger Five-Mile Pavilion Tea Market, probably have stores of sheng bings at a much lower price point. Pre-2007 bings however, and the more famous brands of pu'er are still selling for a relatively high price. As the 2008 bings come onto the market, though, I suspect they will sell for relatively cheaper prices than in the past.

If you want further proof, you can check online auction sites like The lowest price for a 250-gram 2000 sheng zhuan (brick) was 21.8 yuan. Shu bings are going for as low as 18 yuan. You see similar low prices on online tea vendor sites in China. And that leads to another question: with prices so low, what will the future hold for the new huge tea markets that sprouted up overnight in places like Shenzhen during the days of Pu'er Mania?

Pu'er Reality Check

What makes people go so crazy about pu'er anyway? Is it the moldy smell that people find so captivating or what? What’s all the mystique surrounding pu'er? And why would individual pu'er collectors go out of the way to buy a whole tea farm’s crop and hoard it? Why? Tea Hoarder! That’s tea insanity! And why would anyone be willing to fork over hundreds to thousands of yuan for a single bing? If you compare the quality of leaf in a bing to that of any other kind of tea (say Tieguanyin, for example), are you really getting value for money? For the most part, the pu'er leaf that is used for bings comes from the 4th to the 8th leaves on the bush (or tree). These are pretty large, coarse leaves that are used. Don’t fool yourself: those leaves aren’t big because they come from some thousand-year-old “ancient tea tree.” So why would anyone willingly spend large sums of money for teas that are made with so-called inferior quality leaves? I find it ironic that the teas I buy actually cost as much as, or even more than, the teaware I buy. It’s an expensive lifestyle.

Sensible Enjoyment

So my advice is: Wait awhile and see if cheaper prices make their way through the supply chain. And then, buy pu'er because you like the taste, not because of fame or reputation, or because of the duration of aging. Tea should be enjoyable, not an aggravation. If some of your pu'er tastes good now, then drink it now and enjoy it. Why wait to store it? But if you can wait, then store some away and see what happens. So, enjoy some now, enjoy some later. Maybe that’s the best way to buy and store pu'er.


"A Brief Historical Perspective" is based on information found in:

Zhang Hong, ed. 普洱茶 (Pu'er Cha). Beijing: China Light Industry Press, 2006.

Hong Kong's 100-Year-Old-Pu'er Tea Houses:

金山樓 Kam Shan Lau Restaurant
地址 : 油麻地新填地街78-86號閣樓至2樓
類別 : 廣東菜、中菜館、酒樓、點心
消費 : $41-$100
M-2/F, 78-86 Reclamation Street, (Yau Ma Tei)

龍門樓 Long Moon Lau Restaurant
地址 : 鑽石山鳳德道60號南蓮園池龍門樓
電話 : 3658 9388
類別 : 廣東菜、素食
消費 : $41-$100
Long Men Lou, Nan Lian Garden, 60 Fung Tak Road, (Diamond Hill)

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Simao Tea Region: A Page from the Yunnan Tea Encyclopedia


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Many readers are curious about the peculiar nature of pu'er tea -- particularly the area where it is produced in Yunnan province. I have asked Danny Samarkand to translate a page or so from the Encyclopedia of Yunnan Tea about pu'er in the Simao region. The entry, found on page 61 of the Encyclopedia, is entitled 'Simao Tea Region: Pu'er Tea Area,' and offers western readers -- many for the first time -- some interesting technical data about the tea gardens in that area. Our hearty thanks to Danny for his help with this document.]]

云南茶典 (Yunnan Cha Dian -- An Encyclopedia of Yunnan Tea)
谭亚原, 杨泽军 主编 (Editors: Tan Yayuan, Yang Zejun, et al.)
中国轻工业出版社 (China Light Industry Publications, 2006)
ISBN 7-5019-5618-9/TS-3263

page 61, sub uoc. 'Simao Tea Region: Pu'er Tea Area'

The Pu'er tea region is now a part of the Hani Yi minority tribe's autonomous-rule county, in the Simao district; in the past it was under the govern of Pu'er county. Large fields of half-cultivated and cultivated tea gardens were discovered in this region, indicating a long history of tea cultivation here. These gardens were later abandoned due to disasters, famines, and wars: by 1949, there were only 260 mu (1 mu = approximately 0.0667 hectares) left of cultivated garden in Pu'er, mostly in the Fengyang (凤阳), Guantong (关通), and Mohei (磨 黑) areas.

In 1963, the local government began actively promoting tea cultivation in this region, and by 1985, there were a total of 15,640 mu of tea gardens, spread out in the eight county towns and 83 villages. Of these, the following areas consisted of 500 mu of tea garden each:

Dongmenshan 东门山
Dafenshan 大坟山
Qincaitang 芹菜塘
Banshan 板山
Cha'antang 茶庵塘
Baicaodi 白草地
Huangjiafen 黄家坟
Moduoshan 莫夺山
Malishu 麻栗树
Wenquan 温泉
Nande 南德
Huangshan 荒山
Dawazi 大洼子
Datianshan 大田山
Yongshun 永顺

Between 1986 and 1990, high-production gardens and maocha processing plants were added in Banshan, Baicaodi, and Longtangba. Today, a total area of 27,576 mu of tea gardens are established in the Pu'er tea region. Five tea gardens are of 1,000 mu and above; thirteen are of 500 mu and above; and eight are of 20 mu and above. These are now spread over eleven county towns, with an annual production of more than 209 tons of tea.

[[Danny adds: This is not to say that there are no "wild-grown" tea trees, but more likely it's a matter of half-cultivated, abandoned tea gardens. We have to bear in mind that "wild grown" to the Chinese is a very loose term: anything that is no longer tended to is "wild grown"; the call for stringent regulations is still a cry in the wilderness ...]]

Thursday, September 04, 2008

READER'S CORNER: Three Books on Chinese Cooking & Restaurants (iii)


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part iii of a triple book review, the first and second parts of which can be read by clicking here and here respectively.]]

Jennifer 8. Lee. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008. 320 pages. ISBN-13: 9780446580076. Clothbound $24.99.

Jen Lin-Liu. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China. San Diego & New York: Harcourt 2008. 352 pages. ISBN-13: 9780151012916. Clothbound $24.00.

Nicole Mones. The Last Chinese Chef. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2007. 278 pages. ISBN-13:

~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

So far in this review we have been looking at books that are classed as non-fiction. The Library of Congress catalogues Lee's book, in part, as 'Chinese Americans -- United States -- Social life and customs,' and Lin-Liu's book as 'China -- Social life and customs,' which neatly illustrates the close kinship of these works. Nicole Mones's The Last Chinese Chef, by contrast, is a work of fiction. Like her two previous novels, The Last Chinese Chef is about an American woman in China: Alice Mannegan, in Lost in Translation, works as an interpreter; Lia Frank, in A Cup of Light, is an art appraiser. In The Last Chinese Chef, we meet Maggie McElroy, a food writer who works for Table magazine (Gourmet? -- Mones herself has written about Chinese food for Gourmet since 1999). Maggie is in what the French would call 'a situation': in the year following the untimely death of her beloved husband, Matt Mason, she sells their California house, withdraws from her friends, travels the country writing about different communities, and tries to heal. Then comes the bombshell: a paternity suit in Beijing -- against her husband's estate. She asks her editor for time off from work, so that she can go to China to investigate this; instead, she is given an assignment in Beijing: to write a chef profile on Sam Liang, an American-Born Chinese who (like Jen Lin-Liu, author of Serve the People) has gone back to China to discover his roots, to cook, and to write.

This project will be a bit of a challenge for Maggie:
The truth was, she had never really liked Chinese food. Of course, she'd had Chinese food only in America, which was clearly part of the story. She'd always heard people say it was different in China .... The trouble with Chinese food in America, to her, was that it seemed all the same. Even when a restaurant had a hundred and fifty items on the menu, she could order them all and still get only the same few flavors over and over again. There was the tangy brown sauce, the salted black bean; the ginger-garlic-green onion, the syrupy lemon. Then there was the pale opal sauce that was usually called lobster whether or not lobster had ever been anywhere near it. [p. 27]
(Shades of Lin-Liu, once again.) But she accepts the assignment, and heads immediately to Beijing -- to pursue both Table's business and her own.

Interviewing Sam, Maggie begins right away to learn about Chinese cuisine across the globe. Some of her lessons will be familiar to readers of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and Serve the People, but others actually go well beyond anything explored in either of those books:
"Chinese-American [cooking] evolved for a different reason -- to get Americans to accept a fundamentally different way of cooking and eating. They did this by aiming at familiarity, which was kind of weirdly brilliant. From the time the first chop suey houses opened, that's what they were selling, the thing that seems exotic but is actually familiar. Here it's different. It's the opposite. Every dish has to be unique, different from every other. Yet all follow rigid principles, and all aim to accomplish things Western cuisine doesn't even shoot for, much less attain .... For one thing, we have formal ideals of flavor and texture. Those are the rigid principles I mentioned. Each one is like a goal that every chef tries to reach -- either purely, by itself, or in combination with the others. Then there's artifice .... Illusion. Food should be more than food; it should tease and provoke the mind. We have a lot of dishes that come to the table looking like one thing and turn out to be something else .... We strive to fool the diner for a moment. It adds a layer of intellectual play to the meal. When it works, the gourmet is delighted .... Then there's healing. We use food to promote health. I'm not talking about balanced nutrition -- every cuisine does that, to some degree. I'm talking about each food having a specific medicinal purpose. We see every ingredient as having certain properties -- hot, cold, dry, wet, sour, spicy, bitter, sweet, and so on. And we think many imbalances are caused by these properties being out of whack. So a cook who is adept can create dishes that will heal the diner .... The right foods can ease the mind and heart. It's all one system .... One more. The most important of all. It's community. Every meal eaten in China, whether the grandest banquet or the poorest lunch eaten by workers in an alley -- all eating is shared by the group" [pp. 35-7]
In their long first conversation, Sam continues to educate Maggie (and the reader) in the principles of Chinese cuisine:
"One of the most important peaks of flavor is xian. Xian means the sweet, natural flavor -- like butter, fresh fish, luscious clear chicken broth. Then we have xiang, the fragrant flavor -- think frying onions, roasted meat. Nong is the concentrated flavor, the complex, deep taste you get from meat stews or dark sauces or fermented things. Then there is the rich flavor, the flavor of fat. This is called you er bu ni, which means to taste of fat without being oily. We love this one. Fat is very important to us. Fat is not something undesirable to be removed and thrown away, not in China. We have a lot of dishes that actually focus on fat and make it delectable. Bring pork belly to the table, when it's done right, and Chinese diners will groan with happiness .... That's just flavor. We have texture. There are ideals of texture, too -- three main ones. Cui is dry and crispy, nun is when you take something fibrous like shark's fin and make it smooth and yielding, and ruan is perfect softness -- velveted chicken, a soft-boiled egg. I think it's fair to say we control texture more than any other cuisine does. In fact some dishes we cook have nothing at all to do with flavor. Only texture; that is all they attempt .... Once you understand the ideal flavors and textures, the idea is to mix and match them. That's an art in itself, called tiaowei. Then we match the dishes in their cycles. Then there is the meal as a whole -- the menu -- which is a sort of narrative of rhythms and meanings and moods" [pp. 53-4].
Sam comes by his deep learning honestly. He is the scion of an intensely culinary family: his father, Liang Yeh, had been a chef in China before fleeing the Communist regime. His three 'uncles,' actually dear family friends, are all chefs and food scholars. But his grandfather, Liang Wei, is the most famous of all: born in the final years of the Qing dynasty, and sold into slavery as a boy, he and his friend Peng Changhai found rescue from a squalid fate as young apprentices of Tan Zuanqing, 'the greatest chef of his generation' [p. 43]. Liang Wei studied the food classics, but more importantly, he watched every dish that Lord Tan prepared, with an eye toward mastering his technique. When Tan died suddenly, Liang Wei himself rose to prominence as an imperial chef in the court of 慈禧太后 Ci Xi, the Dowager Empress who essentially ruled China until her death in 1908. In 1911, with the fall of the Qing dynasty, Liang and Peng left the palace and opened restaurants. More momentously, in 1925 Liang wrote an autobiographical memoir -- entitled, in fact, The Last Chinese Chef -- that became a food classic. One of Sam's major projects is to translate this into English.

Several things are going on here at once. First of all, of course, Mones is playing with the stratagem of the book-within-a-book: a book about a Chinese chef that involves a book about a Chinese chef. Each chapter is furnished with an epigraph from Liang Wei's book, and Maggie (and we) get to read quite a bit of it, in Sam's translation -- so much, in fact, that the reader might well be excused for not realizing that the 1925 book is as fictitious as Maggie and Sam are. Second, the legacy of this book, which is cherished and revered by Sam, helps to ground him in a complex family history, which lends realism to his story, even as it dishes up a banquet of food lore. Third, the realism of the family history is itself enhanced by being rooted firmly in the actual history of China in the early twentieth century.

Is there a politics of food? There is in China, according to The Last Chinese Chef. In a passage evidently meant to convey the passionate beliefs of Sam's father, we are told that 'the Communists had made it illegal to appreciate fine food or even remember that it had once existed. They had the masses eating slop and gristle and thinking it perfectly fine. In America and Europe, too, Chinese gourmets were all but nonexistent' [p. 39]. Moreover, 'When Sam had tried to suggest to his father that things had changed, that a world of art and discernment and taste was being reborn in China and that going back might be worthwhile, the old man erupted. "Never return to China! Never set foot there! It is a dangerous place, run by thugs!"' [ibid.]

The plot unfolds in some predictable (and some less predictable) ways. Maggie needs -- for her own peace of mind as well as for the financial implications -- to discover conclusively whether her husband had indeed fathered the child in question. Sam, meanwhile, is not only translating his grandfather's book, but planning to open a restaurant in Beijing -- one that will celebrate and resuscitate the legacy of traditional imperial cuisine. And, more urgent than either of these goals, when Maggie first meets him he is preparing to audition for the Chinese national cooking team at the 2008 Olympics. There are ten chefs competing for two spots in the northern-style category of cooking; nine days from his first conversation with Maggie, Sam must prepare an imperial-style banquet for the panel of judges. From then on, Maggie's own plot is interleaved with Sam's preparation for the banquet, which is planned, dish by dish, in loving detail. Not surprisingly, their lives become entwined as well. Will they become a couple? Will Sam win the competition? And will Liang Yeh, Sam's father, forgive him -- as Jen Lin-Liu's parents did eventually -- for leaving America and moving to China?

The answers to these questions, gentle reader, you must discover for yourself. But I will say that, for me, the two most important characters in the novel are neither Sam nor Maggie, nor even Liang Wei, but two characters that Mones did not create: China and Chinese cuisine. In The Last Chinese Chef -- in both books by that title -- China and her cuisine come as vibrantly and vividly alive as they do in the other books discussed in this review. For this if for nothing else, Mones's novel is well worth reading.

~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

[[This is part iii of a triple book review, the first and second parts of which can be read by clicking here and here respectively.]]

READER'S CORNER: Three Books on Chinese Cooking & Restaurants (ii)


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part ii of a triple book review, the first and third parts of which can be read by clicking here and here.]]

Jennifer 8. Lee. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008. 320 pages. ISBN-13: 9780446580076. Clothbound $24.99.

Jen Lin-Liu. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China. San Diego & New York: Harcourt 2008. 352 pages. ISBN-13: 9780151012916. Clothbound $24.00.

Nicole Mones. The Last Chinese Chef. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2007. 278 pages. ISBN-13: 9780618619665. Clothbound $24.00.

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Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China cleverly derives its title by tweaking the meaning of the title of a 1944 speech by Mao Zedong, 为人民服务 (wei renmin fuwu), i.e. 'Serving the People.' That phrase became one of the most popular political slogans of the Chinese Communist Party, and has survived even the evaporation of Mao's own popularity in China.

Jen Lin-Liu may not originally have planned to expatriate to China when she arrived there on a Fulbright fellowship in 2000. She may not even have planned, at the start, to write Serve the People. But after a couple years of writing about food in China, she did decide to enroll in cooking school. 'I didn't start out with an ambitious goal,' she says; 'I figured I would be happy if I could become reasonably adept in Chinese cooking, good enough to hold a decent dinner party' [p. 8].

But who knew that she 'was signing up for classes in Beijing just as professional cooking was making a comeback in mainland China' [p. 10]? 'Being a chef wasn't a glamorous job in China. A chef got as much respect as a car mechanic -- they were replaceable cogs in the kitchens' [p. 9]. But over the course of the next few years, as Lin-Liu chronicles, this was going to change.
My family disapproved of my venture .... in no way did [my father] want to see me become a chef, in his eyes the lowliest of Chinese occupations. My maternal grandmother, who briefly owned a restaurant in southern China in the 1940s, admonished me. "You can never trust a chef!" she said, shaking her head. My grandparents had chosen a poor time to enter the restaurant business: Chairman Mao had been making headway into the south with his guerrilla army, and the family was eventually forced to flee to Taiwan. But my grandmother didn't blame the upheaval for the restaurant's demise; she claimed that it was because the chef stole tins of abalone from the pantry. [p. 10]
Nothing daunted, Lin-Liu, who was 'curious how the past half century of turmoil and present economic development had affected the food [scil. of mainland China]' [p. 11], decided to inquire further into the matter. A true child of the Internet age, she began her quest by Googling the phrase 'Beijing cooking school.' (Not surprisingly, she came up with 129,000 hits.) Eventually she settled on the Hualian Cooking School, mainly because it was in her neighborhood in Beijing.

But there were hurdles along the way, even for one with fluent spoken Mandarin. Lin-Liu had occasional trouble taking notes in hanzi, and sometimes had to ask the teacher for clarification. Eventually it occurred to Teacher Zhang: '"Miss Lin, Chinese is not your mother tongue, is it?"' [p. 13]

'The revelation rocked the class … "Miss Lin is a Chinese-American writer, and she wants to spread propaganda about Chinese food to the American people," an administrator had proudly announced to the class on my first day' [p. 13]. But how could this be, wondered her classmates? She was right there in Beijing. She looked Chinese. She spoke and understood Mandarin. 'Why was Miss Lin pretending to be something she was not?' [p. 15] Her identity as an American, it turns out, was as complicated for the Chinese who encountered her as for Lin-Liu herself.
I needed something to make it concrete to them. I happened to have my passport with me, but I hesitated to pull it out. An American passport meant status to the Chinese. It meant being a member of the most powerful country in the world. I was uncomfortable with the idea that some Americans thought their passports provided them with immunity when they traveled abroad .... In desperation I handed the booklet to Teacher Zhang. The students gathered round ... In a matter of minutes I had gone from class dunce to passport-wielding, bona fide American.
Lin-Liu was tired of being detained by Chinese security guards when other 'more obvious foreigners' breezed through. She was tired of being singled out for her accent. But she also did not fit in easily with the expat community, which held itself aloof from ordinary Chinese culture.
So it was in China, ironically, that for the first time I felt the urge to call myself a Chinese American. It was the first time I had to seriously grapple with issues of race, identity, and where I fit in. It was the alienation I felt that led to my rabid obsession with Chinese food. I imagine my subconscious thinking went something like this: if I can't connect with the people, at least I'm going to connect with the food. I hadn't been a foodie before I moved to China. But in my desire to identify with something Chinese, I took up the cuisine with a fervor that came second only to my passion for writing. [pp. 18-19]
It could not be spelt out more clearly for us: Lin-Liu is on an archetypal quest for self-knowledge. Small wonder that something so foundational should concentrate on the sustenance of life and health.

But this quest will not be easy. For one thing, her notion of 'Chinese food' -- formulated in southern California -- maps rather poorly, at first, onto the actuality of food as she finds it in China:
Even with all my experiences eating Chinese food, I was not prepared to eat in China. It had taken me close to two decades to feel comfortable with Chinese food in America; now, in China, I faced a whole new set of challenges. In the beginning, I had felt as disconnected from the food as I had from the people -- my taste buds were at first overwhelmed that felt too chaotic, too intense. Ordering at restaurants was a minefield; menus were full of items with beautiful, ornate names but arrived in the form of innards, claws, and tongues. [p. 21]
So there is a learning curve, to begin with, as regards the taste-palette of the food itself. Then there is the actuality of the cooking school, which holds no end of surprises for her:
In cooking class, I learned a startling array of things: Eating fish heads will repair your brain cells. Spicy food is good for your complexion. Monosodium glutamate is best thrown in a dish just before it comes off the wok. Americans are fat because they eat bread, while Chinese are slim because they eat rice. If you work as a cook in America for three years, you can come back to China and buy a house. [p. 3]
She also learns that her gender is going to be made an issue.
"You want to be a chef?" Teacher Zhang had asked me once.
     Did he think that was possible? I asked.
     "You could make pastries," he'd replied dryly. Given the poor quality of northern Chinese pastries, that was like saying I could be a burger flipper at McDonald's.
     "You could work in a Western restaurant," a classmate had suggested. "Women aren't cut out to be stir-fry masters." [p. 24]
Most frustrating perhaps is the lack of hands-on experience. Her classmates are there, for the most part, in order to prepare for the written portion of the chef's certification test (which will eventually qualify them for a job at which they will earn one/tenth the amount of her salary as a free-lance journalist); they do not seem to share her frustration at having to wait for exposure to actual cooking technique. Like all good Monomyth heroes, Lin-Liu soon discovers that she is going to need a Wise Counselor to help her undertake this enormous task of learning Chinese cuisine:
After being rebuffed by various teachers at the school, who clearly considered it a waste of time to hang out with a frivolous foreigner who wanted to learn how to make kung pao chicken, I decided to seek the advice of Chairman Wang one afternoon when class was dismissed. "Chairman" was a bit misleading; it was more of an honorary title for a low-paying, all-purpose job that encompassed serving as a registrar, assistant to the school's president, assistant teacher, food purveyor, and de facto janitor -- in short, all the tasks that no one else wanted to do .... "You want cooking lessons?" Chairman Wang asked, as if this were a preposterous request at a cooking school. She continued to mop the grimy kitchen floor, which seemed to retain the same amount of dirt no matter how many times it was cleaned. I couldn't tell if she was taking my request seriously. For that matter, I wasn't sure she -- or anyone at the school -- took me seriously, being not only a foreigner but a woman to boot. [p. 24]
But Chairman Wang does take her seriously, consenting finally to give her private cooking lessons. Like every gongfu apprentice under the tutelage of h/er master, Lin-Liu is put through a rigorous program of training. In her case, this involves learning how to stand at the prep table, how to hold a knife, how to lift the wok, how to shop for ingredients -- just those practicalities that had been missing from her cooking-school education. She had learnt some knife 'theory' in her classes, but now came the practice:
Of all the skills on which Chinese chefs were judged, the most important was their daogong, or cutting technique. I knew that chefs from different parts of China used knives tailored to their specific regional cuisines. In Shanghai, a chef's knife had a pointy tip that resembled the profile of a shark's head. In Sichuan, the most common knife had a blade with the contour of a bell, and a Cantonese knife had a narrower blade with a sharp tip that resembled Western knives. In Beijing, chefs cut with rectangular blades that were so wide and clunky they reminded me of props in a horror movie .... Knives were especially important in prep areas, since they did not appear on the dining table. Everything in a Chinese meal was already cut into manageable pieces and picked up with chopsticks. "We don't eat with knives in our hands," my Taiwanese father had once said. "Because that is for barbarians." (Apparently he didn't find eating with sticks primitive.)
     Yet for all I had learned about knives, there were still a couple of basic things I didn't know. First, I didn't know how to use one properly. Watching the jagged shreds of ginger, leek, and pork that fell from a blade borrowed from the school during a private lesson, Chairman Wang commented that I would be lucky if I could make sixty dollars a month cooking in a cafeteria. After watching a little longer through her thick glasses, she was more generous: "Maybe a hundred dollars, if you don't want room and board" [pp. 32-33].
The blade issue, in other words, is fundamental, as it is for any Jedi or other sacred apprentice. Lin-Liu buys a butcher knife for four dollars, but it has never been sharpened; Chairman Wang advises her that she must find a professional knife-sharpener and tell him that 'the mouth of the knife needs to be opened ' [p. 27]. But how to find such a man? Lin-Liu asks for help from the proprietor of her local Sichuanese restaurant:
She explained that I hadn't been able to find a sharpener because they didn't have shops or stands; they biked around the city, weaving through the neighborhoods, retracing the same path every few days. There were fewer of them now because most households had started buying ready-to-use knives. She told me I had to listen for the clanging sound made by the knives that the sharpener had strung together and rattled at his side while he biked along. [pp. 34-35]
As we follow Lin-Liu's progress through the course of the narrative, her spoken and written skills in Mandarin improve. So does her cooking technique, which of course serves as an abiding metaphor for her growing self-knowledge. The vividness of her expanding expertise in Chinese cuisine is maintained by the judicious peppering of the text with some of the specific recipes she learns: we are given 29 of them in all, clearly spelt out in terms readily comprehensible to Western cooks, and together they form a mouth-watering array of dishes. Some will sound more familiar than others, but all of them look delectable. Such recipes as Pan-Fried Pork Tenderloin, Beijing-Style Noodles, Tea-Infused Eggs, Rice Vermicelli with Tomatoes, Shanghai Soup Dumplings, Yangzhou Fried Rice, and 'The Best' Mapo Tofu, give the reader a fairly broad introduction to the vast array of traditional Chinese cooking -- including some of the important regional cuisines -- without venturing too far into the arcana of 'the banquet dishes that had made me cringe in the beginning -- dishes like jellyfish heads with vinegar, braised sea cucumbers, steamed chicken feet, and fermented bean curd (aptly called stinky tofu in Chinese)' [p. 22].

One of the most important aspects of Lin-Liu's book is the portraits she paints of the individual people she comes to know in China. Over time, for example, her friendship with Chairman Wang and her family grows; eventually she is able to ask Chairman Wang about her life as a young woman during the Cultural Revolution.
Few Chinese talked about the past; often it seemed as though they didn't dare think about it. I did not want to upset her, and the formality of the teacher-student relationship made it harder to ask questions. But the more dumplings we wrapped together, the more comfortable we became with each other. It was as if this traditional family activity had a power of its own that freed us from our constrained roles. [p. 69]
Food and cooking, then, are the road not only to self-knowledge, but to family and intimacy with others as well. This deepening relationship with the Wangs furnishes the basis of what will eventually make Beijing feel like 'home' to Lin-Liu.

Eventually the time comes for her certification examination, which is administered in two parts: a written test and a practicum. Cheating is rampant among her classmates, but Lin-Liu decides to remain true to the spirit of her gongfu training and to take the test for real. While other students smuggle in textbooks for the written exam, and even fully pre-prepped food for the cooking test, Lin-Liu bravely does her own prep work on the spot. Chairman Wang looks on with the full realization of what this has all meant to her young pupil:
Chairman Wang watched as I sliced my pork, pressing the tenderloin firmly against the board and sliding my knife horizontally through the meat, keeping the blade as close as I could to the board. She finally understood.
     Ziger kao," she said, nodding with approval at my audacity. "You're testing yourself. That's good. Whether you pass or fail, you'll be doing it on your own." [p. 93]
In point of fact, Lin-Liu comes out at the top of her class -- her cutting skills are pronounced better than those of any other student [p. 95]. She is able to take special joy in having passed the test without cheating.

But what will her new certificate afford her in the People's Republic? Not much, it seems; nobody believes that a laowai (foreigner -- an interesting word to apply to someone like Lin-Liu, who is convincingly Asian in appearance and speaks Mandarin) will work in a kitchen. 'So it was by the process of elimination that I ended up at Chef Zhang's noodle stall, in a humble canteen in southeastern Beijing .... I told Chef Zhang that I wanted to become a noodle chef; he didn't have the time or energy to say no' [pp. 118-119]. And so begins the next of Lin-Liu's adventures.
If Chairman Wang had been my window into the lives of China's urban middle class, Chef Zhang was my introduction to an entirely different class of people, the struggling migrant workers with little time to complain about social ills or the graft of government officials. Most of them worked seven days a week for a meager salary, most of which they saved and sent back to their rural families, in hopes of giving their children a better life than theirs. [p. 119]
Working in this noodle stall gives Lin-Liu a whole new perspective on Chinese cuisine and culture. 'An unofficial noodle-rice line runs across China' [p. 121], dividing north and south. Coming from the southern Chinese traditions, Lin-Liu's family is a rice-eating one, whereas Beijing is in noodle territory. An apprentice all over again, she learns what it means to run a frantic food-service business where the main dish is constantly made fresh, by hand, at a very small profit margin. She also comes to know and admire the hard-working Chef Zhang, and a bright young waitress from Sichuan named Qin.

Lin-Liu eventually masters the subtle art of handmade noodles, even learning several different styles of noodle, then moves briefly to work in a 'dumpling house' called Xian'r Lao Man, which offers dumplings with sixty kinds of filling. We get a glimpse into this hectic environment, and meet Lin-Liu's friend Hu, whose tragic story eventually emerges. The whole scene is so depressing, in fact, that Lin-Liu soon moves on. Her next internship, this time in Shanghai, is quite at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, at a tony new place on the Bund called the Whampoa Club. The Whampoa is the brainchild of Jereme Leung, one of the new breed of celebrity chefs that is changing the face of Chinese cuisine and restaurant culture. It is perhaps not coincidental that Shanghai is China's largest and most cosmopolitan city -- it has province-level status all by itself -- nor that Leung is huaqiao (overseas Chinese). Leung is the very definition of high-profile cuisine: 'Patricia Wells called him a "genius" in the International Herald Tribune. Saveur ran a full-page picture of him. Matt Lauer visited the restaurant and ate Jereme's dumplings on Today' [p. 224]. In short, his ascendancy not only brought the fresh air of nouvelle chinoiserie from Singapore to the People's Republic; it also thrust China, and this new style of Shanghainese fusion cuisine, into the international gastronomic arena.

It is at Whampoa that Lin-Liu learns to make xiao long bao, her mother's favorite dumpling, and one of the xiao chi (snacks) known as 'Shanghai dian xin' or 'Northern dim sum.'

In Lin-Liu's Shanghai pages, we meet Jiang Liyang, a fellow food critic, and his friend Zhuang Jian; Little Han, a nineteen-year-old chef at Whampoa, who keeps a pair of chopsticks and a spoon in her pants pocket; Dr Chen, the hapless health inspector; and Chef Dan, the presiding genius of Yin, another of Shanghai's forward-looking restaurants. Chef Dan invites Lin-Liu to come work on her skills in his kitchen, and she takes him up on it from time to time, once even cooking lunch (home-style tofu with rice) for the restaurant's proprietor, Takashi Miyanaka. Chef Dan is another mentor who puts Lin-Liu at ease, and over time she learns more about his remarkable life and his view of the world. And Yin, the restaurant that is anything but traditional, plays another pivotal role in Lin-Liu's search for self:
At Yin, I realized that the idea of food being "authentic" was relative. Here I was in Shanghai, eating Shanghainese food made by a Shanghainese chef, and some people still didn't consider it the real thing .... I stopped being embarrassed about liking Yin as I knew more about "real" Chinese food. Learning how to eat a foreign cuisine [or, she might have added, how to drink their tea] was like learning a foreign language. It took years to do it, and even after becoming fluent, it didn't mean that I always preferred the Chinese way of eating or speaking .... I realized that my taste buds -- just like my personality, my outlook on life, and my political views -- had been shaped by my childhood in America .... I was happy being who I was, whoever that was. [pp. 286-7]
The book is served up with three entertaining 'side dishes': one on the manufacture and (still controversial) use of MSG; one on the rice harvest in Ping'an; and one on Huaiyang cuisine, one of the so-called '四大菜系 four great (culinary) traditions' of China (along with Sichuan, Shandong, and Yue or Cantonese), and the basis of modern Shanghainese cooking.

When we leave Lin-Liu, she is engaged to be married -- to Craig, a fellow journalist (and fellow American, but of blue-eyed Western stock) -- and living happily in Beijing.
My parents had forgiven me for moving to China and approved of my passion for cooking after I visited them in California and made them a seven-course meal that filed their house with the scent of oil, chilies, and peppercorns. In Beijing, I had found a home with Craig, and Chairman Wang was just around the corner.
She has found her home, and -- not coincidentally -- herself.

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And so, despite the widely divergent trajectories these two books follow, they share in the end another profound similarity: they are both, essentially, works of ethnography and even of autobiography. The so-called 'ABC' (American-Born Chinese) shares the vagaries of all children of immigrants in the US -- akin to, of course, but somewhat different from the situation of those immigrants itself. 'Am I a man, or two strange halves of one?' writes Joseph Tusiani, an American of Italian origin who has published extensively and eloquently on the experience of leaving the country of one's birth to live in another. The immigrant never loses h/er original identity entirely; rather, by moving to the new culture, s/he adds a new layer of existence, of life-experience, and thus, eventually, of self. The children of immigrants have their own set of experiences leading to the establishment of self: they have the stability that comes, precisely, from having been born in the new land; and they will also hopefully reap the benefits of their parents' efforts in rooting the family in that new soil. Certainly both Lee and Lin-Liu have done all this. Like Oedipus, both authors have discovered the deep truth that the most momentous riddle of all is that of one's own identity.

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[[This is part ii of a triple book review, the first and third parts of which can be read by clicking here and here.]]