Sunday, September 29, 2013

In Singapore: The Fine Art of Oriental Tea Drinking at Yixing Xuan Teahouse

Because I am in Asia, particularly in Singapore I was in the mood for some tea drinking. The Chinese are the majority ethnic race in Singapore (74%) so there must be some cultured tea house somewhere hiding in the city. I have however thought of doing this in Hong Kong as well. Perhaps the experience there will be purer but I will be with family and I don’t think the parents would appreciate these cultural whims of mine. I’d rather have one victim to sacrifice. SisterJ in Singapore =)

So, who would have thought that there is fine art in tea drinking? I am not talking about the overhyped and clichéd English Afternoon or High Tea in which the focus really are the scones, the cakes and the sandwiches (admit it you ladies). I am talking about the real thing, and that is oriental tea drinking.

Yixing Xuan Tea House
Website: Yixing Xuan Teahouse - The Tea Art Centre

I found this teahouse after intensive googling and reading tea reviews.

Now this very interesting piece of historic information: Many moons back, the Queen of England and her husband Prince Philip came to this lowly tea house in Singapore to witness and understand the fine art of tea drinking.

England may have popularised tea drinking, and many countries including the Netherlands may have their own way of enjoying tea, but in the Orient, tea drinking is not just a tradition, there is a ritual incorporated into this social and personal enjoyment activity. This is called the fine art of tea drinking.

Preparing and drinking tea the traditional fine art way

So we first ordered our tea: Pu-erh Tea (or Pu'er) for two. Pu Erh tea is very rich and pure, it has an earthy flavour and it is a good agent as well in breaking down the fats in your body. I have been drinking Pu-Erh tea for some time already, on and off, and in this Asian holiday I made sure to bring home a good year’s supply.

The lady serving us asked if we knew how to prepare our tea. SisterJ and I looked at each other and giggled, and she knew right away that we had no idea. We are virgins in this tea drinking ceremony. So she proceeded with instructions and said that we must first clean everything before we start drinking tea.

STEP 1: HEAT UP – Heat up  the water in the teapot.

STEP 2: CLEAN – Clean the tea infuser (dark small clay teapot) with the hot water and then put some tea leaves in the tea infuser and then rinse all the tea equipment with this tea. See below cleaning process. The lady server did this for us.

All the discarded water are flushed into this portable clay basin. After all the tea equipment have been cleaned, the actual tea drinking can then begin.

STEP 3: TEA LEAVES – Put some tea leaves into the tea infuser. The tea infuser is the tiny dark clay teapot.

This is Pu-Erh tea leaves from Yunnan province in China. They are very strong and a small amout of this in a tea infuser can go up to 7-10 rounds of tiny tea cups before changing into new tea leaves.

STEP 4: HOT WATER – Pour some hot water from the teapot into the tea infuser. The objective here is to obviously infuse the tea leaves.

STEP 5: TRANSFER – Pour the tea from the tea infuser into the big tea cup (this is the white jar-like porcelain cup). You do not wait long for the hot water and tea leaves to settle inside the tea infuser, unless you really want them that strong. You can right away transfer and pour them into the cup.

STEP 6: POUR & SNIFF – Pour the tea from the big tea cup into the sniffer. Then sniff the tea. The sniffer is one of the two tiny porcelain white cups (the slimmer and taller one) on a rectangle saucer.

At this point of the ritual you must savour the smell and aroma of the tea. SNIFF. Savour. Sniff the tea. Relax. Savour. And make no mistake by drinking the tea from the sniffer! The sniffer cup is to sniff and not to drink.

Sniff - Sniff, that is right SisterJ. Sniff the tea really well =)

Step 7: POUR AGAIN & DRINK – Pour the tea from the sniffer into the little tea cup. Then drink the tea.

This is the time when you finally drink your tea in the little, I mean TINY tea cup.

Honestly, we were both laughing whilst looking at the ridiculously tiny tea cup. It reminded me when I was little playing with my tiny tea cups and saucers. SisterJ had the same thing in mind and whispered, ‘It looks like we are playing tea drinking here.’ LOL

Then we go back to Step 3 up to Step 7 for our next cup of tea. From here it is all about repeating the procedure until your stomach cannot handle any drop of tea anymore. You have the option to buy food though at Yixing Xuan Teahouse, they are a restaurant as well and they serve, so I have read reviews, succulent Chinese dishes, but we were not hungry. We just had our late lunch at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice.

In summary, SisterJ and I had so much fun doing this tea ritual and telling each other that we must not forget to SNIFF the tea before we drink, haha. The sniffing part became the inside joke here, and after we had a couple of those tiny tea cups—remember, we have to go through steps 3 to 7 every time for every tiny cup of tea, we somehow concluded that it is getting tiring.

‘Can we just get this done and get us a bigger tea cup please?’

We did not really say that, but we THOUGHT of saying it. Nevertheless, we must have had 20 teacups each! Or more even!

And now, you’d think the proper, the fine art way of drinking tea is being poured tea by a wait staff dressed in tuxedo, as you cradle your porcelain cup and saucer in your delicate hands, not forgetting to wiggle out your pinky for that aristocratic touch as you sip. Well nope, that is only England my dear and the way commercialised Europe wants to interpret tea drinking.

In the Orient, the real and traditional fine art way of enjoying tea is less ritzy and patronising. It involves a lot of patience, a lot of sniffing and a lot of drinking tea in ridiculously tiny teacups.

Travel Period: July 2013
Destination: Singapore Central, Singapore

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