Li Shan Oolong Tea is Here

gong fu style Li Shan tea

Despite it diminutive size, Taiwan produces a wonderful assortment of oolong teas that feature a delicious array of leaf styles, oxidation levels, flavors and aromas. On this trip we were fortunate to see several of these teas being made, and every tea we enjoued was from the current 2008 spring harvest.

We journeyed through several counties of central and northern Taiwan and visited many of the tea farms and tea factories that produce Taiwan’s signature teas -Bai Hao Oriental Beauty, Baozhong Oolong, and of course, the high mountain semi-ball rolled jade oolongs from LiShan, Shan Lin Shi, Alishan and the Dong Ding mountainous regions.

As we traveled, we purchased small quantities of several of these delicious teas to bring back to delight our customers. But the style of tea that we were most interested procurring was hand-processed, high-mountain semi-balled style oolong. We were hoping to purchase a reasonable quantity for the store and our friend knew how to make that happen. He made a phone call then took us to visit a friend of his who works at an organic food certification plant.

Here, tea is checked for pesticides, and, if it passes, an employee from the certifying company will visit the farm in person to make sure that the sample is truly representative of what the farm produces and that nothing is amiss.

If the farm passes muster, then the tea farmer will send quantities of his or her tea to the certifying company to be weighed, packaged and sealed. The tea farmer will be paid for his tea, which is then sold by this company. We were introduced to Lisa, a very friendly and knowledgeable tea lady, who asked us what type of tea we were looking for. When she had a good idea of what we wanted, she began to pull out various samples for us to taste.

She showed us many teas in the style we wanted that were grown in the high elevation levels that we were interested in. Also of consideration was the price – some of these Taiwan high mountain teas are astronomical !

As we tasted the teas we found teas that were nice, very nice, but not what we were looking for. Maybe she was testing us, but eventually she brought out the 2008 Li Shan ‘Da Yu Ling’ winter pluck, and it was love at first sight. Bingo, that was it – the flavor, the sensation of the Hui Gan ( returning flavor, or the changing of the flavor from one of slight astringency to sweetness on the aftertaste )

Soft, sweet, floral and snappy and fresh, like a brisk winter’s day. A simply beautiful tea with irregularly shaped balls of leaf with connecting stems. Next came a 2008 Li Shan spring pluck and we fell in love with that too. A bit headier and more aromatic, fruity and more youthful and green in flavor.

So we brought as much of both as we could afford and could comfortably carry back in our bags. More will follow later. But don’t wait to savor these fine teas – Taiwan oolong of this caliber is difficult to find in the USA – it is usually snapped up by Taiwanese and Japanese tea lovers, leaving none for anyone else on the planet.

Li Shan oolong tea


Guest Speakers in Taiwan

Bob at the podium

Bob, myself and our tea colleague Mike Spillane of G.S. Haley Co. had the pleasure of attending an all-day meeting of the Tawian Tea Manufacturers Association as invited guests. The meeting was held in the Tea Research and Extension Station in Taoyuan, which works in conjunction with the Taiwan Council of Agriculture.

The research station is devoted to studying all aspects of tea cultivation and the production of tea. The Director, Mr. Lin, gave us a briefing on the important work conducted here, which includes studies in the areas of improved nursery systems for tea cuttings; breeding and propagation of superior tea cultivars; ecological approaches to organic tea management; studies on pests and disease control; and the training and education of tea farmers.

As American tea professionals each of us had been asked to speak on a topic related to tea in America. We gave our views on the nature of Taiwan tea and also offered feedback regarding the difficulty in obtaining a steady supply of good quality Taiwan teas in the USA. Taiwan is in the unique position of producing a very high percentage of quality tea, and of being able to purchase more of it’s own tea than most people are in other tea producing countries. Hence, only a small quantity of tea is left available for export, and it is proportionately costly.

In the week prior to this meeting, I began to notice that many of the dishes that we were served in restaurants in the tea producing areas incorporated tea leaves in the preparation of these dishes. So, for my part, I decided to speak to the members on how we cook with tea in the USA. I explained the types of dishes we use tea in ( soups, meat, seafood and vegetable dishes, desserts and cocktails ) and the manner in which we use it ( sauces, soups and simmering broths, marinades, braised dishes, frozen desserts and cakes, etc. )

I could tell from the looks on the faces of the men and women looking back at me that some of them understood my examples while others seemed unsure of what some of these ingredients and dishes were in the examples that I gave.

But I think in general that they appreciated the interest in tea that this trend speaks to, and understood that cooking with tea is another way to generate additional buzz in the USA regarding the delicious nature of tea.

Attendance was recorded at just over 130 persons, and everyone seemed to enjoy the daylong exchange of ideas. I was pleased to see a high percentage of women in the membership. The three of us enthusiastically praised Taiwan teas and pledged to promote awareness of Taiwan tea back home.

Today, like all of our days in Taiwan, added another dimension of tea information and understanding to our ongoing tea education.

Visiting the Doctor in a Taiwan Hospital

Unfortunately for me, along with wisdom and perspective, age brings with it the aches and pains associated with manuevering heavy suitcases and overstuffed carry-on bags. As a result, I spent some painful moments in Hong Kong resting my lower back and feeling very sorry for myself. In fact, I wasted the better part of an afternoon in bed cozying up to some painkillers instead of running around enjoying the city that I love so much.

Anyway, by the time I arrived in Taiwan the pain had worsened. We emailed my chiropractor for some sage advice and tried to keep as much pressure off my lower back as possible. But traveling up and down twisting mountain roads loaded with hairpin turns is not helpful with that, and our hectic schedule was not condusive to a time out. I was clearly stuck with a whopper of a back spasm and my stash of Advil was running low.

So there I was on one particular morning barely able to walk – getting me into the van was almost impossible. Our van driver was ever so patient with me as I tried to haul myself in by using the hand grips on the roof of the interior. Our tea colleagues were worried for me, and I was afraid of holding up a whole day of scheduled visits to tea factories and tea gardens. After a quick discussion about what my options were, it was determined by Jackson, our host for the trip, that I should go to the local hospital in a neighboring town in Nantou county for some help. Even though I did not want to, I could not argue against it.

A few telephone calls were made to a local tea contact who knew someone who knew someone who called someone at the hospital and we were given the go ahead to arrive and proceed with haste. When we arrived a scant 20 minutes later from the top of the mountain, a brigade of people awaited us, and I learned first hand the meaning of network of friends and family in Taiwan.

This group was comprised of tea colleagues of Jacksons, an old friend from the tea store down the street from the hospital, someone from the hospital staff, etc. We were quickly shuttled in and up to the second floor, and taken right in to see some doctors who I think were the admitting doctors. Conversation flew past my ears in rapid fire Mandarin which was accompanied by a lot of jesticulating and pointing.

Okay, okay, okay……off we went to the x ray room ( and I do mean all 5 of us ) following the doctors through rooms where other patients were being treated and down corridors where rows of patients sat quietly waiting their turn to see the doctor. I felt big and fat and foolish and was quite embarrassed to be so accommodated, but they had been informed that the tea factory manager was waiting. And in tea country tea business is serious business, so the show must go on ! In fact, I was just a pawn in the plan of getting me quickly treated so we could be on our way.

We wove our way through the hallway and offices and arrived in the office of one of the orthopedic doctors. He wanted to take x-rays of my back ( okay, okay ) which would tell him if I needed an injection ( no way ! ) or medications ( oh please ! ). So we took off for the x-ray department for a quick snapshot and them back to the doctors office. In what seemed like just a few minutes he came back in, and called up the x-rays on his computer. He pointed to my spine and pelvic areas on the picture – no disc problems, no spine problem, just some imflamation and a back sprain. Everyone , including me, was relieved.

Our little parade of colleagues made our way back downstairs. Three prescriptions of Western medicine later, we were back on our way up the mountain, all in just under one hour. I am happy to report that by late afternoon, my back pain was seriously reduced and by the next day I was feeling nearly pretty back to normal.

I was very impressed by the professionalism of all the doctors and staff that we encountered that day, and I appreciate the indulgence of the patients whom I was taken ahead of. It was great to have my tea colleagues act as a cheering squad. I am still not sure, however, who paid the bill.

Tea Trekking in Taiwan

For the past two days we have been exploring the tea producing regions of Taiwan. We are very impressed by the geography of central Taiwan – this lush region is comprised of a series of steeply cut mountain ranges that run down the center of the island dividing eastern Taiwan from its western neighbors. Four large counties – Hsinchu, Maoli, Taichung, Nantou – cultivate tea, and of these, it is Nantou county that produces the famous high-mountain ball rolled oolong teas such as Dong Ding, Ali Shan and Li Shan.

In the north, south-east of Taipei city, the low elevation region of Maoli is home to Oriental Beauty, perhaps the most exclusive and expensive of Taiwan’s delicious leafy teas. June and July is the prime production season for Bai Hao White Tip Oolong tea, otherwise known as Oriental Beauty. So we are lucky to be here now at the beginning of production.

Here in Taiwan the tea industry is comprised mostly of small tea farmers and many of them process their fresh leaf into finished tea and sell it directly to consumers. This is vastly different than how tea is sold in China, where tea is more of a village effort or a government produced product. While there is some large scale, commercially produced tea here, we are concentrating on visiting the small tea factories and the tea farmers who produce the finest tea.

We tasted some very delicious and well-made Bai Hao today, which was offered to us for sale at the local farm price of the equivilent of $250.00 a kilo US ( approx. $125.00 a pound. ) Tea that is this good rarely makes it outside of Taiwan as it is a small crop and the tea farmers are able to sell it all domestically to their established tea clients. One fellow that we visited has a backlist of clients who will be disappointed to receive no tea – but they will be first on his list to receive an allotment of the fall crop when it is harvested.

What this means is that here in Tawian, as in Hong Kong, local people can afford to purchase this type of tea, and they know where to go for the best teas. And they make sure that they are on the client list to be receive a new tea each summer. So, it is interesting to note that even if we wanted to purchase some of this tea to sell back home, these tea farmers have no tea to sell to us; their crop is all spoken for among their established clients.

It also means something unique for these Taiwan tea farmers that is seriously different from the situation that most tea farmers in the world find themselves in: 1st, these farmers can name their price and make good money on their crop, and 2nd, the US market does not factor in one bit in their success. Not only is their tea too expensive for us to sell back home at these prices, but they don’t need the US market to be successful. While this is great for them, it is sad for us as we would love to be able to offer this tea to our tea enthusiast customers. It is not too often that something that sell well locally is too expensive for Amnerican consumers ! However, later in the day we did find a delicious and affortable batch of Bai Hao which we scooped up for our customers, so stay tuned.

Fortunately for us, the weather has given us hot, humid, ovecast days but the rains have held back. We have covered quite a bit of distance, both horizontal and vertically and have visited many tea farms. And we have seen a lot of exquisite mountain vistas, experienced many bumpy mountain roads and tasted many fine teas. Taiwan is a beautiful country and the people are its finest assets. Friendly, likeable, earnest, respectful and proud. This is somewhere where we could live out our years growing tea !

I have to say that we have enjoyed many delicious meals in small country restaurants. The food here bears some similarity to China’s food, but here in Taiwan the food is not greasy the way it has become in China over the past few years. And the presentations and food combinations are more sophisticated and mouthwatering. We have been enjoying fresh local pineapples and mangoes which are succulent and sweet. It is fresh bamboo season and that is always a treat. Today we were served a bamboo-like vegetable with a sweet flavor and a nice crunch. The best translation we could get for the name was human-limb vegetable. So crazy a name !

And man, can they make some delicous tea.

Goodbye to Hong Kong; Hello Taiwan

good luck gold ingots

Today we are leaving Hong Kong for our tea trek thru the neighboring island of Taiwan. Our time here has been too short and somewhat frustrating – rain, rain, rain. In fact, there is so much rain in parts of southern China that people are being evacuated as mudslides are endangering roads and houses. Some regions of the New Territories outside of Hong Kong are closed to travelers and residents of these areas are clamoring to stay despite being told to evacuate.

There is also devastating rain in Sichuan, adding more problems to the earthquake misery. Reuters News reported an earthquake in northern Japan. Ten years ago there was an earthquake in the central region of Taiwan, where we are headed. On many occasions something major has happened while we are traveling – the Chernobyl nuclear diseaster, 9/11, etc etc. Let’s hope not this time.

We accomplished much of what we set out to do in Hong Kong- visit tea shops and continue our tea education. But other things on our ‘to do’ list vanished like the sun. Next time.

cat nap

Lost in Kowloon; Saved by Sichuan Cuisine


rainy day in Hong Kong

Today has been a challenging day. We awoke to very hot weather and dark, glowering skies. The rain and wind began as soon as we hit the streets and while we had our dim sum breakfast the weather worsened. Just what Hong Kong does not need, more drenching rain.

I got a little cocky ordering dim sum this morning, which, of course, led to our being presented with an order of chicken feet and fish maw that I did not mean to order. Fortunately, we had custard buns and dumplings to save the day. You can be sure that I won’t make that mistake again !

We had some business appointments across the harbor today in Kowloon. Because of the rain we opted to take the subway rather than the more picturesque ferry across the harbor. Nevertheless, because of all the walking involved, we still arrived wet and disheveled.

I really dislike Kowloon – I find it difficult to navigate, and places are hard to find. Street addresses are chopped up and many businesses are located inside of shopping centers or business centers, all of which are vast and disorienting. We wandered inside of one of these places for nearly 50 minutes and still had not found our destination. Asking for help is useless – even the shop clerks do not know where anything is. Oddly, as we trudged on, we passed hundreds of shops, all laid out by type of business. It began to feel disorienting and right out of a bad movie.

For instance, at one point we were surrounded by upscale childrens stores. A land of fantasy, colors and foo-foo dresses. Then we entered the electronics zone, then the flashy ready-to-wear-designer clothing stores with oversized photographs of overly made-up models looking like they were in pain, then the cell phone floor. When we hit the gifts-that-no-sane-person-needs-zone we fled back into the rain and the oppressive humidity. It was all mad and maddening.

We finally gave up trying to find our destination, but did find a wonderful Thai restaurant where we had a terrific late lunch. Should you find yourself lost in the Harbor City Ocean Terminal, look for a Thai restaurant named Sweet Basil. If you can find it, it dishes up very nicely prepared and delicious food in a very peaceful and restful environment.

We paid a visit to the offices of the Arts of Asia magazine to say hello and to present the publisher, Mrs. Nguyet and her son Robin with a copy of our book for her library. We have subscribed to this gorgeous magazine for several years now, and wished to show our appreciation for all of their efforts and for all that we have learned from them. Then we dashed back to Hong Kong on the ferry.

But not before paying a visit to the Chinese Arts & Crafts Store. These stores have always been a wonderful place to find lovely Chinese silks, etc. But, boy, have times changed ! The rampant inflation and rising prices in China’s new boom economy has made everything soooo expensive here. Table runners that I purchased two years ago in China for 15.00 US were selling here for 200-300.00 US. The gorgeous silk duvet cover that I purchased for 250.00 US back then is now selling for 1,000-2,000 US. And forget any of the Jingedgzhen porcelain items or the hand-made crafts – insane pricing. But, a good dim sum feast can be had for 12.00 US and the trams still only costs HK 2.00 or about 35 cents a ride, so some things still remain a bargain here.

Dinner tonight was at our favorite Hong Kong restaurant – Da Ping Huo– a little place run by a married couple that specializes in homestyle Sichuan cuisine. They have become quite a popular place now, so I made a reservation well in advance. I like returning to familiar places and finding things pretty much the same as I remember. In this case, the couple looked the same, but like us, just a bit older.

There is no menu here – guests arrive at the appointed time and service begins. Everyone in the restaurant is presented with the same dish at the same time – a fantastic succession of 12 palate challenging dishes that have been cooked by the lady of the house. In a small-world kind of experience that seems nearly impossible in a go-go city such as Hong Kong, we were seated at the same table that we sat at the last time we ate dined there. Same people, same table…it was a comfortable moment in a sometimes overwhelming city.

Her cooking is inspired, and the dishes range from lightly spicy to mouth-numbing. The meal is presented in a well orchestrated sequence of dishes, each featuring playful flavors and tastes designed to keep the spicy/hot level from overpowering one’s palate. Hubby runs the front of the house and charmingly appologizes profusely for interrupting every time he arrives with the next course. He also announces the spiciness level as he sets the dish down on the table. Some of the dishes are red, red, red in color, but he is always right – many of them are not as hot as they look. But they are all feature wonderully complex sauces that are playful as well as tasty. Everyone gets excited when the MaPoDofu dish arrive – meltingly tender bean curd in an spicy meat sauce. The meat has been chopped so fine it has the texture of cornmeal – a wonderful counterpoint to the silkiness of the tofu.

At the end of the evening, he brings the chef – his wife – out for everone to meet, and she concludes the evening by singing a tender song for her patrons. It is very touching and sweet – she is a trained Chinese opera singer, and has a lovely voice. We have no idea what she is singing about, but she is smiling the entire time as she modulates her voice and hits those Chinese high notes with near ear-splitting ease.

We are all enthralled, and her husband stands off to the side positivly beaming the entire time. Long after she has finished, and we have returned to our hotel, the sound of her voice is still circling around inside of my head. I fall asleep thinking that her song is a final sweet touch that lingers long after the flavor of the meal has passed. They have much to be proud of and I hope that they will still be there cooking and singing and extending wonderful hospitality the next time we return to Hong Kong.

Custard Buns and Pig’s Throat

tried and true trams ply the main drag of Hong Kong

Yes, our day began on a fine note. 0ur beloved dim sum restaurant is still here and busier than ever. In typical Hong King style, this place is cavernous, boisterous and a bit of a madhouse. I think that not too many westerners find this place – the staff all looks terrified when we enter and seem a bit unsure of who is going to volunteer to help us.

In the last 4 years the restaurant has made a few changes and modernised a bit. The olympic-sized kitchen is now open for viewing and they have added a bit of English to the menu. But the mysterious things still remain mysterious. We had a grand selection of dumplings – Tao Heung dumplings, braised vegetable dumplings, Chiu Chow dumplings, bamboo shoots roll with oyster sauce, premium siu mei, and of course, my eternally-beloved, soft, fluffy, warm custard buns. Unlike some things in life that we cannot help but revisit (but are then sorry that we did) these simple delicacies are as satisfying and delicious as I remember. Our big success of the yum cha ( dim sum ) was to finally get some tea other than jasmine tea – a Guangdong Swartow oolong, we think.

So fortified, we began our day of tea exploration. I take back what I said yesterday about how the weather in Hong Kong seeming more moderate than what we experienced last weekend in NYC. Today was close to 100% humidity, and dark, stormy skies threatened to lash out with rain at any time. Fortunately, the rains never came, which we learned was a good thing from a young lady named Catherine that we chatted with on one of our stops.

She told us that last weekend Hong Kong experienced ‘Black Rain’ – a quick, torrential downpour that is classified as the worst and most damaging type of rain that the city can have. The result was flooding in the low-lying streets in the Sheung Wan district of the city, where many of the old-fashioned shops that specialize in dried fungus, dried seafood, birds nests, deer horn and other herbal / medicinal stuffs are located. We had walked through this area earlier, and saw that some of the vendors had laid different products out on the sidewalks to air out. And that a great deal of cleanup activity was going on all around. Apparently, the flooding had soaked many of these goods, and the shopkeepers were trying desperately to clean up and salvage whatever merchandise they could.  I have to say that that all those damp goods made for a very strange and unpleasant aroma.

We spent the remainder of the day doing what we love to do in Hong Kong – walking the streets, taking in the atmosphere of the neighborhoods, and looking at tea and teawares. We love finding unique little cups and teapots to add to our teawares collection, and browsing among all of the accessories that are essential to the Chinese tea table – little wooden stands for teapots, brushes for washing the outside of Yixing teapots, wood-charcoal for purifying water and little trays for holding little sipping cups.

We found some new tea shops to visit – Ngan Ki Heung Tea Co. Ltd, where we purchased two exquisite duan ni  or yellow-buff colored clay Yixing teapots from a contemporary teapot artist. At Lam Kie Yuen Tea Co. Ltd, we spied a hand-painted gaiwan decorated with an impish little monkey stealing fruits from a tree on one side and a poem about the fleeting nature of sweetness on the other side.

We treasure time spent talking with the folks in the tea shops about their selections of tea. Tea is such a deep topic in China, and no two stores sell the same tea or teawares. We always learn something new from those we spend time with, and we appreciate having the opportunity to taste teas that we will most likely never see or taste in the US. Today we tasted a PutuoShan Buddha green tea, a WuyiShan TieLoHan oolong, an osmanthus oolong blended in house by the tea master himself, and a first of the 2008 season lightly-oxidized Tieguanyin from Anxi.

I had made dinner reservations at a place called Shui Hu Ju, which sounded like one of those small little places that only the locals know about in a hard-to-find-location. It is tucked away near the top of a dizzingly vertical street ( remember, Hong Kong has as many hills as San Francisco and many places are hard to find even when a map is in hand and the signs in English. Sometimes even 3 Chinese people in on the conversation cannot agree on where a street is when it is only a few blocks away ) and offered no signage to announce that one had arrived. But we’ve encounteded these kinds of places before,  so we chose the most opportunistic doorway and went in.

Apparently so had lots of other Americans, Australians, French, etc. The place was tiny but packed, and abuzz with English speakers. Oh well, the atmosphere was not filled with the Hong Kong literati that I had hopped for, but the interior of the restaurant was dark, artsy and evocative. From the extensive menu of some adventurous sounding dishes we selected: sliced octopus marinated with fresh seaweeds and scallions; jade ( a bulbous Chinese water vegetable ) with shredded ginger; crispy mutton Peking-style; fried pigs throat with scallions and coriander; lotus nuts, lily buds and mixed vegetables.

The dishes were flavorsome, well-balanced, contemporaty and unique but not contrived or over-wrought. The mutton, which featured meltingly tender meat and very, thin, dark crisy skin, was one of the best things that I have eaten in China and the pigs throat was soft, a little chewy like squid, but utterly delicious and playful in texture. The meal was a nice contrast of cool and warm dishes, soft and crunchy textures, with sweet/savory spicing. We passed on dessert so that we could enjoy the lingering flavors of the meal a bit longer.

Tomorrow we are off across the bay to Kowloon and more tea, food and unplanned adventures.

slices of crispy mutton