The world’s favorite beverage

Tea is the most popular drink in the world, according to one of those amorphous statistics that float out there in the quip ether. From the vantage point of China, and in particular Hangzhou, it would be hard to doubt that claim. The city is famous throughout China for its renowned Longjing tea, a variety of green tea named for Hangzhou’s Dragon Well and grown around its outskirts.

I ventured out to Meijiawu, one of the most picturesque of the tea-growing villages, where I happened upon some gorgeous fields of tea framed by autumnal mountains. I sat outside at a run-down teahouse on the side of the road so I could enjoy the view, and I lucked out in my choice of establishments out of the many, seemingly indistinguishable cha guan that lined the street.

This teahouse was the home of a really friendly (and well behaved) dog named Huan Huan, and her owners, some equally friendly Chinese around my age. They all (the people and the dog) sat with me as I drank my scalding-hot tea and ate some delicious spinach and tofu soup and the absolute best rendition I’ve ever had of one of my favorite Chinese dishes–xihongshi jidan, which is basically eggs scrambled with tomatoes, but which can transport the soul if it’s done well, as it was at this scuffed teahouse fifteen kilometers from the city center.

A few days earlier, I had the chance to experience a very different species of teahouse, a fancy place done up in the truest Hangzhou style located right off of Yanan Lu, the main commercial thoroughfare of the city. L. had told me I was going to have a meeting with his boss, H., at a teahouse, but I had no clue what I was in for and dreaded a really boring morning sipping tea and prattling on about my research with only L. to interpret, since I figured that H. wouldn’t possibly speak English. Well, his vocabulary wasn’t great, but we were able to communicate more than adequately, with L. pitching in to help in the odd moments where his facility was needed. Not only was H. a pretty interesting guy, having graduated from BeiDa (Peking University) and currently planning on getting his masters in public administration in the States next year, but the teahouse itself was incredible.

My first glance at the menu was misleading–I was surprised that a cup of tea would cost 40-60 kuai anywhere in China ($5-7.50), and no food at all appeared on the menu. After a few minutes, though, I realized that not only did that cover a pot of tea with unlimited refills on hot water, plus one change of leaves, but it also included as much food as we wanted from a huge buffet in the main room, filled with fruits, nuts, meats, and various cold dishes, as well as more elaborate items from the carts being wheeled around the building, like soups, dumplings, noodles, rice, and more. In our three-and-a-half hours there, we had: peanuts, pistachios, oranges, grapes, raisins, pomelos, dragon eyes (longyanin Chinese, a fruit related to the lychee, I think, but in any case weird and delicious…small brown spheres that you peel to uncover the soft, slightly sweet, translucent flesh within…you have to watch out for the large pits in the middle, though), wolfberries, cherry tomatoes, chicken feet (no, I didn’t try them), fried noodles, fried rice, soup with dumplings, weird sweet soup that I also didn’t try, surprisingly tasty little cakes, and these are just the things I can remember and could identify. According to L., it’s popular among locals to come to a teahouse like this on weekends or holidays in the morning, order a cup of tea, and sit all day drinking and eating and practicing the finely honed art of good conversation. That’s a cultural practice I could adopt!

Posted by on December 12th, 2005

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