I was in Philly the past weekend for a conference, and for much of the time I was there I spent in the hotel or in Chinatown, which was right next to it. Normally I’d bring my own tea to things like this, so I don’t have to endure bad teabags with coffee-flavoured water (when will these places ever learn????). However….. I forgot to bring my own stash this time.
So…. I was out of tea, and I don’t want to drink that nasty, nasty stuff brewed with coffee water. What do I do?
Many of you live near a Chinatown or another, and no doubt some have visited these institutions before. I still remember when I lived near Cleveland that they had nothing but Foojoy tea and a few other horrible abominations that could pass for “tea”, but at the same time, I also remember that the first revelation I had in tea came from a longjing that I bought at the now defunct Great Wall in NYC’s Chinatown.
I ducked into an underground market in Philly’s Chinatown, and walked into their tea aisle. It’s quite well stocked.
It’s actually extremely difficult to buy any of this stuff with any confidence, because you know that for the most part, they’re not particularly great, and since there’s no way for you to look at the leaves or taste it first, you’re really taking a gamble. Over the years the type of tea that they sell have been upgraded, at least in terms of packaging. Instead of the ugly little tins for the old style, CNNP brands, now you have all kinds of Taiwanese and Mainland producers who vie for your attention.
I was, at first, attracted to a tin of Keemun, thinking that you can hardly go wrong — even the worst Keemun can be pretty ok, with inferior water and what not. Then, however, I chanced upon a tin of puerh — specifically, one that is labeled “Nuoshan pu’er cha”. Nuo, in this case, is Nannuo’s nuo. It reminded me of the Nor-sun that I bought a few years ago in Columbus and which turned out to be quite all right. I took a chance and bought this, $3.98 a tin tea.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the tin is that it smells — it has this odd medicinal smell that is somehow slightly citrus like. The leaves are very broken, as you can see. When I tried it out, it brewed a dark, dark liquor. It does not, however, have that fishy, pondy cooked tea taste, but it’s definitely cooked (mostly, anyway). Once you get rid of that odd citrus smell, which disappears quite quickly, the tea is remarkably decent. At the very least, it probably beats all these loose puerh that online stores like Adagio sell at a much higher price.
I tried it again yesterday, now that I’m back at home. You can taste the odd citrus flavour the first infusion or two, and then it goes away. The tea is soft and smooth, and actually delivers that nice, plummy taste in the later infusions when brewed longer. Definitely a winner for $3.98.
Moral of the story? Try your local Chinatown, if there’s a sizable one next to you. You never know what you might find.