Gambling in Macau

As many of you know, Macau is now the gambling capital of the world, having taken over Las Vegas for the number one spot a few years ago and now with a very sizable lead. I recently went, but not to gamble. One benefit to a city built on gaming revenue is that there often are things that are built around it because the city wants to attract tourists who (like me) don’t gamble – make them attractive enough so that their friends who might won’t get vetoed. Among these things in Macau, aside from the great food and the historical buildings, is a beautiful art museum. There’s a current show on teawares, with half of the items from the imperial palace, and the other half from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Some of the items there are stunning. There’s a supposed 150 years old ball of tribute puerh, a 400 years old yixing pot, and my favourite, a number of tea canisters for imperial use. I took a snap.

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This isn’t even for the highest grade of tribute tea, but rather the second highest. It’s not clear what’s actually inside though.

Or, take this charming box

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Being emperor seems like a good idea.

I did end up gambling a little – not by sitting at the blackjack table, but rather, buying some tea. There are a few older teashops in Macau in the more residential neighbourhoods. I ended up at one and bought a cake of what I think is 2003 Xiaguan.

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Not too expensive at all, and not too bad. Better than risking some scary looking thing on Taobao, although admittedly some of them are cheaper and maybe even better gambles. Then again, the store was so old looking and so run down, it was half the fun of shopping there. The female proprietor (I dealt with her husband) was sleeping on the bench in the shop, but covered herself in such a way that I didn’t even notice her until she woke up halfway through our exchange, giving me a bit of a startle. Who can beat that for excitement in a tea store?

Anyway, if you ever come by Macau, I heartily recommend a visit to the museum. It’s certainly worth the trouble.

Diversity

When I spend any amount of time in Taiwan, a lot of tea is almost inevitable. This is not only because I actively seek it out, which I definitely do, but also because even at places where you aren’t looking for tea, it comes to you.

So, in the past five days, I’ve had

Early 90s Alishan
A couple aged Oriental beauties
An old baozhong
Fall 2013 Gaoshan
1950s “Paperless” Red Label
Two 2013 Fall productions Yiwu from Wisteria
2013 Dayuling
Three or four aged baozhongs, various ages
Two new baozhongs, 2013 Fall
One aged dongding, or something similar
Another 90s Alishan
A 2013 gaoshan
An aged cooked puerh
A 1980s teabag of aged oolong
A very nice aged shuixian
Two award winning, slightly aged Oriental Beauties
A 2012 Winter Gaoshan
A beautiful 2012 Beipu black tea
A perfectly stored early 90s Gaoshan
A 30 years old dongding, reroasted
A 25 years old dongding
A wet 30 years old baozhong

And this is with only one tea shopping trip (to Wenshan and a couple old haunts) – the rest were just drinking with people.

There’s also a wide variety of places that I ended up at, from teashops that have bags of tea littering the floor

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To various types of more refined establishments, one of which happened to be a Nanguan studio where we basically enjoyed a private show, with tea

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It’s hard not to be picky about your tea when you live in a place like this. It’s also a place where you can enjoy tea high or low – whether it’s a casual cup of tea from one of those chains that serve it cold with ice and shaken, or fancy with the full setup and some exotic tea with a story to match in someone’s home. There’s something for everyone here who drinks tea – if you haven’t been here (and are reading this blog), you should.

Back to the Island of Tea

How do you know you’re in the Island of Tea?

Well, not immediately, but when you check in to your hotel, and you walk around a bit, and notice that less than a block away at the street corner, there’s this

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and this

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and best of all

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Did I mention this is all on the same street corner? And of course, within the same block and half radius, there’s at least two or three more shops that only sell tea.

But still, this could be just the one district where there are a bunch of tea shops. Well…. until you get back to your room, flip on the tv, do some channel surfing, and while doing so, finding that two of the tv shopping networks sell tea (among more normal things, like women’s underwear). Yes, they sell tea via tv.

In retrospect, I really should’ve recorded it via video, but I’ll spare you the hard sell, since it involves a lot of yelling about how great a deal is. The first channel was selling puerh.

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As you can see, only 3 and half minutes remaining, so I didn’t catch the initial pitch. In any case, they were too excited about this amazing deal to actually tell me how much tea they were selling for the price they were quoting, and they had to keep reminding me how there’s only a few minutes left. From this chart, I figured the following:

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It seems like they were claiming that they had this great cake from year 2000, somehow broke it up and made them into mini-tuos – don’t ask me how, why, or whether that’s even possible. Anyway, that’s the claim, and for the low, low price of 1980 NT (about $60 USD) you can get a can of these minituos. If you buy five! You can even get a free ceramic cup! In case you want to see what cake it is:

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As the last line said, the preciousness of this tea does not need to be said.

The other channel was selling something a little more conventional

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Yes, Cuifeng, in Hehuan Mountain, winter harvest. What sounds like half a jin (300g) for 2760 NT, about 90 USD, which is really not very cheap at all. To prove that it’s really high, they of course had to bring out the maps

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Oh, and if you buy 4 jins total, they’d give you a free 4oz sampler of the same tea!

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Yes, welcome to Taiwan.

Hong Kong milk tea

While we’re on the subject of what regular people drink, it’s hard not to talk about the traditional Hong Kong milk tea.

Normally, milk tea of any sort usually consist of some milk or cream and a regularly brewed black tea of some type, maybe lipton or something along those lines. Hong Kong milk tea doesn’t follow that. It’s a very heavy blend of evaporated milk and tea. Witness the colour

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These things are usually served without any sugar. You can add your own, if you want, as sugar is usually on the table in large quantities. The way this stuff is brewed is what some people call the “stocking milk tea” – it actually is a cotton bag that looks like a long sock, with tea inside. They use two pitchers with no lids. The brewer repeatedly pour boiling water (after the first infusion, tea) back and forth between the two, while having it on the heat source so it’s kept at a very high temperature. They do this until it reaches the desired strength, which is somewhere between super strong and incredibly strong. Then, to serve, they add a few big spoonfuls of evaporated milk and then pour the tea into it with force – the “clash” between the two elements is important, and the resulting drink is a very smooth tea/milk concoction. Without the milk, the tea itself is a very bitter, sour, and strong drink that isn’t very good.

The tea they use is pretty low grade stuff, and is usually a blend of various kinds of teas. The base is this

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The right hand bag is the tea (left side is coffee). If you really want, you can buy a bag of this stuff over Taobao at the paltry price of 168 RMB for 5lbs (incidentally the Taobao page also has a couple pictures of people making this tea). They claim this is Ceylon black tea, with different grades mixed in. Oftentimes various restaurants will use these as a base and may or may not add things to the mix to create their own flavour – cooked puerh for example is sometimes used to give the tea more body.

Evaporated milk (right) is the preferred fat source in Hong Kong.

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I think in Singapore you see condensed milk instead (left), which is already sweet. The results are very different. There are also different kinds of evaporated milk. Something you run into sometimes is a particularly nasty one – basically imitation evaporated milk made using mostly vegetable fat and milk powder. It looks like the real deal, but the taste is off, and the body is thin and gross.

There are other variations on a theme, most notably the yuenyeung (pinyin: yuanyang) which is a perculiar mixture of half coffee, half tea, plus milk. I’m not a fan, but it has its devotees.

You’d think something like this should be pretty simple, but I’ve been to restaurants where the result is so horrible I’ve never gone back again. It’s really one of those drinks that can define your shop, and if your ability to make this singularly Hong Kong drink is not there, your business will suffer.

Tea and sugar

These two things do go together, sort of. Like this HK style french toast (two slices of deep fried white bread with peanut butter in the middle) and lemon tea.

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I normally don’t drink my tea with any sort of sugar, as you can probably imagine. But sometimes I’m reminded why so many people do – it really softens the tannins in the tea, and tannins in tea, when it’s strong, can be pretty nasty.

The point was driven home while I was in Turkey, which, to my surprise, is mostly a tea drinking country, despite the fame of its coffee tradition. Tea was cheaper, and drunk far more often, than coffee. The preferred tea is samovar style – super concentrated concoction watered down. This process makes sense especially in settings where you need to make a lot of tea quickly – you make as strong a brew as possible, without regard for how it tastes, and then you water it down so that it’s more palatable. That’s how tea is made in Hong Kong too in most places – the tea is made super strong, with repeated boilings of leaves with water, and then you finally water it down to the desired strength.

The watering down, however, is also where things go wrong – usually when it’s still too strong when watered down. While in Turkey I sometimes would add a cube of sugar (two always comes with your cup) because they made the tea too strong. While that can be nice, sometimes, when it’s overly strong, it can be pretty unpalatable, since the tea itself isn’t much to write home about. Adding that sugar, however, magically transforms it into a much softer, gentler drink – the tannins are gone. What was a pretty strong and pretty harsh drink is now quite nice, and with one cube, you still only barely taste the sweetness. This is especially true if you then wash it down with some baklavas – or maybe it’s the other way around.

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Cream, of course, has a similar effect, but cream influences the way tea tastes far more than sugar does. A small amount of sugar has a fairly neutral effect on the taste, but a small amount of cream is just nasty, making your tea look like sewage, while a large amount will of course change everything. I’m not about to dunk two cubes of sugar in all my tea every day, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of why most of the rest of the tea drinking public love their sugar with tea.

Turkish delight

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This particular place was in the middle of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It’s a tiny corner rented out to these tea purveyors

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Interestingly enough, there is something vaguely similar between this and the way they make tea in Hong Kong. The pots you see up top are full of concentrated tea – tea brewed very, very strong. Then, when it’s time to serve, they dilute it with water from the spigots. Three old men take care of the station and do some short deliveries, and some younger men are there for the somewhat further shops. I suspect each of these stalls have their own “region” in the bazaar – since it’s quite large – and serve their local area. The tea never comes with any milk or cream, just sugar. One cup costs a lira each (about 50 cents USD) and it’s drunk fairly quickly – the cup is small.

The best part of this is, it’s on demand.

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Throughout the bazaar are these men carrying the dishes – delivering tea (and other drinks, but tea mostly) to the various shopkeepers. There’s also food that gets sent too, and interestingly, I didn’t see much coffee sent around. Maybe coffee isn’t drunk in this sort of setting? None of the deliveries involve any sort of throwaway boxes or cups – they are all reusable, glasses or dishes. It’s quite environmental. I wish Hong Kong still does that. There’s an old world charm about this, and it’s on full display here in this historic city.

Water temperature

I was just in the US for a few days for a quick conference trip, and had to endure a few days of subpar tea. I did bring my own – some tuo that I found recently that’s rather decent. These days, nice hotels generally have better coffee makers than they did of old. Whereas the old drip coffee machines mean that your water will have to pass through not only the area where the coffee goes, but also into the glass pot where anything going in will start tasting/smelling like coffee, the new ones tend to be done with a construction such that, if you were to remove the coffee element, water will directly pour into your cup. This means, among other things, that there’s no more need to really try to eliminate the coffee smell before you can use them for tea. So thankfully, tea in my room was mercifully ok.

The same, surprisingly, cannot be said for the airport lounge. The coffee machine they have is a fully automatic thing that has a hot water dispensing tap that spits out water with the push of a button. This tap, however, is problematic – the water is too cool. I suspect it comes out at something like 80-85 degrees, and the tea simply doesn’t brew properly in those temperatures. Whereas my tea at the hotel was decent tasting – more or less like the real thing when I brew it at home – the same tea brewed at the lounge in a pre-warmed coffee mug tastes like coloured water. Worse, the tea never really expanded/broke apart. The two chunks of tea stayed quite chunky for a very long time. It was only after maybe the 5th or 6th time I added water to the cup when it finally started to come apart, and it was only then when the tea started tasting a bit stronger. In other words, the water was not hot enough.

This is why when you have a vendor telling you to brew younger puerh at anything under 100 degrees, especially if they tell you to use water much cooler, what you’re getting is a very different experience from what you would get if you go at it with hot water. The effect of cooler water is a lower extraction rate from the tea, and it also opens up the leaves slower. It means that for teas like puerh, you’re not getting everything out of it at once. This does decrease the amount of bitterness and roughness that you might get from the leaves, but it also means you’re not really tasting everything you can.

For teas that you’re trying to evaluate whether or not is age-worthy, this approach can be problematic. If you brew your tea purely for currently enjoyment, then by all means, do whatever you like. If you want it with olive oil and cinnamon, do that. However, I do find that if the roughness or the bitterness is too much, a better way of avoiding/managing them is shorten the infusion time or lower the amount of tea leaves used. Lowering temperatures often diminishes the overall experience – most importantly in the mouthfeel of the tea, making it thinner and lighter. The tea at the airport was definitely a sub-par experience – one that I think makes the tuo come off as weak and boring. I rarely use warm, rather than hot, water to brew tea, so it is good, sometimes, to be reminded of what is possible, and what others may do to a tea. This can also explain the range of experiences that you often see when talking about the same tea – the variables are too many and so comparisons are, oftentimes, at best suggestive.

Notes from Kyoto

I’ve been to Japan quite a few times by now, but there are always things that you notice on trips that you didn’t before.

1) Restaurants, at least here in Kyoto, almost all seem to serve hojicha or genmaicha as the tea of choice. Of the ones that I’ve gone to so far, that has always been the case. Some of these places are not exactly crap restaurants either, and the hojicha, as far as I can tell, are pretty decent. In one case, it was the most interesting hojicha I’ve ever had. I think sencha perhaps doesn’t go as well in many ways with a lot of cuisine, and I can sort of see why. Hojicha is a bit more neutral, and probably does a better job of making food go down easier than sencha could.

2) There really are a lot of teaware stores here. Last time I was here I ran into a teaware store near Daitoku-ji that sold me a few coasters that I think are really quite nice. This time, walking around the main shopping districts here in Kyoto, there are many more teaware shops that sell quality stuff. The prices range from reasonable to very expensive, and it all depends on what you’re going for. If you want a run of the mill kyusu, a few thousand yen will do. If you want a nice chawan from someone who’s probably a bit more than unknown, you’re going to have to shell out a few hundred thousand yen. Chawan styles that are most commonly sold here seem to be kyo-yaki that are very colourful and full of makie decorations with vibrant colours. There are your rakuyaki, of course, and there’s even a whole store devoted to just selling rakuyaki in Gion, and other styles are also sold here, but kyo-yaki is definitely the most common one. To just give you an idea:

PhotobucketThis is just another teaware store. For those who like browsing, if not buying for stuff, there’s no better place than Kyoto. You don’t find the same concentration of such stores elsewhere in Japan – you have to have a better idea of where to look.

3) I don’t drink much of Japanese tea at all, especially the green stuff, so I don’t usually shop for them. Prices, however, are expensive, and I think most of the high end stuff you’ll never see in the US. Prices on the high end seem to be somewhere in the 3000yen/100g range. Granted, this is retail in a touristy city in Kyoto, but like teas in Taiwan, China, and elsewhere, I think the outcome is the same – the best stuff stays at home.

Kitano Tenmangu and Shōkōken

We are spending a quick few days in Kyoto, and one of the nice things about Kyoto is that there’s tea pretty much literally everywhere you go. Today we spent a little time at Kitano Tenmangu, an important Shinto shrine for the god Tenjin, the deification of the person Shigawara no Michizane, but more importantly, the shrine was also the site of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s famous Grand Tea Ceremony, held in 1587 and was supposed to run for 10 days, even though it ended up only being about two days. It was, for the most part, a grand show of power and patronage by Hideyoshi, but there was some tea involved as well.

Among the collections of Kitano Tenmangu are a number of artifacts related to the tea ceremony, as well as some good looking raku ware chawans. More interestingly, there’s a painting of the scene of the Grand Tea Ceremony, which also lists the famous teaware of the time that was used during this ceremony and who was present at which particular seating. Alas, no pictures allowed in the museum.

There’s also a nice teahouse that wasn’t very obvious given the hubbub surrounding the shrine, as it was the flea market/fair day. The teahouse is called Shōkōken.

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The sign suggests that this is the original building used by Hosokawa Tadaoki, a daimyo and a student of Sen no Rikyu, during the Great Tea Ceremony. But looking around, at least on the web, it seems as though the original building was moved to Kotoin in Daitoku-ji, and the one here might then be a re-creation. Either way though, the well is the original one they used.

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The house is quite big for a teahouse – and has a nice garden.

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As with a lot of other interesting sites, however, this teahouse is not open for viewing, so all you can do is to climb over the wall – at least climb high enough to see inside. It’s bitterly cold right now, so I don’t imagine it being a very pleasant experience to drink tea in such an environment, but in warmer days, I’m sure a tea session here would be exceedingly enjoyable.