On Tea

Balance is harmony. To achieve said harmony, we strive towards balance. “Space” directly influences balance, and thus harmony. Consequently, places we correlate with “space” determines the sort of balance and harmony we yearn for. And need. While we easily connect balance with “time” – as life is often understood linearly, on a spectrum of beginning to end – balance is an exquisite theme in discussing food culture.

The Orients have long adhered to this sense of balance in their cuisine. The traditional form of bibimbap in Korea has varying colors of green, yellow, red and white. Spinach, sprouts, zucchini, beef, and burning red gochoojang. Ancient Koreans had “harmony” in mind, not only in preparing a single bibimbap dish, but also in organizing an entire meal (usually all at once at the table), an articulate interaction between the land and the sea, spicy, sweet, savory. Even the common burger (although I must say, no burger is “common,” and if one is consuming a burger that ought to be denoted as “common,” that should be a crime) is a masterful resemblance of balance. Each layer – the lettuce, tomato, onions, patty, cheese, bacon – is carefully orchestrated to achieve maximum texture and flavor on the first bite. Even when bacon grease is dripping down the sides of your hands, and your face is properly latched upon the burger, you cannot deny the sense of harmony imparted by this ingenious creation.

Previously, I have written that “coffee signifies a sense of place.” Coffee is rarely just about the beverage itself; we pay for the place in which we consume it, for the ambiance, the company, and the nostalgia associated with every cup. Coffee’s signification of “place” is mostly extrinsic, based on the outward surroundings of the experience. In particular, music determines the taste of coffee, the entire experience. Daft Punk will most certainly act as a different syrup than Ella Fitzgerald. Both magnificent, just varying. And yes, coffee is also intrinsic, as each sip miraculously transports us to sunny Corinth or rainy Seattle. While we drink tea in existential places, be it in a traditional garden in the heart of Kyoto, in the comfort of our sunny porch, or God forbid, at a Starbucks, the actual place takes second place to the inward reflection the tea requires. In other words, tea’s signification of place is “within.” If coffee signifies extrinsic energy, a heightened pace, a jolt of caffeine running through the veins, tingling one’s fingertips, tea signifies inner energy and fortitude. In a way, tea is the perfect compliment to coffee, a yin to its yang, harnessing similar experiences associated with place, yet exponentially different in terms of its trajectory. In versus out.

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Tea is about rhythm, about finding your pulse and feeling it slow down. It is comparable to diving into an eight-feet deep pool as a child, reaching the pale blue bottom, and just sitting there, staring out into the blurry shapes and figures dancing in the bent August light. Down there, everything is dream-like and eerily quiet, just the constant thud of your own heart beating. At a time when the world seems to be spinning at uncontrollable tempos, tea reminds you of the value of stopping. Revisiting the place of an inner self cannot be accomplished at Mach speeds; it must be done at the tempo of the blooming cherry blossoms of the spring, never hurried, at its own pace. Blossoms possess their own inner rhythm. Slow as they may seem, they remain steadfast to the pace of time, of nature, not under any sort of pressure to bloom early or late. Just at the right time. Not even to please early-coming tourists, by the flock. Walking beneath the cherry blossoms after the sun sets seems counter intuitive, as evidence by the hoards of eager tourists raiding the grounds with their cameras throughout the day under the sun. Contrary to this point-and-shoot mentality, cherry blossoms are not meant to be enjoyed in a stampede. As the ancient Japanese poets and monks did centuries ago, one is meant to stand before the blooming flowers, watch them intently, without touching, without forcing, as if the flowers have something to say. Sakura!

The same goes for brewing and enjoying tea. The tempo slows but never comes to a complete halt. Never pour boiling water directly over the tea leaves. To extract optimal flavor and aroma, the water temperature should be slightly below boiling point, like brewing coffee. Also like coffee, sipping burning hot tea has no flavor; it just tastes “hot.” One should enjoy tea after it cools a bit to depict all the complex layers of flavor. The brewing time varies for different teas, but three to five minutes for most loose leaf teas is the norm. This moment is the reincarnation of sanctity. All noise and action comes to a halt. The incessant tweeting stops, the recurring Sports Center broadcast is no more, no humming of the radio, phones, tablets, computers, everything halts. Perhaps, at that moment, the only sound one hears is that of green tea leaves soaking and gently dancing in their warm bath. Their movement, while almost impossible to detect, seems to muster up a current in the pot, ever so slowly but surely. A Japanese tea ceremony this may not be, but sublime tranquility is enough to impart the spirit of Kyoto and other tea hubs.

It is said that tea was first enjoyed by the Chinese as medicine, believing that it relaxed the nerves, strengthened sight, calmed the soul, and fortified the will. As Buddhist hermits drank tea to help with exhaustion, tea was eventually tagged as a religious tea with accompanying rituals and ceremonies. When the Chinese brought Buddhism to Japan, tea also came along. It was a sacred experience, brewing and drinking that tea. Enjoyed in small rooms in isolated gardens, rules were made about how the tea room should be decorated, how the garden should look, and how the tea should be brewed. Even the content of the conversation around the tea table was restricted – a beverage so sanctified and ritualized. The essence of tea need not be laden with such religious subtleties; however, the process of sorting the best of the dried leaves, capturing the water at its optimal temperature, timing the brew just right, and serving the tea in the right cup (think porcelain) is sacred enough for the gas pedal loving modern world. Green tea may well cleanse our biological system. It most certainly cleanses our daily routines. As coffee “fortifies the will” with sheer energy, kinetic in many ways, tea does so with controlled strength, potential energy. With every sip, all else blurs, leaving just you. Even the tea is not the focal point, as its existence is to lift its drinker, and thereafter dissipate into the spring winds like the gentle sakura.

Tea follows the rhythm of the blossoms.

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5 comments
  1. I really enjoyed the way you described coffee and place, slowing down and tea. I’ve been thinking about similar things this past week!
    Cheers,
    Rachelle

    • Thank you for reading, glad you liked it. You may also like an older post, On Coffee.

  2. Great post. I’ve just recently gotten into loose leaf teas. Where do you buy yours? Local, or online?

    • Thanks! I use different channels – sometimes the local Whole Foods, sometimes online. The tea pictured in this piece was actually from my mom, a Korean brand selling mostly green tea products.

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