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Mysterious tea


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At a Chinese restaurant last night I had the most interesting tea. I'm used to the standard "Chinese restaurant tea" that they set out on your table in kettles, but as soon as I poured this stuff I knew it was different. The color was a very dark brown - so dark that you almost couldn't see the bottom of the (small) cup. The taste was kind of malty, almost like beer, but tea. I asked the waiter if he knew what kind of tea it was, but he had no idea.

Anyone know what this is? I'd love to try it again.

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There are two or three quite dark Chinese teas that might qualify but the most likely one is known variously as bo lai, po lai or pu-erh. It is often found in compressed 'cakes'. (Pu erh, by the way, is a prefecture of the Yunnan province.)

We love this tea as it is a great accompaniment to food and a wonderful digestive.

We have some 20 year old and 40 year old cakes that we have brought home from Shanghai and Hong Kong. Simply break a piece off put it in the teapot and add water. The colour immediately bursts out of the leaves!

It is also interesting to note that as the tea 'stews' in the pot it gets darker and darker, however, unlike other teas it does not get overly tannic. It is quite mellow.

The other candidate might be the oily chui chow tea from the northern, coastal part of Canton.

Roger McShane


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I'm used to the standard "Chinese restaurant tea" that they set out on your table in kettles, but as soon as I poured this stuff I knew it was different. The color was a very dark brown


Pu Erh is not as dark as "Teet Kwun Yum" [Cantonese] (鐵觀音)

The "standard" Chinese restaurant tea - those dropped off at your table without being asked - is most likely Jasmine tea (because it's most inexpensive).

W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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The "standard" Chinese restaurant tea - those dropped off at your table without being asked - is most likely Jasmine tea

At authentic regional-style chinese restaurants, yeah. Especially Hong-Kong style. But I've more often seen black tea or a lower grade Oolong used at American-Style chinese restaurants.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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I'm seeing lots of semi-decent dimsum houses reverting back to using real tea nowadays.. and by that I mean a pot of pu'er - possibly in addition to a simple cheap oolong as well (often the standard cheap chinese resto tea).

My bet is this tea was pu'er... malty is a good description.. So is 'tastes like mud'... but in a good way!

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Sounds like it was pu erh. I'm surprised just because I've been to this restaurant several times before (Jade Garden, for those of you in Seattle) and always been served the standard jasmine. This was also at about 11:30 last night, and we were the only people there, but when I've gone for dim sum it's always been regular "Chinese restaurant tea."

Thanks for the info, I'll try to track some pu erh down now!

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Keep in mind that it's customary for dim sum restaurants to charge for the tea. In today US prices, typically US$1.00 per person. When they see non-Asian customers come in, they assume you may not ask for specific tea so they will bring whatever they think you would accept (Jasmine, Oolong, etc.).

If the restaurant does charge for their tea, be sure you specify what tea you want (Pu Erh - that Mandarin pronounication, in Cantonese that is "Boh Lei". Dim Sum (Cantonese specialty) restaurant workers are more in tune with Cantonese than Mandarin).

Hong Kong Chinese also like to mix dried chrysanthemum flower ("Guk Fa" [Cantonese]) with "Boh Lei" tea leaves. If you want that, order it as "Guk Fa Boh Lei", or in short "Guk Boh".

Edited by hzrt8w (log)
W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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WAIT A DANGED MINUTE !! Before all you pseudo-sophisticates drag down Oolong and Jasmine teas further into the mud, let me state that oolong (and its variant, Jasmine) is a great tea. It was, and is still, the tea of choice of the vast majority of people in the old villages and it is the type of tea that allowed me to introduce many people to the great world of Chinese teas. In my experience, people generally liked oolong at first taste, unlike their reaction to po lei (puni in Toysan). I drink more of oolong than any other variety. So, ppfffttt......

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I didn't intend on dragging down oolong.... I too drink it far more frequently than anything else out there.. It's by far the most varied tea category of them all. And yes, I agree that most people who taste pu'er for the first time seem to think its quite 'muddy'. What I find interesting is that most chinese that I see tasting it for the first time appear to hate it, whereas quite a few canadians enjoyed it right away.....!? Very strange.

But when it comes to the tea most often given to non-chinese when we arrive at a chinese restaurant.. I'd say it is nearly always bottom of the barrel oolong/black.. occasionally a half-drinkable jasmine. Not nearly the same experience for the same white person walking into a similar restaurant in HK/guangdong. But in north-america, no point wasting the good stuff! :)

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