This is a bloggers worst nightmare; I’ve run out of things to write about. Oh, I haven’t run out of ideas; I’ve plenty of those. I’ve just run out of up to date research.
I write mainly about Taiwan and as I’ve noted previously, Taiwan is notoriously poor when it comes to documentation. And there is precious little secondary literature available either. When I write on tea or tea industry history there, I want to back up what I write with sources. So now I’m working on primary research and that, I am afraid, takes time.
I could, of course, write a tea review; I did that once, at the outset of this blog. However, there are others far more adept at this than I. And I don’t really like most reviews much anyway; generally, they are simply a statement of the reviewer’s personal taste preferences. The really good ones, and there are some really good ones, are few and far between.
So, this month I clean off my desk and present a few of the bits and pieces that have been contributing to the clutter; Marie Kondo would be pleased. These are pure opinion, no supporting citations, no back up. It’s a chance to opine on a number of things that have been – well – bugging the hell out of me for some many years now.
The Thirty-nine Steeps
There are few things that I find less edifying than tea reviews or comments on social media that count the number of steeps the writer was able to coax out of a given tea. Particularly galling are vendors who tout an absurd number of steeps in an effort to convince the consumer that a given tea somehow is superior. Heavens, it isn’t just galling, it is deceitful.
The correlation between quality and the number of steeps that a tea offers is tenuous at the most charitable. For example, a very, very fine tea at its best, Silver Needles ( 白毫銀針, bai hao yin zhen) is not a tea that offers up a great number of steeps. The huge attraction of a Silver Needles tea is the flavor that is derived from the many trichomes that coat the bud of the finished tea. And these trichomes “burn off” during the first, or at best second, steep. Sure, you can beat more infusions out of the tea but at what cost to enjoyment?
At the other end of the scale one might find a sheng puer. Most suggest that this is a tea that will yield good infusions over many steeps. But how many; 5, 12, 25? I suspect that the answer would be as variable as our fingerprints.
The upshot of all of this is that one or two memorable infusions are preferable to any number of mediocre ones. So how many times should one steep a tea? As many times as you still derive pleasure and no more. And don’t worry in the least if someone boasts that they get more; who cares.
The Great Wulong/Oolong Debate
OK, this is not something of earthshattering importance but it has long been a burr under my saddle. And it begins with the problem of transliterating Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet i.e. Romanization.
Romanization has been an issue since Christian missionaries began visiting China in the 16th century. More recently, the major Romanization systems have been Yale Romanization, Wade-Giles and Hanyu Pinyin, and in Taiwan add Bopomofo (don’t ask!) and a whole host of others. Since the early 1980’s, pinyin has been the accepted system used in most of the Chinese speaking world and in 2009 Taiwan also adopted pinyin as the official standard.
So, what does this have to do with tea? Using pinyin, the transliteration of 烏龍 is “wulong”. Note that I wrote the pinyin word in italics. That is because it is a Chinese word (transliterated) and I am writing in English. When writing in English, foreign words, generally, are italicized.
But what about the word “oolong”. Note that I did not italicize this word. That is because it is an English word. It is a borrowed word, to be sure, but it is as English as the word “typhoon” also borrowed from the Chinese (颱風, taifeng in pinyin) or “restaurant” borrowed from the French. “Oolong” is the word English traders, following their rendering of the Chinese sound (as opposed to a transliteration of the characters,) used to describe the type of partially oxidized tea they encountered in China. The word passed in that form into the English language and “oolong” is found in most English language dictionaries.
Which then, is correct? If you are writing a phrase or a sentence in transliterated Chinese the best practice is to use the pinyin version “wulong”. But is you are writing in English, stick with the English word, “oolong.”
Fatty, Fatty, Two by Four
One cannot deny that tea is a healthful beverage. (Well, one could but then one would be wrong.) Many companies emphasize the healthy nature of tea in their marketing efforts and the Tea Association of The USA, an industry group of largest tea companies in the United States, has been stressing the health benefits of tea for years. But the claims made by some tea vendors who are either deceitful or willfully ignorant, are simply beyond the pale. Two claims, in particular, stick in my craw (and in the craws of several other commentators on things tea): “detox” tea and “weight loss” tea.
Let’s be clear from the beginning: there is no such thing as “detox” tea. Tea does not detoxify the body; the liver and the kidneys perform that function. Drinking a lot of tea might run more fluids through the kidneys but that does not lead to detoxification, it leads to frequent visits to the bathroom. And all tea can stimulate that sort of activity.
Teas (and other substances calling themselves tea) that make an overt claim to be detoxifying usually contain Senna, an herbal product that acts as a laxative. And it can be dangerous. It irritates the stomach lining and can cause imbalances in the body’s electrolytes which, in turn, can lead to heart disorders.
“Detox” tea is a hoax and a fraud. You’d be better off buying an elixir from Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (the Wizard of Oz.)
Teas sold on claims to promote “weight loss” hold a special place in my pantheon of disgust. There is no reputable or replicable scientific study that proves that certain types of tea help one to lose weight. The claims are bogus and those making them are schemers and fraudsters.
I am sure that some of my distain derives from my great love of oolong tea, the type most often associated with weight loss claims. But more than that, I detest the advertising used to make these claims. They are sexist and, in pushing an ideal body shape (thin,) they are dangerous. It is this sort of idealizing of body shape that contributes to the dramatic rise of anorexia that is taking place in our society.
Tea, as part of a healthy lifestyle, is a good thing but in the absence of a healthy lifestyle, no amount of Wuyi yancha will lead to a trimmer you.
That’s my take. What’s your view?