UPDATE: A slightly different version of this post also appears here at Associated Content.
Despite growing up in a tea-drinking culture and being aware of its health benefits, I never really found the stuff appealing, preferring to ingest my daily dose of caffeine through a four-cups-a-day coffee habit. On the rare occasion that I am forced to drink tea, I usually opt for mint tea with heaps of sugar - picked up from my vacation in Morocco, minus the tea leaves of course. Fortunately, the opportunity to expand my knowledge of this beverage arose when I met Kiki of Tea Tour NY, and was able to attend the Japanese tea tasting event held recently at Cha-An tea house on East 9th St.
Situated unobstrusively between a parking garage and an Irish pub, I spotted Cha-An's sign and climbed up the stairs led into the low-lit, spare main room. The fifteen or so tea enthusiasts in Kiki's group were there to sample eight different varieties of Japanese and Chinese teas, including Matcha, the powdered green tea served in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Food accompaniments included some light tea-time fare, and the Cha-An Tea Set (15-grain rice and assortment of 6 mini-appetizers) for those who opted for it. We kicked things off with two varieties of Sencha tea, described by Kiki as the most refined and sophisticated of Japanese teas. Both tasted good (even from a non-expert point of view), though I preferred a stronger flavor. At the same time, we snacked on the green tea biscuits and truffles (pictured), both delicious and perfect for those with a sweet tooth, yours truly included. Sadly, only one piece of each was allotted per person - maybe next time I can devour an entire order of the truffles.
The next tea was Genmaicha, sometimes referred to as "popcorn tea" because of the roasted brown rice combined with the green tea. Genmaicha didn't go down well in our table, with most of the participants disliking the burnt flavor, but I personally thought it was fine and liked the stronger roasted flavor. In addition to the light, flaky sweet potato samosa (yet another recommended appetizer), I also started working on the cha-gayu (15 grain rice) and the other mini-dishes that came with the Cha-An tea set, including bamboo shoots, seaweed, and sumptuous chicken with eggplant. And yes, the tea just kept on coming - next in line was Hojicha, a lower grade of tea than Sencha but quite popular to drink before sleeping due to its low caffeine content.
The green tea used for Japanese tea ceremonies, Matcha, was served as well, followed by Tencha, the base tea used for making Matcha. The food pairing with the Matcha tea was sweet rice cakes with a light soybean powder coating which were yummy and ate a lot of, since the people at my table seemed full already. At this point my unsophisticated tea palate had gotten somewhat confused what with the different varieties, but I recall liking the Hojicha and Matcha, and finding the Tencha somewhat bitter. For a change of pace, the last two teas served were Chinese teas - one had a chrysanthemum flower inside the pot, the memories of the fragrant smell and sweet aftertaste still linger in my mind. The last one was jasmine tea. If it sounded like we drank a lot of tea, well...we did! Time flew by quickly, and before we knew it three hours had passed.
To cap off the fun, interesting, and educational tea tasting event, Kiki gave each of us as a parting gift an assortment of tea sachets from Harney and Sons. Everyone had a great time, and full credit goes to Kiki's efforts and passion in sharing her love of tea. As for me, while it is doubtful that I will be giving up my cups of Joe anytime soon, further experimentation beyond my tired mint tea routine is in order - a cup of Dragon Pearl Jasmine does sound enticing in the morning.