Saturday, February 06, 2010

Tea Shopping, then a Long Walk in the Cold

This afternoon we decided to trek out to the Maliandao tea market to stock up on some pu'erh tea. Pu'erh tea has become our favorite kind of tea, and it is distinguished by the fact that, alone among the teas, it actually improves as it ages. It is sold in both loose leaf form and in pressed disks, with the disks preferred by those who plan to store the tea for a long time. The Maliandao market, located in the west of the city, is really nothing more than a several-block-long street lined with shops selling tea leaves, teapots, and tea paraphernalia of all kinds. It's a bit overwhelming to try to shop for tea in a place like this, since you really have no way of judging by external appearance whether one shop is any better than another.

We wandered through one of the multi-stall buildings looking to see if we found a shop that looked promising, and after making a few cursory stops in a few stalls to ask about their selection of pu'erh we found one large stall with a good-size crowd of Chinese customers tasting and buying the teas. The woman who was giving one group of customers samples of tea behind a traditional tea table addressed us, asking what we were looking for, and when she heard we were looking for pu'erh tea to age she gave us what seemed to be reasonable prices for a range of teas and had us sit down to sample some.

Pu'erh disk tea comes in two forms, raw and cooked. The raw tea makes a greenish brew, while the cooked tea comes out brown, almost like a Western black tea. We started off comparing two cooked teas, one that sells for RMB 150 ($22) per 375g disk, and one that sells for RMB 260 ($38). The first one was not a bad tea at all, though it took several brews before you could taste much in the cup. (When brewed the traditional way, in small teapots that hold only enough water for four small cups at a time, pu'erh can be brewed multiple times, in some cases as many as 15-20 times, with each subsequent brew showing different taste profiles.) The RMB 260 tea tasted good much sooner, and developed a much rounder and fuller flavor, so of course we decided to buy a few disks. We also tasted a raw tea, which we enjoyed a lot as well (the raw tea and the cooked tea bear little similarity to one another).

After we agreed to buy three disks of the raw tea in addition to the three RMB 260 cooked teas, the saleslady said she wanted us to try one of her super-high quality teas. From the very first cup, this tea had a very nice flavor and very 'round' taste (I don't know how better to describe it), but for RMB 3000 ($430) per disk, it seemed way too pricey to drink!

We must have gone through about 25 cups of tea by the time we left the store, and having had only a very light lunch our heads were swimming from the caffeine. We wandered around the market a bit longer, though, looking for some small teapots to use as single-serving pots for guests. This idea sprung from a dinner we had last weekend, where our hosts served each of their guests a small pot holding whatever tea they had chosen on a small tray. After stopping in several stalls we finally found one that had nice purple clay teapots from Yixing at very reasonable prices so we got a half dozen.

At this point we figured it was time to head home so we left the market and tried to find a cab. Unfortunately, it was just about 5pm, and it had begun to snow. We were thus facing not only the change of shifts for the cab drivers, but also a mad rush of people trying to get home for dinner and others who just wanted to avoid walking in the snow. It was therefore impossible to find a cab at the market, so we started to walk to where we might find a cab more easily. But we were not the only ones with this idea, and we wound up walking more than a mile, getting progressively colder and more miserable as we did so, until we finally found ourselves on a major east-west road where we decided we'd be best off taking a bus instead of waiting for a cab. As luck would have it, we landed on a bus that headed more or less in the direction of our apartment, though it proceeded at a glacial pace and was unheated, so were only marginally warmer inside the bus than we were on the street. Once we got past the Forbidden City we decided we stood a good chance of finding a cab and hopped off the bus. Luckily it wasn't long before we found a cab and we were soon in our toasty house.