Gorgeous tea cups and saucers.When it comes to tea, I’m no stranger. I've observed tea-drinking cultures all over the world, visited famous tea-centric locales and even participated in several traditional tea ceremonies. Yet despite all of these exotic first-hand experiences, my edification and enjoyment of this versatile beverage was finally sparked a few weeks ago in a place I least expected… Queens.
Believe me, the irony is not lost on me.
This adventure began at the behest of a good friend. Tired of the same old Chinese food get-togethers we normally have, my friend invited a group of us to visit Fang Gourmet, a popular tea shop in Flushing. Upon arrival, we were fortunate to discover a happy coincidence: Fang was holding its annual month-long expo at a Sheraton nearby. Promises of great tea and beautiful china easily convinced us to pay the expo a visit.
Fang's small year-around shop.
At the expo: front tasting station and tea menu.The rectangular exhibition hall was filled with small tasting stations, elegant teaware and pouring tablets. In the front of the room sat a large board covered with the names of dozens of teas. There were the usual categories like Chinese red (what English speakers refer to as black tea) and green tea, but the board also featured more obscure styles such as cliff, Chinese black, pu'er, oolong and white tea.
As we sat down and prepared for service, I conceitedly thought that my prior experiences would make me be a cut above the average patron, that there would be no surprises. I immediately tried to steer the group towards trying a Taiwanese high-mountain oolong, a clean, mid-bodied tea with light floral notes. I also warned them against drinking pu'er, a strong tea that often tasted like herbal medicine.
However, our gracious tea pourer (the real expert), Theresa, had a different idea. She recommended that we sample something we've never seen anywhere else. Much to my chagrin, she had a point. Ultimately, we opted to try a 100 Year-Old Ancient Tree raw pu'er.
Our unexpected selection.Theresa explained that unlike the cooked pu'er that people most commonly drink (the one I dislike), the Ancient Tree pu'er is harvested and air-dried when the young leaves are still raw. Because heat will undeniably change the flavor profile of tea, air-drying will preserve the pu'er's natural flavor and aroma. Consequently, raw pu'er has a cleaner taste and is lighter on the palate as compared to dense, dark bricks of traditional cooked pu'er.
I examined the dry, brittle leaves. They were so foreign, so different from what I expected. Finding myself back to square one, my skepticism and false confidence began to seem a little foolish.
Gai wan in action.Taking out a deep ceramic cup with a lid, Theresa began to prime the tea using the gai wan method of brewing. Literally translated to “covered bowl,” gai wan uses the ceramic lid to control of the tea’s exposure to air. The pourer can call on this technique to easily optimize the temperature and strength of each steep.
Nectar of the gods!Going through the motions, the first steep acts as a preliminary cleaning – hot water is poured onto the tea then immediately drained, forcing the leaves to release and rehydrate. The second steep is the first tasting. Colored like warm amber, the tea exuded aromatics of dried hay and fresh tobacco. Slowly taking a sip, I found the raw pu'er to be slightly dry, incredibly complex and most of all, delicious. Hints of sweetness undercut the bitter overtones, building an indescribable earthiness which permeated my nose and throat.
Fully expended tea leaves. It's amazing how large they are after they're fully rehydrated.After finishing several rounds of this beautiful brew, Theresa encouraged us to smell our empty cups. To my surprise, the initial woodsy aroma had been completely erased by a deep fruit fragrance, like dates soaked in warm honey. The smell was positively addictive. I’m pretty sure I embarrassed everyone in my party because I smelled my cup for so long.
As if the raw pu'er wasn't incredible enough, Fang also serves an expo-only specialty: hardboiled eggs infused with its premium teas. Tea eggs are popular snack in many Chinese households and are usually made with a combination of soy sauce, tea and spices. Taking this a step further, Fang’s eggs are slowly braised in the soy-tea liquid for 3 days before they are ready to be eaten.
Mind-numbing deliciousness.Up close, my perfumed egg was smoky brown with a rich yellow yolk. It looked darker and drier than other preparations I've had before, a clear sign of long hours spent on the stove. Smooth, floral notes of strong tea came forth as soon as I took my first bite, overwhelming my senses before settling into a mellow hum against the savory soy sauce. Having had so many examples of oversalted, waterlogged and sulfur-flavored (from overcooking) tea eggs, I really appreciated the craftsmanship that went into creating this perfect snack.
A couple cups of tea and a hardboiled egg was all it took - I was hooked and there was no turning back. Not only did I feel humbled by the collective knowledge and expertise of Fang’s staff, I was motivated by this experience to open my mind and continue honing my palate for all types of tea.
Realizing that there was still weeks left to the expo, I knew I would be back for more... TO BE CONTINUED!
Fang Gourmet Tea
135-25 Roosevelt Avenue