By Ruth Gardner-Loew
Photography by Candice Oneida
Austinites are becoming enchanted with tea—not only for the health benefits, but for the beauty, celebration and mystery of a drink that obliges us to slow down, reflect and connect. For centuries, tea has been the drink of preference in the Far East, notably China (where it originated) and Japan, as well as in parts of Europe. Yet aside from the ubiquitous iced variety enjoyed closer to home, tea—in her multitude of exotic varieties—has been a relative shadow-dweller.
The tide appears to be turning, though, as a growing number of us become enchanted with tea, not only for the numerous purported health benefits associated with imbibing it, but for the celebration and ceremony surrounding it, and especially for the culinary versatility tea offers well beyond the cup.
Riva Chung, owner of Formosa Art & Tea in downtown Pflugerville, puts as much passion into her tea ceremony as she did when living in Taiwan, her native home. Teaching the kung fu (also known as gongfu) tea ceremony and sharing a passion for Chinese culture have helped Riva expand the business from the occasional drop-in shopper to a community of ardent tea lovers.
“Some of them have become friends,” Riva says. “They come in on a regular basis, show up for the big monthly events.”
To begin the ceremony, Riva first gives each participant two delicate porcelain cups—a tall, thin “aroma cup” for smelling, and a shorter one for tasting. Although any good loose-leaf tea can be used, for this particular ceremony Riva chooses a hybrid oolong (twenty years in the making) developed by Taiwanese researchers that possesses natural milk and sugar cane flavor in the tea leaf itself.
Adding boiling water to a small clay teapot containing the tea leaves, Riva immediately fills each aroma cup with the brew and covers it with the inverted wider tasting cup. Holding the cups together tightly, she quickly flips both upside down with one swift movement, then lifts the now-empty aroma cup and deeply inhales the fragrance left there.
“Perfect. Now you try it,” she says, as subtle hints of milk and sugar cane fill the room.
This first pouring is merely the “warm-up tea” for the cups, and used to cleanse palates. Four to five successive brews—adding 15 to 20 seconds of steeping each time—yield even more complexities and flavors to each cup of tea.
“Kung fu tea preparation looks easy,” says Riva, “but, like the martial art itself, first the master teaches you, then you must practice it over and over again in order to attain perfection. I’m still learning, but if a simple tea leaf can produce such complex aromas, and such rich variety in taste, there must be a God.”
That complexity and variety can also prove daunting. When Allen Cline, owner of Jade Leaves Tea House, first opened the restaurant, he gave lengthy talks on tea that often overwhelmed his clients. Now, using a more basic Tea 101 approach, he lets the tasting be the teacher.
“I wanted to provide a true Chinese teahouse experience,” he says, “and that means a calm place, a slow pace where you can sit back, relax, eat and enjoy.”
Allen calls his kung fu tea ceremony a “nurturing journey,” because participants not only experience the tea preparation, but also different teas in succession that were specifically chosen for how they relate to each other in character and taste.
Beginning with a white or yellow tea to open the palate, Allen then moves to a fuller-flavored green tea for balance. The next could be a lightly fermented oolong and then perhaps a big red rooibos—all served while participants hear the story behind each tea, and taste specially prepared foods that pair well with each.
Many of Allen’s recipes not only complement the tea, but actually include it, like green tea crêpes and vegan green tea scramble (click here for the recipe), and baked goods like Turkish tea cake, tsampa bars with Tibetan barley tea, and chai snaps.
Allen notes that many Americans are used to eating quickly, but he’s seeing more and more people beginning to understand the importance of slowing down, easing the stress and giving the body a real break.
Amy March and Emily Morrison, owners of The Steeping Room at The Domain, couldn’t agree more, and they’ve taken it one step further. Their niche revolves around a modern, tranquil space paired with seasonal menus and great-tasting teas from around the world—both in the cup and on the plate. Notable dishes include decadent chai-spiced French toast (see recipe on edibleaustin.com), lapsang souchong chicken salad and jasmine gravlax.
“Critics chided us for deciding to open a tea room in The Domain,” says Amy, who’s in charge of the kitchen. Two years later, the wisdom of their choice is clear.
“Within a few months after opening, it was evident that we needed more seats,” Amy says. “I only regret that we didn’t foresee the need for creating a larger space in our original layout.”
Amy, who has traveled abroad extensively and lived in extremely tea-centric England, says that Austin is just beginning to be recognized as a tea destination, but it makes sense.
“I think the environment, and the culture that stems from the environment—the landscape, the rolling hills and the natural beauty of Austin—inspire people to want to be awake and alive and embrace wellness,” she says.
For similar reasons Jeffrey Lorien and Candice Oneida knew Austin was the perfect place to open Zhi Tea—a combination storefront, workspace and gallery. In one short year they’ve already outgrown their original location and moved to a bigger one in East Austin.
Like many local tea sellers, Jeffrey proudly notes that their dedication and mission run deeper than simply selling and promoting the tradition of tea, but also in fostering the community in which tea is shared—evident in how Zhi Tea’s workspace is used.
Last December, Zhi Tea hosted the Austin Tea Party during Edible Austin’s Eat Local Week, where tea makers and shakers came together for an afternoon of tasting and mingling, and each Friday is “Brown Bag Lunch Time,” where employees of nearby businesses show up with their own lunches and Zhi Tea provides free pots of tea and a tea presentation of their choice. One Saturday a month, a faithful group of tea lovers gets together at the gallery for a sort of tea potluck, to share dishes they’ve concocted using various teas—like the coconut chai chicken created by Ecstatic Cuisine chef Jesse Bloom.
Aswini Sivaswamy of Sesa Tea also includes the communal aspect of tea in her overall business plan. Born in India, where tea drinking is a natural part of daily living, Aswini has been an Austinite since the age of four, yet has remained close to her cultural roots. She sells her organic teas and handcrafted herbal blends—imbued with Ayurvedic properties—at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market, and makes it her job to counsel customers as to the teas best suited for their specific needs.
Aswini says that talking face-to-face with customers also gives her the opportunity to share recipe ideas, like her lauded chai-spiced buttermilk pancakes, but that the main focus of her business will always be on teaching wellness and encouraging an awareness of self and surroundings—all part of the new art of slowing down.