I came to Chengdu prepared to learn more about pandas, Sichuanese peppercorns, and all the delicious Sichuanese cuisine, but what I was not prepared for was to find out that Sichuan is arguably the birthplace of tea. On our first day, everywhere we went had endless tea houses, some more casual, some more upscale, and every store seemed to have an offering for free tea that you could taste… not necessarily just to buy, but just to refresh yourself. I was intrigued by this, and so I did a quick online search for tea in Sichuan, which was when I learned about Sichuanese tea. Sichuan is particularly famous for its green tea, from zhu ye qing (“bamboo shoot” green tea that blooms into what appears to be tiny bamboo shoots when steeped in hot water), to bi tan piao xue, or Emei Mountain flower tea made with high quality green tea and jasmine flowers. The tea is not only high quality in taste, but when steeped in hot water, appears like white snow floating atop a green lake; the jasmine flowers float to the top of the cup.
We did a few tea tastings during our time in China, and did one particularly beautiful one in Chengdu at what Chris calls the “Prada of teas” at Zhu Ye Qing. They did a thorough tasting with us, explaining all the flavor notes, how the tea is harvested, what makes their tea so high quality and special, and I was really blown away by it. I was saddened by the fact that the person helping us told us that Sichuanese tea, although being of exceptionally high quality given tea’s origin here, is not that well-respected in China, except with major tea fanatics, because 1) Sichuan does not have the glamour and glitz of being in a coastal area the way Hangzhou’s Longjing green tea is, or Fujian’s oolong teas are, and 2) because those are coastal areas, they are more interested in investing in marketing that makes their teas more widely known and thus respected. In Sichuan, they don’t really care as much about capitalism and making money. If people try it and like it, they can buy it. If they don’t, the Sichuanese don’t really care. But if they do like it, they are happy to sell it to them so that they can enjoy a quality product that the sellers are proud of selling and producing.
I never thought I’d spend this much on tea, but I was really pleased with all the knowledge that the shop assistant gave me, as well as not only tasting but actually seeing these teas come to life. Before this trip, I’d never thought much about steeping tea in a glass vessel and thought that glass tea pots were just a trendy hipster thing. But to see beautiful tea leaves steeped when you are brewing a tea that is as aesthetically gorgeous as these ones were is not really trendy or hipster or anything like that here in Sichuan. This is what you should be doing to fully appreciate your tea all around. If you were brewing an Assam or a Nilgiri or the average green tea, looking at it while steeping would not be that exciting; but to brew a tea like the bamboo shoot zhu ye qing or this bi tan piao xue in a ceramic or metal tea pot would be a complete shame and waste. These leaves truly do “bloom” right in front of your eyes, and it was such a beautiful sight.
This was really an eye-opening experience. Sichuanese tea is a whole new world to me, and now that I’ve been exposed, I’m a little addicted. I already knew I loved the little snacks and the spicy and sweet noodles and the spices, but the tea just really completes the culinary experience for me here.