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The Autumn Fire Dragon in Shanghai.

The Autumn Fire Dragon in Shanghai.

Maybe it’s because my wife’s family is from Western Massachusetts. Perhaps it’s good luck or a gravitational pull that is mysterious and karmic. But we’ve now been pulled three times to Asia in the autumn. Be it China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, it’s a mirror image of my wife’s New England fascination with changing light and color this time of year. And now with the last final days of autumn leading into winter, we’ve arrived at the month of Wintersweet Tea.

I like epiphanies. Mine with tea happened in Taipei.

De Ye Cha Chi Tea House in Taipei.

De Ye Cha Chi Tea House in Taipei.

We found out about this little place from a Taipei tips article in the New York Times. Located off the MRT Shandao Station, the address is at 3-1 Zhen Jiang St. Everything’s in Chinese, so good luck. Not to worry – go behind the major hotel on Shandao and this gem is nestled right behind.

I fell in love with Taipei and Taiwan. The street food, the tea, the natural beauty, the people. Don’t let appearances fool you. Absorbing everybody from the mainland escaping Mao was not easy. Taipei is a gem with an incredible cultural mix. But De Ye Cha Chi changed my life.

Sun Moon Lake at dawn, a few hours from Taipei.

Sun Moon Lake at dawn, a few hours from Taipei.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that my family had a restaurant and my mom and her sisters served every major movie star during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Marilyn Monroe liked my Aunt Lorraine, who also remembers Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney flipping mashed potatoes on to the ceiling at Armstrong Schroeder’s at 2 AM (if you know Armstrong Schroeder’s you really know Hollywood history. If not, read the thank you on Kate Mantillini’s menu). My mom had a Baked Alaska at Chasen’s slide off a tray onto the lap of James Stewart, who was a mensch about it. Or my Aunt Phyllis, who attested to the fact that Tallulah Bankhead would have dinner without her panties on……

So not only did I grow up learning how to cook but also how to set a table and serve people from my mom and her sisters (as in boning out a trout in front of Gregory Peck). This background is important to understand where I’m going with the De Ye Cha Chi servers.

I can hear my mom and my Aunt Phyllis and Aunt Lorraine cheering from Heaven…

Jan and I found De Ye Cha Chi, close to the Shandao Temple and Shandao MRT stop, via the New York Times. Seemed like a good idea to take their advice for a Taipei tea house.  We’d been up to the tea farms in the hills above Taipei earlier in the week, but more on that later in another post.

Taipei from the tea hills surrounding the city.

Taipei from the tea hills surrounding the city.

Our first experience was fantastic. We learned of tea in a different way from our earlier experiences in Japan. Taipei tea at De Ye Cha Chi was making no excuses. They were proud of doing this very Old School. Slow. Measured. One step at a time. Slower.

As musicians we understand practicing over and over again. We aren’t indifferent to tradition and were happy to have a patient server explain her tradition of tea. It was obvious she was on a mission to teach us.

Our first server at De Ye Cha Chi.

Our first server at De Ye Cha Chi.

You want attention to detail? THIS story is attention to detail…

Fast forward our first visit to De Ye Cha Chi by about ten days. In the interim we’d driven south to Tainan, Kenting National Park, Hualien and Taroko Gorge. We were faced with our last day in Taipei before heading home.  Jan and I thought returning to  De Ye Cha Chi was a good idea. We could buy some tea and bring it home to enjoy.

Tea and tea sets at De Ye Cha Chi.

Tea and tea sets at De Ye Cha Chi in Taipei.

When we are seated, our second server, pictured below, greets us.

Jan with our second server at De Ya Cha Chi.

Jan with our second server at De Ya Cha Chi.

I kid you not, she recites EXACTLY what we had ordered ten days earlier. Our jaws dropped in amazement. This second server had not even seen us during our first visit. Or more accurately we’d not seen her. The staff had no way of knowing we would ever return. We’re tourists for crying out loud!

I don’t need the recent PISA test scores to know that the best students on Planet Earth are in Asia…

There is a Zen saying about how you do anything is how you do everything. De Ye Cha Chi tops my list as an example of an engaged staff on a mission working together. Business guru Peter Drucker was right: You can’t sell what you don’t know. Which means product AND customer.

I want to go all gong fu on you and put Asia into a cup, courtesy of De Ye Cha Chi in Taipei. Be patient and read on.

Tea set at De Ye Cha Chi.

Tea set at De Ye Cha Chi.

Let’s start on your left. The first vessel holds the tea leaves. The large white pot behind it holds discarded tea leaves from the tea pot in the center. The pot is on a basin with a strainer allowing water to drain from the pitcher on the right. Water is poured directly over the entire tea pot. This warms the pot and symbolizes long life and prosperity. The pitcher to the right of the tea pot receives the tea from the central pot. In front of you are two white cups, one tall the other low. The tall cup receives each pour of tea, which is then poured into the other low white cup. You use the tall cup  to smell the aroma of the tea leaves. You don’t drink from the taller white cup. You finally drink your tea from the low white cup. A huge tea kettle is warming off of the picture to your left, so that’s the water source.

Each tea service has about five pours of tea after the initial warm rinse. There is a first rinse of the tea leaves that is not drunk. It’s a prelude waking the tea leaves up from sleep. Then you pour all that water over the tea pot, symbolically representing long life.

After this prelude for the tea, there are with some teas at least five sequential pours. Times for steeping decline in time sequence. There is a meter to tea, very resonant for me as a musician. All of this makes your tasting gong fu or complicated. Life has no better metaphor. And unlike wine or spirits, the health benefits are exceptional and your waistline won’t expand.

What opened for me in Taipei at De Ye Cha Chi was the experience of smelling the change of each tea pour into the tall white cup. The first pour is youthful. The second pour grows up a little more and goes to college. On the third pour more flavors emerge, say with a high mountain tea you get closer and closer to the pine trees, the fourth pour reaches autumn and the forest floor, and by the last pour you’ve gained wisdom as every smell becomes mingled on top of a mountain of memory. A symbolic veneration of ancestors.

Life made more sense to me after De Ye Cha Chi.

With my De Ye Cha Chi tea teacher in Taipei.

With my De Ye Cha Chi tea teacher in Taipei.

Unlike wine, the change of aroma with each tea pour is dramatically different, and more pronounced than with the West’s Great Grape contribution to gastronomy. Tea is a wonderful way to experience the stages of life. Having tea like this ceremony in Taipei is not practical. But we all need to end the monkey mind world of high voltage non stop energy and calmly reflect. Jan and I have a tea ceremony now once a week to just stop, maybe not to smell the roses, but to smell the tea leaves.

Keep on reading my posts as the next stop on my tea travels will be Hong Kong. It’s a city that’s a choice, not an echo, of other cities on the globe.

The Star Ferry in Hong Kong.

The Star Ferry in Hong Kong.

What could be better than Chinese tea masters working with, heaven forbid, Japanese tea masters?

Welcome to Ming Cha Tea. Trip Advisor recommends a visit to their shop as the Number One thing-to-do in Hong Kong.

Trip Advisory has this one nailed.

Jan and me with Tomoko Ota and Vivian Mak of Ming Cha Tea in Hong Kong.

Jan and me with Tomoko Ota and Vivian Mak of Ming Cha Tea in Hong Kong.

My parents demanded I be thorough. Working in their restaurant as a kid was no laughing matter. Screwing up was not an option and you had better be slow to complain. Common sense was their version of Google. And I can still hear our dishwasher from Hong Kong, Harry Woo, laughing as I tried to pronounce Cantonese as he pointed to characters in a letter he was sending home. And I can still see his happy Buddha smile.

I’ll begin a deeper exposition of the LA International New Music Festival and its interaction with Asia (and Latin America) after the holidays. You can’t be indifferent to tradition and understand The Other Side of the World. And a simple description of WHY? is complicated: our music in the West has turned to Asia as much as they’ve turned to us. And we don’t really know each other that well. More on this later….

I remember my friend from Shanghai, composer Joan Huang, telling me how bewildered she was when first in LA. She heard the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” and thought “These people are CRAZY! What can that mean????”

The West and the East are figuring each other out in the 21st century. Let’s hope it’s for the good. At least let’s hope it’s good for business, which will keep families together and soldiers at home. Classical music is playing a huge role in this discussion.

And that’s a good thing.

Enjoy December, the month of Wintersweet Tea.

Best, best, best,

Jeff