Life without tea is unthinkable.
It wakes us up, keeps us wet, graces the special reflective time we set aside each afternoon.
It makes life rich, it’s one of the very good things we have both sense and money to buy.
But we do lots else besides tea.
So slowly slowly we’ve stripped it down, searching for the most tea for the least work.
And like with our music, gardening, cooking, and writing, less turned out to be more. Streamlined without baggage, tea grew.
Which is not to say we’ve sanded it down to a flat boring sameness. Our tea life is still plenty complicated. Every day we drink three totally different teas, each with a different preparation, taste, time and place in our life.
Starting in the morning with chai…..
still half asleep,
a sweet hot cup floats before my eyes.
“Without chai, we will die”
to help us out of bed.
Milk rich, sweet with sugar, an Indian Chai wala would call what we make “Especial Chai” and back in the ’90s would have charged an extra rupee, an extra two cents.
Still even for his most expensive brew he’d use skim milk, so we do too, in India full fat’s only for the calf.
Also in the spirit of the wala who turns dust or cheap leaf tea into fine chai, we now make our elixir with not very expensive tea bags.
A straight forward solution which took years to find.
Just back from India, scary broke, first we tried the very cheapest tea bags. Then when they didn’t work, we leapt to the other extreme, made what turned out to be a long detour through gourmet loose black tea.
Good chai was that important to us, a way of keeping our precious India alive in the confusing West.
But without spending more than we could afford, we never found anything that quite satisfied us, we were always scouring the web for something new.
Eventually we gave up on loose tea and began experimenting with slightly pricier tea bags. For a while we were happy with Bigelow. These past 10 years it’s been Tetley British Blend, bought on sale at not much more than three bucks for 80 extra-large round bags.
The Tetley’s been way more consistent than any gourmet leaves we bought on the web, too bad it won’t stay good forever. No brand does, bread, yogurt, skin cream, sweat pants, word processors…. for a while they’re fine, then something happens. (Which is why you’d better check for yourself before taking our advice about tea. Some stuff may no longer be so good or cheap as when we last revised this page.)
Still unlikely we’ll go back to the fancy stuff, tea bags keep things easy, a big plus for something we do every morning before we’ve had our chai.
In a 3-quart pot,
bring 2 mugs of water to a rolling boil,
drop in four Tetley bags,
cover, count to 100, then turn off.
Thirty minutes later,
count in 12 small Indian spoons of white sugar,
Add 2 mugs of skim milk,
cover, bring it back to a boil.
For taste we let it froth up 30-60 seconds, furious mad boiling melds the ingredients together into chai, helps make it different from black tea with milk and sugar.
The last step is with a sturdy spoon to scoop the bags out into a little tea strainer and squeeze every bit of flavor back into the pot. (Since one bent we save our delicate Indian spoons for measuring. They’re about two thirds the size of a standard teaspoon.)
Putting in 2 mugs of water and 2 of milk means we each end up with two full servings. Seconds sit happy in the pot until reheated.
And there you have it, our stripped down chai.
We no longer even use cardamon. Grinding a pod, cleaning the mortar and pestle, straining each cup separately, was too much bother.
Besides adding cardamon, ginger, cloves, peppercorns, or any spice overwhelms the lovely taste of tea. The subtlety is lost, like when a composer writes for too many violins or a cook stuffs a single dish with cheese, salt, meat, onions, mushrooms, garlic, ginger, pepper…
For the same reason we use white sugar. Brown’s awesome in cookies, a tiny spoon of honey is ecstasy, but put either in chai and it hides the tea flavor.
Still though our chai is now quite basic, an old fashioned Indian would condemn the two cups we drink each morning as materialistic, poor taste, and bad for health. At most he’d slowly sip a tiny glass or terra cotta cup.
What to do, we’re greedy modern humans.
At least our mugs are smaller than most new ones. Bought 21 years ago at a yard sale, they’re the best we’ve ever found. After drinking from them so many mornings in so many different places, they’ve become precious.
This psychic familiarity is part of the magic. When we sit down alone together in our immaculately clean space where every rug, hanging, object, and instrument is rich with good associations, when warm in our hands we take that first sip of chai from our old friend cups, well then everything’s the way it should be, the day’s off to a very good start.
Ahh! That first sip of chai. We may live.
Before our chai mugs dry, they’re full again with herb tea. All day we carry trays of it upstairs, our last mugs are with dinner.
Kitchen, family, office, dining, living rooms, next to us it’s always there.
But though ubiquitous there’s nothing fancy or complicated about our current herb brew.
Four rounded small spoons of dried peppermint leaves tossed into a 4-quart pot of boiling water, turn off, steep sitting on the stove for the rest of the day, as needed pour out through a strainer balanced on top of a mug. When it’s cold, nuke the mug.
That’s it. Couldn’t be much more simple.
Still like with chai, it took years to find this comfortable easy groove.
Recently back from India, desperate to recover our health, at first we bought into the idea of herb tea as medicine not just drink.
Though it was extra trouble, each morning for 30 minutes we’d boil some licorice root (said to be good for stress and stomach problems) before throwing in peppermint and steeping.
And for our livers, afternoons we took the time to grind and boil milk thistle before adding Japanese roasted barley.
Then Fukushima melted down. Worried about the safety of food grown in Japan, we briefly shifted to brewing our thistle with Indian Cota tea. But the only local place which carried it was creepy and on the web it was expensive.
So for a while we drank milk thistle, lemon grass, chamomile….
Still ultimately all these complicated teas proved too much trouble for something we drink so much of. And without them our innards and our psyches seem to be doing just fine.
More important, humble peppermint tastes every bit as good as any of our previous complicated teas.
As the hours go by it grows darker and stronger, if we stretch it with more boiling water it gets a little thin, either way it’s super. And it’s infinite, always available, any time we need it a cup of something warm and delicious, a soothing sip of totally easy luxury.
It’s one of the simple good things in life.
On the web a pound of organic peppermint from Starwest Botanicals or Frontier (we go back and forth) works out to less than 4 cents per cup.
A Near Perfect Pot
Our green tea pot is beyond elegant. Graceful rounded thin glass, nearly invisible, it’s not quite of this world. Glowing like a magic jewel, a mysterious globe of rich brown green tea, late afternoon when Mitsuko finally pours from it, our work is done, it’s time to read, stretch, play music, hang out, to ease our way towards evening.
Its clever well shaped spout doesn’t drip, it has a huge extra fine mesh basket, filled twice it brews two and a half small cups for each of us.
To be sure it’s quite fragile, at first to wash it was nerve wracking, but that’s ok, even correct, green tea’s about paying attention, four years now and I’m proud to say I haven’t broken it.
And sometimes tea leaves do get stuck under the basket’s metal rim.
Still it’s close to perfect, in some ways even cooler than our previous tiny terracotta pot.
We’d loved that one. It poured cleanly with just a twist of the wrist. Its removable spout screen worked better than any basket, gave tea leaves the whole pot in which to float and swell.
Though it looked delicate, before it started to crack it served us well for fourteen years. If we’d been in Japan at the right temple bazaar at the right time of year, we’d have bought another in a flash.
However we were in Massachusetts, our new pot would have to come from the web.
And it had to have either spout screen or basket. Using a tea strainer for herb tea worked only because we poured it in the kitchen. Mitsuko serves our second cups of green tea upstairs where we drink them, a separate strainer was too clunky.
Since nothing online came with a spout screen, that was out. And the baskets we saw first were all too small to let tea leaves swim, while the pots themselves were ugly, clunky, pretentious, and expensive.
So we were ecstatic to finally find our 450 ml Hario for just 15 bucks. Spending more might have given us bragging rights about our tea service, still it couldn’t possibly have bought us a more beautiful or better functioning pot.
Before Mitsuko if it wasn’t some hippie herb brew, for me tea was usually black, sweet, and milky.
Even in Afghanistan where I sometimes ordered a tiny pot of green tea, without thinking I’d spoon in sugar.
Now thanks to her I’ve learned to love green tea, the astringence of unsweetened Sencha, the fruity taste of Young Hyson, the soothing broth of Genmaicha, they’re all deep cool. And precisely because these differences are subtle, becoming aware of them has been a pure good, an elegant inexpensive enrichment of my life.
For me too green tea has become a sacrament. It’s a sign work is done, that day is slowing towards its comfortable end. Late each afternoon we sit across from each other on Tibetan rugs, watching it steep in our wonderful Hario pot. With each sip, each bite of home baked applesauce bread, the jangle, the insanity out there in the world, grows more distant.
Mitsuko brews all our different green teas more or less the same way.
To cleanse the Hario she first pours in boiling water and with her fingers on the lid swishes it around and dumps it out. I used to think this was to warm the pot but when I asked her she said no, it’s just what Japanese housewives do, tea masters teach, and more important for her it was the practice of a poor barely literate tea aficionado she knew in Taiwan, a dude enshrined in her memory as the perfect exemplar of the true tea lover.
So though she’s not sure this purification is really necessary, she wouldn’t dream of brewing a pot without it. It may be superstition, still it’s another brick in our protective wall of ritual and faith.
Once properly cleansed, Mitsuko fills the basket with two to four small spoonfuls of dry green tea. Their exact number and fullness depends on the type of tea and her gut feeling for how much caffeine the afternoon requires. After a hard day she’s more generous.
Then she pours in boiled water. Through the thin glass walls of our Hario she watches the brew darken until it looks ready, if we’re seriously in need of a pickup she lets it steep a little longer. To make double sure she pours an inch into one of our cups and carefully examines the color.
That the glaze inside these cups is plain white makes a final judgment about strength easier, later as we sip it lets us better appreciate the tea’s rich glow.
Outside they’re white with a delicate blue bamboo pattern. As a grace note, inside and reaching a half inch down from the rim, fans of tiny blue bamboo leaves act as rulers, help Mitsuko serve exactly the right amount of tea. Cheap, tough, stackable, and very light, in 21 years of searching we’ve never found others as good.
When the tea’s ready she fills two cups, puts them on a tray for me to carry, tops off the pot with more boiled water, and with it follows me upstairs. At this point the leaves have lost some potency, but since this second pot sits brewing the whole time we’re drinking our first cups, the tea they make is still plenty strong enough. If this later brew doesn’t taste exactly the same, that’s fine with us.
By pouring our firsts in the kitchen and then refilling the pot before bringing it up, we get a total of 2 ½ cups each from a pot that only makes 3 cups at a time.
All of this sounds a little complicated and difficult, but it’s harder to describe than do. Once a daily routine, the whole dance becomes easy. And actually it’s pretty impossible to completely blow a pot. Sometimes the tea turns out stronger or weaker than expected, still it’s always drinkable and delicious, it always does the job of ushering in the slow luxurious part of our day.
As to which green teas we drink, for twenty years there’ve been just three of them; Genmaicha, Young Hyson, and Sencha.
Oolong, Puer, Gunpowder, Jasmine, Kukicha and all sorts of other teas are tasty and could be nicely brewed in our Hario, but what we have is enough.
It’s more variety than we give ourselves for jam or cheese, for them we have only one type going at a time.
Our attitude’s more complicated towards ceremony tea.
It’d be nice every so often to have someone whip us up a bowl of Maccha, but doing it ourselves is too much trouble to fit into our already too busy life. Also we like to hang out with our tea, to savour it slowly not ritually gulp it down like one’s supposed to do with the ceremony stuff. As important our tea must be cheap, and even without counting the cost of pedigreed bowls, cast iron pots and charcoal braziers, Maccha tea is itself big expensive.
So though studying tea was Mitsuko’s first formal introduction to classical Japanese culture, and though we have a lovely whisk and proper ceremony bowls, we don’t drink Maccha.
Our laid back daily ritual of steeped green tea with some home baked treat is special enough for us.
Our least exalted but not least favorite tea.
A blend of cheapish tea leaves and the roasted brown rice that gives Genmaicha its name, in color it’s a warm soft yellow. (Mitsuko thinks there’s a hint of red, I see a suggestion of green.)
Japanese drink it at meals like Americans drink water, but we brew ours stronger (4 full spoons of tea to a pot and straight uncooled boiling water), enjoy it as serious green tea.
Calming, comforting, it’s for days we don’t need much pickup, for when we just want to chill.
Good for guests new to green tea, they like it, the roasted rice makes it smooth to the tongue, easy to drink.
We’ve tried more expensive alternatives, but mostly we’ve drunk Hime Genmaicha. It tastes good, adds popped sorghum like Mitsuko’s ancestral brew, and at about $9/lb it’s been ridiculously cheap.
But recently its price doubled so now we’re experimenting with Uji no Tsuyu, a popular brand that’s a few bucks less ($15/lb).
And to our surprize maybe we like it better than the Hime. Too bad it doesn’t have popped sorghum, but somehow it feels cleaner. Unlike the Hime, dumped out of the strainer even the used tea looks tidy, the leaves and rice still separate.
True perhaps it’s a tad light on tea flavour, but it’s softer, rounder, and doesn’t have Hime’s bitterness.
Also since for Mitsuko tea has extra value as a link to her past, we like that In English the lovely Japanese name means “Dew of Uji”, and Uji is where most tea came from when she was a kid. For the same reason it’s cool the package looks like it would be right at home on the shelves of the co-op where her mom still shops.
But there’s no need to hurry with this decision, we have some Hime left and will certainly go back and forth before making up our minds.
Of course we know if we do decide to go with Uji no Tsuyu, it won’t be forever. Our tastes change, brands change, and that’s just part of the fun of tea.
Wouldn’t it be boring to drink exactly the same brew forever?
This is the green tea we drink the most.
For each pot Mitsuko adds 3 heaping spoons of leaves and used to nicely cool the water before pouring it through the basket. Now she’s brewing it like Genmaicha with straight boiling water. The tea flavor’s stronger and it doesn’t lose its fruity feels-good-in-the-mouth after taste.
When she first pours in hot water it smells like fine black tea, like Keeman or Twining Prince of Wales. The finished brew is golden brown, and so different from Genmaicha in taste, aroma, and color, it’s difficult to believe they’re both from the same plant.
We’ve only bought Starwest Botanicals Young Hyson ($17/lb.), obviously we like it. Still the quality does vary, just not quite enough to start us looking for an alternative source. With some batches the flavor’s a little thin, but so far Starwest got its act together before we had to switch.
We save this for when we want something special.
A green green tea, the leaves themselves are very deep almost blue green, while the finished brew is lemon green.
The taste too is green, soothingly fruity, more astringent than bitter.
Still brewed too hot it does get bitter, so Mitsuko lets the boiled water cool roughly two minutes. Here she goes by feel and never uses clock or thermometer, even as we never use an electronic tuner. When science sneaks into areas that don’t require its peculiar strength, it’s dulling, better save it for things like building bridges and computers.
And it’s powerful tea, only 2 nicely rounded spoonfuls are enough for a pot.
We’ve never had a steady source for Sencha, it’s come from here and there, some small gifts, a few purchases not quite tasty enough to repeat.
For a while we slowly and with pleasure drank our way through some very very green Sencha from Mitsuko’s mamasan. By brewing it only about once every 10 days we stretched her 100 grams for more than a year, towards the end saving it for days Mitsuko phoned Japan.
After that we bought a batch from Harney & Sons which was so good for a while we thought it would become a regular. As soon as Mitsuko opened the package, smelled and saw the tidy tightly rolled leaves, noticed the total absence of stems, her eyes lit up.
Not too much bite, it’s lovely soft slightly furry flavor lingered on the tongue. And while $22 for 8 ounces was dear for us low budget types, more than twice the price of Young Hyson, it was cheap for real Sencha and we did use less of it.
Unfortunately the next batch from them was more than disappointing. As soon as we saw it brewing in our Hario, not green but yellow like Genmaicha, we started worrying. Then just a few sips were enough to set alarm bells ringing, this so-called Sencha was not safe to put into our bodies. Pouring out our cups, we tossed the rest of the package in the garbage.
Things got more complicated when a second batch we had turned out to be closer to the real thing. At least it doesn’t feel poisonous.
To be sure the color’s not quite green enough and the taste’s not quite noble, but behind some bitterness there is tea flavour. Even if as Mitsuko suspects it’s low grade leaf processed to sell as Sencha, we can still enjoy drinking it.
But we’ve lost faith in the company and won’t buy from them again.
So once we finish what we have, we’ll be down to two different green teas. Which is fine, until we find a better source for Sencha or decide to try something else, Genmaicha and Young Hyson will nicely do the job.
By the way, we’d never serve Sencha to anyone except a serious tea lover.
Most people wouldn’t get it, they’d just think it too bitter.
When we returned to the West even in our tiny California town the local supermarket carried 50 feet of tea, beyond that was the web….
Nervous eyes on our fast shrinking little hoard of cash, we started sifting through the possibles.
Occasionally it was easy, like deciding cheap tea bags didn’t have enough flavor to make chai.
More often we were a little stupid slow.
There was a brand of pricey black tea we should have offed after our first order, that instead we kept buying. In our guts we knew it wasn’t right, but it was organic, had good user reviews, who were we to claim it didn’t make the cut? Months flew by before we found the courage to say, “no, this just doesn’t taste like it should.”
We dragged our feet even longer with some inferior peppermint that took us years to dump. Again we caved to mental inertia and did nothing. Not until a truly terrible batch did we finally switch.
Still eventually there came a day we noticed we were going through this cycle more quickly, more briskly rejecting brands, wasting less time.
It was a cause for major celebration when we finally admitted Tetley made better chai than any expensive tea we’d tried. Mere teabags better than organic leaf? It couldn’t be true, but it was.
We were starting to trust our own taste!
The process took longer than we would have liked, but the judgments we were trying to make were not easy. You can’t see a taste, can’t hold it in your hand, can’t measure it.
Add to this that tea flavors are unusually subtle, and we had a real challenge.
It made doing tea a master class in discrimination, the first most basic lesson being that skillful accurate tasting demands strict determined attention.
As does most of what we do. Usually we’re short of specific skills and proper equipment, only ferocious focus saves us from blowing it. Only by being insanely careful could we build beautiful instruments without a shop and record clean magic music without a studio.
Not until I started writing this page, did we realize it would also help to have a sharper tea language.
Over afternoon green tea I’d run what I’d written by Mitsuko to see if she agreed with my choice of words, often she did not.
Is Sencha greenish yellow or lemon green? Is Young Hyson golden brown or reddish green? We were startled to discover how difficult it was to agree.
Tastes were even tougher. What does it mean to say Genmaicha is like a very thin broth? What’s this “tea” flavor that sometimes there’s more or less of? Is Sencha bitter or astringent, and what exactly is the difference? And how about words like “smoother”, “cleaner”, “rounder”, “softer”, “more noble”?
These past few months we’ve worked to pin some of this down….
…to talk a better tea,
to write a page
green, clean, innocent
as good sencha.