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MARKETS : Almost All the Tea in China

July 29, 1993|LINDA BURUM

At Sun Long Tea, a clerk offers you a sample cup of fresh Oolong and urges you to inhale its aromatic steam. "It's cleansing to the system," she says as you breathe in.

Looking around the shop, with its stately, antique-style Chinese furniture, transports you to an era when tea-making was elevated to an art form and teahouses were the center of Chinese social life and business dealings. Sun Long's mahogany chairs are carved with openwork dragon and phoenix motifs, and their paw-footed tiger's legs support seats inlaid with jade-green Taiwanese marble.

An entire wall of the store is lined with handsome polished wood shelves that hold rows of identical five-pound brass tea canisters. These are filled with bulk teas, while gift teas are displayed in beautifully wrapped packages.

It's not just the look of the place, though, that introduces you to another world. As Sun Long's extravagant surroundings suggest, the teas in its canisters have a character unmatched by the garden varieties you get with Chinese take-out or at neighborhood restaurants. With magical-sounding names such as Dragon Well, Iron Bodhisattva or King's Tea, the seductive flavors range from the bright freshness of a meadow after rain to the slight smokiness of roasted chestnuts. Many teas are sold in several levels of quality, with prices from $10 to $120 a pound.

One tea, fresh Oolong, is so delicate it must be kept in a deep freeze to prevent it from fermenting. Another rare tea, stocked only several months a year, is the finest grade of Tung Ting. Grown atop mist-shrouded mountains, this particular grade of Tung Ting is hand-harvested in the spring and tends to sell out soon after the harvest is shipped. For the Chinese, a gift of such a tea is comparable to receiving the best French Cognac.

Sun Long's teas are all grown on Taiwanese plantations operated by the Lee family and marketed under the name Ten Ren Tea. The family has produced five generations of tea experts and, like most specialty growers, they cure their own teas on the plantation. That's because tea picked during the day must be processed immediately that night, says Esther Lee, who helps run the family business in Los Angeles. "At the plantation, when we open our windows in the evening," Lee says, breathing in to illustrate, "the smell of freshly curing tea is always in the air."

Lee maintains that the key to a tea's taste depends as much on its processing as on its botanical variety, and she credits the unsurpassed skill of the company's tea masters or "chefs" for Ten Ren's high quality. She is fond of telling customers that each master has his own original secrets and special formulas.

Ten Ren's history is steeped in tradition. The Lee family first grew tea in Fukien province, 120 miles across the East China Sea from Taiwan. Lee says her great-grandfather moved the whole operation to Taiwan in 1927. With its tropical climate and huge central mountain range, the island approximates Fukien's growing conditions. There, the family developed a reputation for fine artisanal teas that it sold to other dealers. In 1953, the Lees began setting up the Ten Ren retail shops--there are now 58 in Taiwan.

Each generation continued with a forward-looking marketing plan. Ten Ren now owns shops also in Japan, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles. Most recently, in addition to its main store on Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park, Sun Long has installed branches in several of L.A.'s large Chinese supermarkets.

The family's newest venture brings the company back to its roots. Last year, Lee's brother, Ray Ho Lee, entered into several joint ventures for tea growing and processing in Mainland China. When the mainland is ready once again for premium teas, the Lees will be there to serve it up.

SHOPPING LIST

With the exception of teas served at dim sum, gourmet Chinese teas are usually offered after meals to aid digestion and to be enjoyed during after-dinner conversation. When tea is presented at formal social occasions or to welcome guests, serving tea requires following strict procedures and rules of etiquette. Adding sugar or milk is unheard of in China, so a tea's subtleties are all the more important.

For 1,800 years the Chinese have cultivated a bewildering array of specialty teas. Most of them fall into the following categories.

* Green tea has not been roasted or fermented. "Oxidized" is actually a more accurate term than "fermented" because, a tea's flavor is altered primarily by exposure to air. However, throughout the centuries, tea men have used the term "fermented."

* Oolong teas are allowed to "ferment" only slightly and are roasted to varying degrees. This is why they have a darker color and more robust flavor than green tea.

* Black teas are fully fermented. Lee says that Sun Long's tea is 90% roasted, as are most black teas. Some 100% roasted teas are available on order, but their charcoal-like taste is not very popular.

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