* What teas to use: Not all teas take to the gaiwan. I have had particular luck with Dragonwell green tea and Tu Lu--a variety of Taiwanese high mountain oolong--obtained from the Ten Ren Tea Co. in Chinatown, though all of their teas are not of this quality. I have also done well with Grand Keemun, obtained from Chado Tea Room in Los Angeles. You can buy truly beautiful Dragonwell from Dat Sun Ginseng and Tea in Westminster. It is unlike other Dragonwells--calm, quiet and with a sweetness that fells almost like cocoa.
My favorite local tea shop, however, is Valley Tea and Coffee, a specialist in Taiwanese teas. The proprietor is knowledgeable and quite willing to dig through her boxes for the freshest shipment of whatever you desire. Valley has excellent High Mountain Oolong and a fine Pouchong--very expansive in flavor, with wide, round, warm vegetative flavor laid over a beautiful pure sweetness. This is my favorite tea for the gaiwan.
Teas that really take well to the gaiwan method--teas with sufficient complexities to develop--are considerably more expensive than you might expect for tea. Good quality teas cost anywhere between $50 and $150 a pound. But tea is light stuff--even at $150 a pound, it works out to only a dollar a cup at the most expensive. So for less than a cup of coffee at the corner store, you can have about 10 minutes of constantly shifting, singing, throbbing flavors.
* Where to find a gaiwan: Chado Tea Room and Ten Ren Tea shops have some decent gaiwans, but after about a week of feverish searching, I found only one place that sells beautiful, delicate gaiwans: Life Style China & Arts, a store in San Gabriel in the mall at Valley Boulevard and Del Mar Avenue. Their roughest gaiwan is $10, but the one I bought, a lovely, dragon-embossed, light little thing of bone china, was $25 and is entirely worth the price.
* How to brew: Different teas need different temperatures. Green teas take about 160 degrees, and oolongs between 175 and 195. Fine Chinese tea can be brewed repeatedly. For green teas, good water is a necessity--use bottled water or freshly filtered water.
The best book on green tea that I found was Helen Gustafson's "The Green Tea User's Manual" (Clarkson Potter, $17). Gustafson was the tea sommelier for Chez Panisse. Unlike the 20 or so other green tea books on the market, her book is not devoted to the health benefits of green tea or the history of the ritual in various countries, but just to the sheer glorious drinking experience. It's the only book that gives different, lovingly detailed brewing instructions for each green tea varietal.
Chado Tea Room, 8422 1/2 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 655-2056.
Dat Sun Ginseng and Tea, 9211 Bolsa Ave., Suite 118, Westminster, (714) 892-9333.
Life Style China & Arts, 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 573-8816.
Ten Ren Tea Co., 727 N. Broadway, No. 136, Los Angeles, (213) 626-8844. Also: 111 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 288-2012; 18423 E. Colima Road, Rowland Heights, (626) 854-6045; and 665 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 635-6665.
Valley Tea and Coffee, 1101 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 281-5799.
Yuan Yuan Enterprise Inc., 154 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 288-1663.
C. Thi Nguyen