Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
If I could own but one vessel for steeping tea, it would be a simple Chinese gaiwan—preferably porcelain and, if given a choice of sizes, always diminutive. I was reminded of its elegance on a recent trip to London where Juyan Webster made cup after cup of tea for me in her shop, The Chinese Tea Company, on Portobello Road. Her infuser of choice was a beautifully decorated porcelain gaiwan.
With all the electronic tea makers on the market, consumers can easily spend more than $100 for a tea-dispensing machine that brews a cup of tea in less than a minute, but I like the old-fashioned simplicity of the gaiwan. Since the Ming dynasty, this humble three-piece tea bowl has been used to coax the subtle aromas from delicate white, green, and oolong teas. The set consists of a bowl, a saucer, and a lid that easily fits in the hand. No special instructions are required. A few tea leaves are placed in the bowl, hot water is added, the lid is placed, and the steeping begins right under your nose.
This is the common cup of hospitality placed in the hands of visitors upon entering a Chinese home. As the compact tea bowl rests on its saucer in your hands, the steeping tea warms your fingers while the aroma of the rehydrating leaves teases you with hints of the delicious flavors to come.
The art of holding a gaiwan does take a bit of practice and a sense of balance. The saucer is held in place with the right thumb, while the first two fingers of the right hand secure the knobbed lid. Light pressure keeps the stacked dishes in place. When the tea has steeped, the lid is pushed back slightly to keep the leaves in check while the liquor is drunk.
This ritual is acted out with an awareness of a time-honored etiquette that stipulates no noise should be made while adding or removing the porcelain lid. A scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic film The Last Emperor emphasizes the protocol of the gaiwan ritual on a grand scale. Several Chinese empresses have gathered in a room at the palace and are drinking tea from gaiwans. It is announced that the young emperor will need to wear glasses or eventually go blind. He says decisively, “I will wear glasses!” Of course, it was unheard of for emperors to wear glasses. The dowager empress shows her extreme displeasure at his decision by noisily slamming the lid of her gaiwan onto the cup—an act of rudeness only an empress would dare commit with such flair. The entire room becomes quiet, her anger is evident, and the glasses will not be worn.
What teas should you choose to begin your gaiwan ritual? Jasmine pearls are especially delightful when drunk from this vessel. Simply place four or five pearlsin the cup, and add hot, not boiling, water. Raise the lid very slightly occasionally, and your nose will tell you when the tea is ready to drink. Keep adding water for up to five infusions. Silver needle white tea is perfect for this method, too, but do try steeping an oolong such as Bao Zhong or Ti Kwan Yin in this manner. These artisanal oolongs benefit from multiple, short steeps.
Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson is the owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and Benjamin Press. Follow his blog at theteamaestro.com.