Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Something soothing (or, a good tea is hard to find)

cherry blossoms reaching for the sky With all the lovely Yoshino (and other) cherry trees in bloom at the Tidal Basin and beyond, beautiful, comforting sights in these distressing times, another soother of frayed nerves from the Far East also comes to mind--tasty hot and cold drinks from the leaves of the camellia sinensis shrub, otherwise known as tea.

All types of tea--green, oolong, and black--are known to be medicinally (and psychologically?) beneficial, but how to get the most flavorful brews is the question, as we are primarily a nation of hopped-up java junkies.

Ironically, some of the best places to get a good cuppa in DC if you're away from home include coffee shops! As the better ones want to offer high-caliber drinks and noshes of all types, they've stepped up their tea game as well. For instance, because Starbucks owns the Tazo tea line, Tazo is offered in all Starbucks, which is a good thing, as Tazo is good tea. Of course, you can also purchase a box of Tazo tea there (which is sometimes on sale, such as near Christmas), at Whole Foods (which sometimes also has it on sale), or other stores, where it tends to be priced much higher.

Although Tazo tea is most often offered in bags (heresy!), the leaves contained therein are high quality, not fannings, and the sac is large enough to offer the leaves enough room to expand. Even better is that ALL Tazo teas are delicious, high quality brews--green, oolong (which is even rarer than green), and black, as well as its herbal infusions (more properly called tisanes). [The oolong is part of the "Om" blend, which is re-packaged as "Joy" near the holidays.] The company even offers a tasty decaf green tea, "Lotus. "

Another surprising place to find good tea was Caribou Coffee. While its tea offerings are much more limited compared to Starbucks, in addition to black tea, it offers a good quality jasmine tea (a type of green tea which is scented with night-blooming jasmine blossoms), a box of which is about $7.

Decent loose leaf jasmine tea can be found at Target, part of its in-house Archer Farms line.

One more odd coffee place to get a bag of tasty loose-leaf black tea (of the Assam variety) is Swing's coffee, near the White House.

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You may ask why it's so hard to find good green tea at the supermarket, given all the reporting about its beneficial qualities? Long story short, according to Kit Chow and Ione Kramer in their opus on tea, All the Tea in China, most of the green tea produced in China stays in China. (As their neighbors in Japan are also massive green tea drinkers, they purchase much of the rest.) Thus, there's not enough of the good green brew to go around. This is important, as you're only inclined to drink decent quantities of a beverage that actually tastes nice. Also important is that good green tea can be drunk without sweetener, or with very little. I often don't put sugar in my green tea; if I do, it's a scant teaspoon.

Thus, only buy green tea from the supermarket or health food store if you find one of the following brands:

  • Tazo
  • Numi (Its Water Sprite Ginger Oolong is good, too.)
  • Republic of Tea (The green, white (a premium type of green), and black teas are excellent, but the tisanes are indifferent.)
  • Forte (The black currant is awesome. I'll have to try its decaf breakfast tea someday.)
  • St. Dalfour (I know, the company is known for its preserves, but its lemon and peach flavored black teas are special, provided you can find them anymore. They used to be at Safeway, but...)

The supermarket brand green and black teas are too bland to even merit a mention--Celestial Seasonings should stick to tisanes, in which it excels (especially the Bengal Spice, an herbal chai, and the various rooibos blends); oddly enough, Bigelow's tisanes are also superior to its green and black teas (particularly "I Love Lemon," cranberry blends, and the peppermint tisanes).

* * *

Of course, the best places to enjoy tea away from home are teahouses. Perhaps the most "authentic" is Ching Ching Cha, which arrived in town when tea was just becoming cool. It's a tranquil spot in Georgetown, near the C & O Canal, and is like entering another world. I get relaxed just thinking about my trek there a few years back.

Most accessible is the local establishment with three locations (and a dedicated tea shop), Teaism. While most of their menus and teas are the same, there are slight differences in offerings of each, and each has different hours. Nonetheless, all locations offer fantastic green, black, and oolong teas and delicious food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (including desserts). The location near the White House is probably the most casual, and is across from Lafayette Park. The two-story original location, near Dupont Circle, is an urban oasis, as is the newest location at Penn Quarter (which has a downstairs level featuring an indoor waterfall and colorful carp swimming about, in a small pool near the stairwell).

Teaism's anxi oolong is one of my favorites, and is a great way to start the day when accompanied by those zesty ginger scones. If you're in the mood for tea and dessert, the chocolate torte with green tea ice cream is a winner. (The salty oat cookies are extremely good, too.) The Dupont and Lafayette locations offer bags of tea for sale, but the best selection comes from the tea shop two doors away from the Penn Quarter restaurant.

* * *

When brewing green tea to enjoy at home, you probably know that you should brew water for green tea (including jasmine tea) to just below boiling, so as not to stew the leaves, nor your throat. (I ruined a delicate jasmine tea by brewing it with boiled water.)

The burning question with brewing individual portions of loose leaf tea is what to put the leaves in. Over the years, I've had unfortunate experiences with all kinds of contraptions reputed to keep leaves from straying into the hot water, such as tea balls (which always break apart), bamboo strainers, and the like. More recently, I've tried a cute metal mini-teapot with holes to keep the leaves in line, but that didn't work any better.

The best solution I've found is not marketed to be used for tea, but works wonderfully. For loose tea (or tisane), the best strainers are those organza party favor pouches, found in the wedding planning department of Party City. Those drawstrings tie up tight, and are spacious enough to cover the bottom of the sac with leaves, with plenty of room for them to expand. No more stray leaves to spit out and ruin your serene state!

brewed loose tea and used tea sachet

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