Reflections: strange brews
Wee Kek Koon
I recently "discovered" a delicious traditional Hakka beverage called leicha ("pestle tea"). Tea leaves, peanuts, sesame seeds, herbs and spices are pounded in a grooved mortar until they become a paste. Boiling water is added and the result is a hearty and filling beverage.
As I prefer my tea without additives, other than floral scents such as jasmine, I had doubts about imbibing such an adulterated brew. It then occurred to me that the tea we're familiar with today - leaves steeped in hot water and nothing else - became popular only relatively recently, during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Before the Tang dynasty (618-907), tea was drunk as a soup made from pressed tea leaves boiled with ingredients such as scallions, ginger and salt. The upper classes would even add expensive flavourings such as camphor. By the Song period (960-1279), the most popular way to drink tea was to whisk powdered tea and hot water together into a thick, frothy beverage. This method found its way to Japan, where it remains integral to the traditional tea ceremony.
The zeitgeist of Ming-dynasty China emphasised naturalism and minimalism, and tea-drinkers began to eschew the older methods, which they thought spoiled the natural taste of tea. The quality of the water and the tea leaves themselves, therefore, became the focus, and it was during this period that varieties such as reds, oolongs, scented teas and black teas appeared.