Yum cha: Monkey business
Chinese refer to very fine oolong tea as "monkey-pick" tea. Legend has it that ancient tea trees discovered on cliffs and steep slopes in the 18th century were considered risky to climb, so monkeys were trained to pick their leaves. Unfortunately no evidence exists that monkeys can, in fact, be trained for such a purpose, but "monkey-pick" nevertheless entered the lexicon to denote very rare, high-quality oolong.
Tieguanyin tea from Anxi, Fujian province, is the variety most commonly associated with the monkey-pick label and the name literally translates to "iron goddess". It is said to have been discovered by a man named Wang, who presented it to the Emperor Qianlong.
As people started to take cuttings from the bushes to plant in their home villages, these teas spread throughout the Anxi region. And because of the proximity of Anxi to Taiwan, in the 19th century, people started taking cuttings to the Muzha district of Taipei. This explains why Taiwanese oolong resembles tieguanyin.
Chiuchow, in Guangdong province, is another place the cuttings spread to and, to bring out the tea's complex aromas and tastes, people there started using smaller pots and cups. This " gung fu" style of serving is common in Chiuchow restaurants in Hong Kong, where small cups of palate-cleansing tea are presented after a meal.
Fresh tieguanyin leaves are big and broad, with distinctly jagged edges, and in contrast to phoenix oolong leaves, which are twisted, they are tightly rolled into dense beads.
When dropped into a pot or gaiwan, the beads make a "dong dong" sound, like that of iron being pounded. The unfolded leaves and fragrance, meanwhile, are said to have the elegance and beauty of a goddess. The ancient trees from which they derive and the way the leaves are processed make for a floral, lasting aroma.
As with other oolongs, tieguanyin leaves go through several processes: picking; withering; oxidation; frying; twisting and shaping; and, finally, baking. Depending on the length of time they are left to bake, there are two main styles. One is floral, with notes of orchids and narcissus and leaves that are emerald to jade green - in fact, people often mistake such teas for green tea, because of their colour and fresh taste. For people who exert a lot of energy, floral tieguanyin tea is a great thirst quencher.
The alternative is the "charcoal", or "classic", style, for which the leaves are baked over a low heat for more than 15 hours. These teas are dark - almost like coffee beans - and have a warm, robust aroma, with a sweet aftertaste. These "espresso"-like teas are best served in the gung fu style and, because they aid digestion, they're a great way to end a meal. If you enjoy desserts, try a charcoal tieguanyin instead of coffee: you will be amazed by how well it pairs with tiramisu, fruit tarts or scones.
Vivian Mak is the founder and owner of the MingCha tea company www.mingcha.com.