Kung Fu Tea

Love at first sight doesn’t ring particularly true to me – things get slightly trickier than that in real life. But I can tell whether a movie or a book is my cup of tea from the very beginning. Just like good dreams tend to get sidetracked before you come to the better parts, there are too many good books I have failed to finish despite that initial crush. However, some opening lines stay with me longer than the rest.

Tale of Two Cities has the opening line for an epic – “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Anna Karenina has the most echoing line we can relate to, one way or the other – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The one in Pride and Prejudice is interesting too – “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Instantly you can sense some eager buzzing in the room …

While the Bible has the perfect opening – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” After getting a leather-bound hardcopy from Walmart, I have yet to go beyond the first few pages about all the begetting of mankind before hopefully I could get to the more helpful parts one day, but the flavor of that first sentence lingers on ever since I read it. I’m not a drinker, a teeny bit of alcohol would get me flushed all the way to the ears, so I don’t know exactly what “dry finish” means, but I imagine it must taste like what the Bible’s first sentence sounds to me.

Although for the Bible it is not a finish; it is the creation of a whole universe, and the beginning of all turmoil and unrest.

It’s hard to tell how this inner penchant works. But you know something speaks to you or not right from the start. So unreasonable yet so unmistakable isn’t it, this innate knowledge you have about everything. As if there’s some built-in measure invisible but almost palpable, working somewhere in you all the time, helping you determine how much of something is too little or too much for you.

I’m a better cook when I let go of recipe, and just listen to my intuition and inkling. A recipe tends to make things too salty or too sweet, while my inner galaxies of taste buds are much more sensitive when it comes to all delicate spots – the adequate amount for an ingredient, the right temperature as well as the good timing … All I have to do, is follow my gut feelings.

A Zen master asked a carpenter to help hang a flower basket on a column. After directing the carpenter to place it a little higher or lower, a little to the right or left, he decided on the right spot and said, “That’s the place.” To test the master, the carpenter marked the spot but then pretended to have lost it. “Was it here? Or there?” the carpenter pointed to various places and asked. However, so precise was the master’s sense of proportion, he didn’t approve of anywhere until the carpenter returned to the exact right spot.

Deep down we all have that same level of accuracy. The way I make tea at home is called 功夫茶 (Gong Fu tea), or some may call it Kung Fu tea, meaning the tea is made with special effort. In order to bring out the best flavor, you have to give it tender care. Once done right, the tea could taste like a divine song from the heaven to the soul.

First, you select good quality Oolong tea, and avoid using water too hard loaded with excessive minerals, or too soft that might render a taste too flat. The best choice of water would be pure stream from deep mountains, uncontaminated by antiseptic or pollutants. In everyday life we most likely have to settle for the second best – bottled spring water or filtered tap flow.

The ideal temperature to brew Kung Fu tea is 185°F, right before the full boil, where the bubbles are about 3mm in diameter, called “crab eyes”. You use the near-boil to warm the teapot and teacups, and rinse the tea leaves, then you steep it for a minute or two, before pouring evenly into the cups in circular motion, giving each cup the same fullness of flavor.

After breathing in the aroma, you drink it while it’s brisk hot. The typical teacup holds just about 0.17 fluid oz, but you don’t gulp it down at once. Instead you savor it in three little sips, allowing the fragrance to linger around the tongue tip, all the way down to throat deep …

There is a wide variety of Oolong tea, each with an individual flavor defined by its origin, tree cultivar, harvest season, oxidation degree … Even if you follow all the tea-making steps, you have yet to exercise a fine-tuned inner sense, to gauge the perfect steeping time for different breeds, just so to bring out the best savor in a tea.

I would say, human co-existence is more delicate a matter than brewing Kung Fu tea. Have you ever had such sorrow, watching something started out pristine going astray? Someone might appear to be your cup of tea at first sight, yet inevitably that magic coating would begin to peel off, and before too long the burdensome practice of judging would start taking over … We thought we love the great variety of human traits, but do we really appreciate anything other than our own specific stipulation?

Such inner toil and unrest, most likely it will persist until the final extinction of matter. Right now we are entrapped in our humanity. You could never overlook that exact right spot where your peculiar interest is located. This enduring desire everyone carries within, is like a piece of cork floating up to the top, even if you can manage to press it down for a moment, it will bounce right back every time you relax the hand. That winter lawn in a backyard may look bleak and indifferent around yearend, but as soon as it senses something in the air, remotely smelling like spring, instantly it would thrive like never before …

Such tenacious samsara, there is nothing we could really do about it, except waiting for the cycles to exhaust themselves. Although it might help, if we devote some time to the pure joy of brewing a perfect cup of Kung Fu tea.