Tea, Part 1: Variety (or lack thereof)

If I have to drink one more cup of green tea, I’m going to spew. I’m already spewing wrath. Never has an inanimate object made me so angry. Whether I ask for it or not, a mug filled with the murky green liquid greets me on my desk every morning, care of the Tea Lady, whose only job as far as any English teacher knows is to brew and serve tea to the rest of the staff. Originally this daily ritual was charming, and I looked forward to my morning cup of Japanese joe, but after 672 consecutive days, enough is enough. Now I daily have to suppress the urge to hurl my tea cup across the room.

Luckily, there are roughly a bazillion types of tea in Asia, so after secretly disposing of my morning portion, I can move on to a different variety that doesn’t trigger my gag reflex. Thanks to my host family in Taipei, I received a thorough education in the art of tea, which I’m now going to share with you.

There are basically three types of tea: green tea, black tea (sometimes called red tea) and herb tea. Green tea is simply dried leaves from a tea plant, while black tea leaves are fermented before drying. Oolong tea is somewhere in the middle, being only slightly fermented. Herb tea isn’t actually made from tea plants, but from herbs or flowers boiled to extract the flavor into a drink (think camomile or mint).

After or as the leaves are drying, additional flavors can be added to the tea. As for black tea, flavoring is usually fruit extract, such as the bergamot in Earl Grey, or spices, like the cardamom in chai. An array of green tea choices opened up to me when I came to Japan. I never knew there were so many different variations! There’s houji tea, which is made from roasted green tea leaves. It’s brown in color and sweeter and smoother than plain green tea. There’s also genmai tea. Dry roasted rice is mixed in with the tea leaves, creating a slightly smoky-flavored beverage. During summer, everyone’s staple is mugi tea, which is made from roasted barley. I’d describe the taste as light and coffee-like, but people who actually drink coffee regularly tend to disagree with me.

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