Hong Kong tea suggestions, please
February 22, 2009 4:31 PM   Subscribe

I'm in Hong Kong for two more days and would like to bring back tasty tea (of any variety, especially green) that is difficult or impossible to find back in the States. Please give me your tea suggestions, bearing in mind the only Cantonese word I recognize is on an "Exit" sign, but I can find the usual tourist areas on the subway. Thanks!
posted by Napoleonic Terrier to Food & Drink (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite tea from China was Jasmine Pearl. Even if I could remember the characters they would be in mandarin, but they are the size of peas and unfurl when put in hot water.
I know in Seattle we have tea shops which have tons of teas from Asia, but they are quite expensive compared with China. If you are bringing back tea for people as souvenirs the flowering teas were big hits with my family and friends. Steep them in a glass container and watch them bloom. Again, with globalization you can find much of these in the US in Chinatowns and Asian markets, but because they are cheaper in China you might be able to afford the cool, more pricey ones.
I was also very happy I picked up a mug with a strainer and lid for my mom as it is something permanent to remember my time in China by rather than just a consumable which is soon gone.

I was disappointed to find that many things I got in China were available in Asian markets in bigger cities, but that can be a good thing too, as it means you won't have to go all the way back to China if you find a tea you like.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 5:52 PM on February 22, 2009

For originality, go for Puerh Tea.
posted by furtive at 7:14 PM on February 22, 2009

Best answer: Ahh, finally a question on askmefi about tea. The thing about tea is that it varies widely by season, once you go above carefully assembled blends like Twinnings. One of the best green teas I've tried was 'buddha tea' from inpursuitoftea.com, I think harvest of 2006, but when I ordered it next year, it was very lousy, nothing like the nectar of the gods I was expecting. This wasn't an exception, 7 times out of 10 I would say there's a significant difference between different harvests of the same tea. This is both a curse and a blessing of high-grade teas. You never know what you will get.

In addition, even if you're talking about the same harvest, different people can have very different takes on the same tea. Here are some examples of tea reviews (notice how different they are):

yellow tea
my favourite oolong, kind of expensive
a cheap but really great long jing green

In short, it's almost impossible to advise on what tea to get when you go somewhere like hong kong or China. Go to some stores and ask them to make you a sample cup and get the one you like most.

It really takes a few years at the very least to explore most of the varieties of tea and to learn to brew all of them properly. Everything matters: type of spring water, temperature, method of heating, amount of leaf, of water, type of teapot, length of brewing. And then there's the gong-fu method of preparation that is a separate world of its own, but is absolutely essential to getting the most out of oolong and puerh teas. If you use the regular method of brewing with them, you're wasting 80% of their flavour and complexity.

The good news is that you can buy teas directly from China; there are at least two good tea shops I can recommend:

Jing tea shop

Teaspring has cheaper and faster shipping in my experience...

When you buy teas in Hong Kong, keep in mind that you shouldn't get too much green and white teas because they will go stale after 3 months or so, therefore get only as much as you will drink in 3 months.

Try to get some good Yinzhen Silver Needles. It's a white tea that's almost always great unless you get the cheapest kind. Pai Mu Tan is a similar white tea that's less buttery and more almond-like compared to Silver Needles, it's considered to be cheaper and simpler, but I love it too, when I can get my hands on a good one.

One of the most famous and most expensive Chinese greens is Long Jing, aka Dragonwell. It can be sweet and light but sometimes there are batches that aren't as sweet and more nutty, I like both types, but usually Long Jing is expensive when it's good.

Another famous Chinese green is a Bi Luo Chan. It's got bright, very sweet, champaigne-like flavour, it tends to turn sour if you overbrew it so you have to be careful.

There's about a zillion different types of Oolongs. You have to figure out if you like dark or green oolongs better. Stay away from Lapsang Souchong - the flavour of this tea is a power to be reckoned with, you will be wise to try it before you buy it. An old musty sausage might be what comes to mind when you try to find something to compare it to. One of the greatest Oolong I've tried so far is called Beidou #1, aka Northstar. It's not very strong, it's on the darker side of oolongs and it's got an amazingly complex and balanced flavour, very lightly flowery and fruity.. Dan Congs are a very famous type of oolong, they have citrusy-peachy flavour and aroma, very prominent, they tend to be slightly bitter, however; if you're very sensitive to bitter flavours like I am, you may not be a fan of Dan Congs, but their complexity is so appealing I can't help but going back to them sometimes.

And then there are pu-erhs. Coming in at a tidy few thousand dollars for 5 grams for the most rare and high-grade batches, I'm sure you will start with humbler, newer puerhs.. As you may know, that's the type of tea that is aged and gets generally more expensive if it was aged for a long time, so the most exclusive ones are the ones from 1950s and 60s and earlier. These teas have the strongest, most earthy flavours but there's also a huge variety, anything from coffee-like to cocoa, orchids, citrus, honey, etc etc. The pu-erhs most often come in compressed cakes. Recently there was a crash in puerh prices so you might be able to pick up a good one for a fraction of what you'd have to pay a year ago.

Hope this helps..
posted by rainy at 7:34 PM on February 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh, forgot to add, stay away from flavoured teas. They are crap. A really good tea is so complex and subtle that adding any other flavour is only going to ruin it, and that's why manufacturers add flavours only to the worst batches. Sometimes a jasmine or a rose or an osmanthus green can be fairly decent but NEVER as good as a true high grade Long Jing or something.. So feel free to get one but keep in mind that's not what the real teas are about.
posted by rainy at 7:43 PM on February 22, 2009

Best answer: You're at a disadvantage because HK simply doesn't have a great tea culture compared to anywhere on the mainland. I'm about twenty miles north of you and could take you for a walk through my neighborhood where we would stop and taste tea at about 10 different shops in ten minute walking radius. These shops typically have a large selection and you can sit down for hours tasting different teas for free. I've only seen high-end, touristy, and medicinal tea shops in HK. The only local shop I know off the top of my head is across the main gate of Hong Kong University on Pokfulam Road.

If there's any way for you to get up to the Luo Wu/Luo Hu shopping mall at the Shenzhen border, they have a a few shops with an absolutely stunning selection of tea. I can maybe even offer my services as a guide.

That said, here's a breakdown of what things are. I'll give you the Mandarin pinyin, a pronunciation guide, and common English name.

Tieguanyin / Tay-gwan-yeen / "Iron Buddha": This is the tea of Southern China. It's served by default at most restaurants. A lot of the shops here in Shenzhen will have 20+ variates of it. It can be dirt cheap and extremely expensive. They price it on where and when it was harvested, amongst other things. A higher quality Tieguanyin is a beautiful site. It's almost glowing deep phosphorescence green. It'll usually be stored in the refrigerator. A cheap Tieguanyin is still good, just make sure you taste test it first. Sometimes it can be a bit bitter or even have a metallic bite.

Pu'er / Poo R / "Bolay Tea": Mostly this is overpriced crap. Really. It can come loose leaf, but most of it is tightly compressed into a brick. They love to write characters into it, or pictures, or other such nonsense. Overwhelmingly it tastes and smells "like farm animals," a Russian colleague put it. They just had a "tea bubble" burst, so they'll be trying hard to sucker you into buying it. HOWEVER, sheng pu'er (sometimes called Sheng Cha) is absolutely amazing. It's my favorite tea right now. The sheng is this one: 生 . It roughly means "life", because this tea isn't aged and fermented like most Pu'er. I recenty spent about $45hkd for about a "jin" (half a kilo) of this stuff.

Gong Fu / Kung Fu: This is a tea local to Chaozhou, a city where about 1/3 of Hong Konglians are native too. Although "gongfu cha" is as much a style, as a tea it's usually a type of Wulong though I've heard of Tieguanyin's being served Gongfu style. It's lightly fermented and highly fragrant. It's usually dark green to black. Taste test first!

Green tea's: While most teas are at least a little green, not all green tea is green tea. Tieguanyin, for instance, is not considered a green tea. It's a type of wulong, if I remember correctly, because of the way it's processed. A good local green tea is Baisha, coming out of Hainan Island. It's blue-green color, dirt cheap, and not too strong. I can buy a jin (half a kilo) for about $25 hkd. Maojian is popular. It comes out of Sichuan.

Flower teas: I forget which one it is, but the ones with the little yellow flowers that are easy to pick out come with a really nice green tea that's good on it's own. The little balls of Molihua (jasmine) look cool but aren't my favorite. Again, just make sure you find a shop that lets you taste around!!
posted by trinarian at 8:12 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to all for some amazing help ! --- the complexity of the subject just means I'll have to keep traveling back here.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 8:37 PM on February 22, 2009

5 cents worth to add to rainy's and trinarian's excellent advice.

Cantonese pronunciation of the teas:
Tieguanyin (Teet-koon-yum) or calling it plain "koon-yum" is fine too. One small caveat about fluorescent green Tieguanyins: I've heard from tea traders that some less scrupulous merchants will dye the tea leaves so that they can sell the leaves as higher-grade than they actually are.

Pu'er (Bou-lay): the word 生 is pronounced "Sung" (drag out the "u" sound a bit more but don't change it to sound like "suit"). The word usually means "life" but can also mean "raw". Pu'er leaves which are fermented are known as "sok" (sounds like "soak" but shorter) which looks like this: 熟. These terms are not commonly printed on the label of the tea cakes though. Don't bother with tea cakes which have animals or words imprinted on them; those are more for display than consumption (well, unless you find one that you actually want to frame up). Go for the plain, round tea cakes, usually with thin rice paper labels on the front. If you wrap those up in cling film, they can be stored away to mature over the years. One advice I recently got from a tea-shop owner is to shy away from famous labels (like the Seven Son brand or 七子) and go for lesser known brands. Try those that have the word "wild" or 野 on the label. The tea bushes are usually not cultivated and very old.

Jasmine tea is known as "fragrant flakes" 香片 (He-ong (click here to hear a .wav file) Peen).

nthing the advice to sample the teas. A proper tea shop will always be happy to let you try their teas for free before purchasing. If they seem reluctant to, get out of there.
posted by Alnedra at 12:21 AM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

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