We have come very far as a food-obsessed nation but along the way, we seemed to have left behind a most ubiquitous drink — Chinese tea.
Earlier in May 2015, the New York Times ran an article that gave a brief insight into the state’s growing tea culture. As evidence of the flourishing obsession with this age-old drink, the writer cited the city’s hottest restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park and Atera and their offerings of oolong and pu-erh teas, as well as cafes and tea rooms that see customers with increasingly refined tastes. As one very partial to oolong and pu-erh, I was thrilled by the news. But at the same time, it raised certain questions about our dining scene here at home.
Singaporeans love saying that eating is our national pastime. We know the best hawker stalls like the back of our sauce-stained hands, and we clamour to be the first through the doors of the latest celeb restaurants. We want our cocktails made with artisanal gins and bitters, and we flutter from one coffee joint to the next for their rotational offerings of single-estate beans and blends.
But we are virtually clueless when it comes to Chinese tea. Despite drinking it often at dim sum restaurants and Chinese banquets, we don’t know a tieguanyin from a dancong, let alone tell a good tea from a bad one. It’s bizarre how something so common could at the same time be so alien.
This observation has not escaped those with an acute knowledge and understanding of our modern dining culture. “It's about not appreciating the beauty you have in your backyard,” veteran food and lifestyle writer Sim Ee Waun tells me. “It has also much to do with Asians constantly looking to the West for trends, but not looking at our own culture, which has been around longer. Perhaps it’s a lack of self-confidence or pride, and blindly running after what's fashionable, and that again is dictated by Western perceptions.”
This westward-gazing tendency can be easily exploited, as may be seen in the way TWG Tea markets itself. The home-grown tea company adopts the aesthetic image of a veritable European institution, compelling many to buy into its story of class, exclusivity, and prestige, regardless of the inherent quality and value of its teas.
Tea education needs to keep pace. The coffee industry in Singapore has matured to a point where people concern themselves with proprietary blends, specialty micro-roasters, and single-estate or single-origin coffee beans. No one would hold up a caramel Frappuccino as an example of good coffee. The same should be for tea. Quality tea comes from a single origin, and is not augmented with flavourings. In fact, some artisanal premium Chinese tea aren’t merely unadulterated and single-origin or single-estate — they are also single-tree, that is, made with tea leaves plucked from a single tea tree that is a few hundred years old.
Due to certain similarities, tea is sometimes seen as an alternative to coffee, but tea’s complex characteristics actually more closely resemble wine. Both tea and wine are influenced by terroir, elevation, time of harvest, and in some cases, the age of the plant. “Tea adapts to its environment and the methods of farming, which means there are thousands, or even millions, of teas out there,” says Jenny Tan, a prolific wine journalist who also helps out with her husband’s F&B marketing consultancy firm FoodCult. “Tea is also assessed by the same attributes as wine such as colour, body, acidity, texture, and tannins.“
Like wine, certain fine teas (particularly oolong and pu-erh) benefit from ageing, increasing in value as they get older. A tea that matures under ideal conditions becomes mellower and rounder in flavour with secondary and tertiary aromas emerging over time — characteristics that lend themselves well to food pairing. “It's about finding the right tea to match with the right dish, and there are so many possibilities,” says Tan.
We live in a food capital where attention and care is given to artisanal produce and fine craftsmanship. Restaurateurs might realise, hopefully sooner than later, that having a carefully designed tea menu is just as important as having an impressive wine and coffee list.
It will take a lot more to educate diners on tea drinking and appreciation. Except this time, perhaps we should not have to wait for the West to teach us how to drink our tea.
This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Singapore's Wine & Dine magazine.