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Lapsang Souchong Tea

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Fall Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(3) page(s): 9 and 10

In the fifth century, the word for tea became known as cha. However, it was not for the beverage we now know as tea, it was for the leaves whose uses were primarily medicinal. As a beverage, types of tea and tea consumption were codified by Lu Wu in his Classic of Tea written circa the eighth century. This volume and the interest in it gave inklings as to its importance. After its publication, the Chinese began to drink tea often. Doing so increased its importance. The beliefs of that time remain to this day.

Camellia sinensis, the only plant from which all teas are made, continues to grow in importance. Types, curing, and manufacturing processes have and are expanding. There are many kinds of white teas, yellow teas, green teas, oolong teas, and black teas. And, there are several kinds of pu-er teas. All their leaves are brewed in hot water, but best brewed at different temperatures depending upon the tea. In early times, other ingredients were added to tea leaves; now it is more common to just drink the liquid brewed with the leaves.

Some teas were prepared for sale by packing the leaves together; these are called brick teas. This process was and still is done for shipping purposes. Different types and sizes of leaves are picked at assorted times. They are processed for different amounts of time, at different temperatures, using different techniques, etc. No matter how made, all types of tea are made from the leaves of this one plant.

In the Fujian Province, the principal tea made in the Wu-I region in the late 17th century was the partially fermented (correctly called 'oxidized'); it is Wuyi tea. This early 'Bohea' tea, really an oolong tea, is recognized by T. Huang, in The Science and Civilization in China's Volume VI:5. He states that between 1786 and 1833, black teas from Fujian had names such as congou and souchong. He also states that Chinese records do not tell how these teas were made. In an effort to learn this, Samuel Ball, in Cultivation and Manufacture of Tea in China published in 1848, gleaned some information from his Cantonese friends. Robert Fortune, disguised as a Chinese, actually did manage to visit the Wuyi region in the late 1840's.

Ball's information is based upon records of the East Indian Company. Huang wrote that the souchong was a bushy variety of tea grown in the Wuyi region, and that the best known souchong was 'lapsang souchong.' He said that Bohea was originally applied to the best black tea, and because they were called 'black teas' by foreign traders, many Chinese assumed that they actually were. However, there is no record in Chinese literature of how they were prepared, and souchong black tea is tea trade terminology born in the 18th century.

What is anecdotally known, is that one night during the Taipei Rebellion, a tea processing station in Fujian's Wuyi mountains was billeted by rebel troops. It is said that they used bags of freshly picked tea leaves as bedding, and that after they left, the proprietor was alarmed when he discovered the leaves had turned dark and developed a special aroma. He could hardly wait to process them and ship them to Fuzhou. Later, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that foreigners actually liked the tea and wanted more of it. He is said to have received a standing order for the same type of tea year after year.

Now, known for its smoky flavor, the best Lapsang Souchong tea is a special product originating in Tong Mu Guan in a small village in the province of Fujian. Its flavor, sometimes described as 'tarry' is because it is processed in a very special way. The Chinese call it zeng shan xiao zhong. The last two words mean 'little variety' and are sometimes translated as 'subvariety.'

The tale just told says this tea was discovered by accident, and in the Star Village, known in Chinese as Xing cun. The tale continues that after the troops left, the workers needed to rush the leaves to the market by drying them more quickly than usual. They are said to have dreamed up the idea of doing so over open pinewood fires.

Then and since, Lapsang Soughong tea leaves wither or partially dry over these fires. In recent times they have used pine, cypress, or cedar wood for them. Then they pan-fry the leaves in dry woks, roll them, then press them into bamboo or wooden baskets. The baskets are covered with fabric and the tea leaves stay in them until they give off a distinct aroma. After they dry somewhat, the leaves are taken out of the baskets, dry-fried again, and put on wooden racks to cool. Then they put them into other bamboo baskets that are hung over wood fires until the leaves are very dry. At this point, workers cut the leaves into strips, roll them, and smoke them once more. The result is glossy dry leaves, that when brewed, produce a very aromatic smoky red liquid.

This tea, whose origins are placed in the 17th century, was and is still popular in the Wuyi tea market. It eventually made its way to European markets. Not all Lapsang Souchong tea is of high quality. Some is made with lower grades of leaves or is a blend of high and low and/or old and newer leaves. Some even have smoke or smoke flavoring added.

At one time, this Lapsang Souchong tea was considered rare. Perhaps that was when demand exceeded supply. At other times, so little was made that this unusually flavored tea was simply hard to find. As a result of poorly made leaves or those mixed with other teas or artificial flavorings, demand for this type of tea was reduced. When made well, this tea's taste has hints of longan fruit, and is considered terrific. At its height of popularity, tea merchants toted plants across the Taiwan Straits to plant some there. Tea originating in Taiwan is called Formosa Lapsang Soughong tea.

This smoky tea has been popularized in the press and in many works of fiction. John Thorpe, editor of Simple Cooking, once wrote us that "Sherlock Holmes did not drink Lapsang Souchong tea. He drank coffee." John Bellair's Miss Ells in his Dark Secret of Weatherend, and James Michener's Alexander McKeag in Centennial, did drink this type of tea. So did other fictional characters.

Real folks drink it, too, and fans of Lapsang Souchong tea report this tea goes well with spicy and salty foods. We love it with Smoked Ham, Smoked Chicken, Smoked Rabbit, and other smoked foods. Some fans call it the 'Burgundy of teas' or the 'Gew├╗rtztraminer' of teas. Some simply refer to it as 'a man's tea.' Why, because it has an assertive flavor and a strong aroma.

Traditional Chinese medicinal doctors recommend Lapsang Souchong tea as a stomach settler. They also suggest using it when making a congee that is said to ease chronic dysentery and reduce fatigue.

Whatever one calls this smoky-flavored tea, and wherever, whenever, and with whomever one drinks or eats a congee made with it, it is best to brew the tea in 205 degree water for five or six minutes. The resultant liquid will be reddish-brown, lower in caffeine than most black-leaf teas of which it is one, and considered by some to be lots healthier.

Lapsang Souchong tea leaves are great to use when making Tea Eggs. They are great to use when making Tea-smoked Duck. As a matter of fact, this tea when brewed, is great to drink with many heavy dishes and most fatty foods. For the latter, it aids in their digestion.

No longer is short supply, Lapsang Souchong tea can be found in Chinese supermarkets and Chinese speciality emporia. Many places to purchase some are available when searching for it on the web Google-ing it. Some places, including Upton Tea (in Hopkington MA; phone 800/234-8327) sell several varieties of Lapsang Souchong tea. This particular tea retailer is one of the few that sells sample envelopes of this and other teas for a buck or two. Postage and handling are extra.

We recommend finding some somewhere, understand its uses, and appreciate its tastes. We used one sample envelope to make each of these recipes and make a pot or two of tea. When you open one or any Lapsang Souchong tea product, aroma fills your nostrils and tells of its taste. Just smelling it is a heady experience.
Smokey Tea Eggs
8 eggs, hard cooked twelve minutes, then rolled gently until their shells crack
2 Tablespoons Lapsang Souchong dried tea leaves
2 teaspoons thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons black soy sauce
1 teaspoon black rice vinegar
1 large lettuce leaf
1. Put all the ingredients in a large pot with two cups of water. Bring water almost to the boil, then simmer for twelve minutes. Remove and set aside for another twelve minutes.
2. Peel and discard the shells, cut eggs in half, and place them yolk side down on a lettuce leaf, and on a platter. Serve.
Tea-leaf Roast Duck
1 whole raw duck, cut into eight pieces
2 Tablespoons dry Lapsang Souchong tea leaves
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
6 whole star anise
3 Tablespoons Chinese brown sugar, crushed
3 slices fresh ginger
1 cup thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
3 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one cup of cold water
1. Put duck pieces, tea leaves, Sichuan pepper, star anise, and brown sugar into a six quart pot. Pour six cups of boiling water over and stir well. Then set aside for thirty minutes.
2. Remove duck pieces, drain then strain the liquid, and discard the solid ingredients.
3. Put duck and the liquid back into the pot, add the soy sauce and rice wine, salt, and ginger and bring to the boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low, and simmer for one and a half hours. Uncover the pot and stir everything every fifteen minutes. Remove the duck to a serving platter, and set one cup of the liquid aside. The rest can be used for other purposes, including making a soup with it.
4. Mix the cornstarch mixture in a small pot, add one cup of the reserved duck liquid and boil stirring until thickened. Pour over the duck and serve.
Tea-smoked Beancurd
3 squares soft or silken bean curd squares, cut into one-inch pieces
1 Tablespoon Lapsang Souchong tea leaves simmered for five minutes in one cup of water, then boiled for one minute, and then drained, the tea leaves discarded
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 sprig fresh coriander, diced
1. Put bean curd pieces, water from the brewed tea, salt, and sesame oil in a ceramic bowl.
2. Set aside for one hour in the refrigerator. Remove to the counter and carefully discard the liquid. Serve the bean curd in a bowl or a deep dish, and sprinkle the coriander on it just before serving.
Tea-smoked Congee
2 Tablespoons Lapsang Souchong dry tea leaves
1 cup glutinous rice flour
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1. Boil the tea leaves with one cup of water for three to five minutes, then strain the leaves and discard them or use them to make some tea.
2. Bring 6 cups of water to the boil, add the tea water, rice flour, and the sugar, and reduce the heat and simmer for twenty to thirty minutes until thick. Pour this into individual rice bowls, and serve.

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