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Bai Baked Tea in Huoshan Village

by Wang Si

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Fall Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(3) page(s): 9 - 10 and 35

There are many common things in our daily lives, some so common they do not get our attention. That is particularly true if they are edible. What with the growth of the food industry, increases in food service, and bigger and better stocked supermarkets, many people are freed from using their kitchen. Large numbers of city folk find their three meals a day as simple fill-ups, somewhat similar to putting gas in their car. Why do these meals require and get so little thought?

Some examples of thoughtless meal behaviors include when parents have breakfast reading the newspaper, young men are busy with their smart phones during their communal lunch, and at dinner, everyone sits around the table paying more attention to the TV than to their food and fellow eaters. Many of these folk think having a meal is a waste of time; and they barely enjoy them. Therefore, I ask myself, is how did this happen?

Is it because we can get foods so easily we are far away from enjoying them? I am confused because I get lots of pleasure and enjoy and am grateful when eating, particularly in the countryside. I find that better than when eating in the city where I live. Is that because the food served in the countryside could not be more simple? Until I had many experiences watching ordinary foods being made there, I could not figure out why I felt this way. Then the answer came to me, and I am going to share my experiences doing fieldwork in a village in Dali called Houshan.

Dali is located in Yunnan Province in an area of more than eleven thousand square miles with a population a mite more than three and a half million. According to the sixth nationwide census in 2010, a few more than half of them are Han Chinese, the rest are a dozen ethnic minorities, each with more than a thousand people. There, the Bai are the second largest ethnic group with more than one million people.

Two villages I have been to are places with many Bai inhabitants. One is Huoshan Village in Shuanglang Town. It is located on the northeast shore of Er-hai Lake. The other is Zhoucheng Village in Xizhou Town on the opposite shore of the lake. Most Huoshan people earn their living farming and raising cattle. More than a half of the Zhoucheng people work in textiles, many dyeing them. The average living standard is better in Zhoucheng than in Huoshan.

Huoshan is not on my schedule and in the beginning I stayed in another village called Dajianpang nearby. But one day my host there, a Mr. Yang, asked if I could make a portrait of his old friend Mr. Gong in that village. He is a seventy-six-year old male who would otherwise need to come down the mountain making a long trip to a photo studio in town. Without hesitation, I promised that I would. I never thought how difficult that might be.

So one day in February, the day of a street market in Shuanglang Town held once every six days, Mr. Gong’s daughter-in-law came down to buy some groceries. She invites both Mr. Yang and me to come visit her family. She finds a big blue truck and pays the driver sixty yuan (twenty yuan for each) to take us there.

I wait in that truck beside the driver's seat for three hours. Other passengers constantly get in. When we set out, more than twenty-five people with their groceries pile into this truck. There are also six adults and three kids inside the cab. They are packed in the cab like sardines while the rest of us pile into the roofless cargo area. A very active kid sits on my knees with his bony hips digging into me like rocks! You might say this truck is overloaded, but we have no other choice. A couple of times we stop, unload and reload, we also turn around several times. Two hours later we get out and walk on until we finally arrive at the Gong house.

This is four-generation family place happy to have the two of us from the lakeside. We all gather around the hearth, chat and drink tea until late into the night. This house is built of clay, and as the temperature outside is about four degrees Centigrade lower than at the foot of the mountain, those not doing physical work sit by the hearth and stay there to keep warm.

The hearth is a square pit about thirty inches long and twenty inches wide; it is at the corner of the kitchen/dining area. This kind of hearth is very typical in China's southwest countryside, particularly in cold places and places that experience sharp temperature changes as they have here.

A long time ago, before this region had kitchens, the hearth was probably the most important place in the home and their lives, and every meal was prepared and served around it. Its purpose was similar to fireplaces in the old west in the United States. Later, cooking was moved to the kitchen, and the hearth remained mainly for warming people and boiling water.

The worship of the God of the Hearth changed to worship of the Kitchen God, a folk religion the people in this area learned from the Han. This might explain why the kitchen and dining room are now together as one space.

At the Gong family hearth, they burn branches from a kind of plum tree, and sometimes use pear tree branches as these trees are everywhere in the village. This season, the fire is burning almost all day long and Mr. Gong, the eldest in the family, keeps smiling and enjoying its warmth. I could not fall asleep that night, not only because what I saw was so impressive, but also because I had ingested too much baked tea.

BAKED TEA, BAI STYLE Almost every family has a pot like theirs to boil water, and a teapot made of clay glazed inside and around the mouth. Many are pear-shaped with a wide mouth, a single ear, and no lid. The pot to boil water is seen with Mr. Gong, his grandson and myself. The teapots are usually two to three inches in diameter and three to four inches tall; they hold four to seven ounces of liquid. One is not shown in this picture.

On the hearth, they prepare that kettle of boiling water, and before boiling it put the empty teapot on the fire until it is dry inside and hot on its surface. Then they put a handful of green tea leaves inside this teapot pot, and put it at the edge of the fire tuning it occasionally and shaking it from time to time to make sure the tea leaves are evenly baked. Some three to five minutes later when light smoke is rising and offering a burnt aroma, they slowly pour boiled water into the teapot. The water sizzles and the fragrance of tea quickly fills the air.

Because of the small capacity of their teapot, one can only serve one person at a time just a small cup of baked tea. The first round is served to the eldest or to a guest, its liquid looking amber. It tastes bitter and sharp and stronger than black coffee. If your tongue has trouble dealing with it, the host might suggest adding a little hot water to dilute it. Actually, there is a slightly sweet taste after the bitter one. Hot water is added to the pot again after it is emptied, and it is heated over the fire until it bubbles. People around the hearth get to share a pot of tea, one by one. The teapot is refilled five to eight times, depending on the amount of tea leaves in it.

Baked Tea is a particular way of serving tea. It is very typical among different ethnic groups in the Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan Provinces. It is popular in countryside with the baked tea related to the living environment and the food habits of the local people. Crops on the mountain grow in poor soil including barley, buckwheat, maize, potatoes and beans. These are local people's staple food. In addition, they raise pigs there is enough forage as mentioned above. With cold climate and heavy labor, their food is simple, high in calories, also in oil and starch. This sort of food is not easy to digest and this strong helps them do so. Tea leaves do grow in Yunnan, and as does all real tea, it is from Camellia sinensis plants. Its quality might not be as good as tea grown in southeast China, its leaves can be big, many are six inches square and they contain more caffeine and tea polyphenols than some teas, particularly green ones grown elsewhere. These two items influence its taste making it bitter and astringent. Baking the tea leaves makes them taste much stronger so it is no wonder some local people compare their baked tea with black coffee. They are addicted to it both for its value in helping them digest food and because they find it refreshing.

Speaking of the Bai habit of drinking tea, allow me to correct a mistake made in my last essay titled "Food Specialties of the Bai in Dali." The three rounds of tea mentioned there called san dao cha in Mandarin is not their tradition. What that should have said is that Bai people serve their guests three patterns of tea in a specific order. First, they serve baked tea, then sweet tea with popped rice, then sliced milk fan, ground walnuts and sugar, and finally a flavored tea with ginger and brown sugar. I have not heard nor seen this in a local family, and do believe it is a marketing strategy for tourism.

These three kinds of tea do exist in Bai people's life, but never as a series nor for hospitality. Although baked tea is necessary in Bai's family life, not all family members get used to its bitter and astringent flavor, and women and children find sweet tea more acceptable.

Normally, they call it pop rice tea. and do serve it to their guests, but only during festivals. Flavored ginger tea is a kind of therapy for chills and cold. No host would encourage you to have these three drinks in one time, not to mention in a specific order. Moreover, either sweet tea or flavored tea has nothing to do with tea leaves.

By the way, to make pop rice, it is rice heated until it pops. You can find this occasionally in China's countryside or town, and there is a traditional machine to make it or make popcorn. It is common to prepare rice or corn and give it to the popping peddler, pay him or her a little cash for the process. Some of our friends in the west may have seen this on a Discovery program called MythBusters. It was a TV show hosted by two former Hollywood special-effects experts and three knowledgeable co-stars. These guys bought a real Chinese popcorn machine and did that.

Besides baking tea, that night, the family baked potatoes, broad beans, and walnuts, all under the hearth dust. That might be the only best special foodstuff from their land, and they are the best I have ever tasted. The only thing did was take some pictures for their family album. I know I was lucky to stay there for three days and see and enjoy all this. In the next issue of Flavor and Fortune, I will share two other foods enjoyed with two families. They are the bean curd they made a a special steamed rice cake.
The author, a Ph. D. candidate at Yunnan University, is majoring in Ethnology. Her Master’s Degree was in the History of Chinese Food Culture at Zhejiang Gongshang University in Hangzhou. Her current studies concentrate on Symbolic Anthropology. She is mainly interested in relations between food and religion and is focusing on Bai People in China. All of the pictures used with this article are hers, and we thank her for them.

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