My first cuppa was brewed by my mother, laden with sugar and steeped in love. Naturally, I was highly suspicious of it.
I wanted to know the answer, as she settled at the end of my bed when I was unwell as a child. “Tea” said Mum. “You’ll like it.”
I looked doubtfully at the ominously steaming mug. Was “tea” a euphemism for yet another unpleasantly syrupy medicine? To my suspicious six-year-old mind, it seemed highly likely.
“Give it a chance” she said, guiding the mug to my lips. Hesitantly, I took a very small sip… And felt instantly better. It was not that I was cured – my head was still foggy, my throat was still raw and my body was still stiff with flu. But, for as long as the cup lasted, I was filled with the inexplicable sense of wellbeing that only a well-made cup of tea can impart.
In my adult years, I realised that my Mum’s ability to create a delicious brew was not hereditary. I decided to hit the books, figuring that even if I didn't have a natural flair, there was no reason why I should not familiarise myself with the theory behind a good tea.
My obsession grew, and I wanted to know everything from the ideal temperature for brewing a floral fusion to how to make the perfect stove-top chai. I was a willing student – I just needed guidance.
Thus far, I’d struggled to create the perfect tea. Impatience was the problem. Instead of waiting for the teabag to steep, I would prematurely remove it after dunking it several times, and would then proceed to feel very hard done by when the hot water stubbornly continued to taste like – well – hot water. Even on those rare occasions that I did summon the necessary patience, the tea always tasted a shade short of perfect. Something was missing.
I picked up a book called The Book of Tea in the hope that it might help change all this. However, rarely has a book so ripe with promise failed me so completely. Simply put: I did not ‘get’ The Book of Tea. It was completely devoid of recipes for brewing the perfect tea. It offered me no guide to the steeping durations for different tea leaves. Instead, I was horrified to discover that the book was a meandering collection of semi-spiritual meditations about tea, describing the process of preparing the beverage as a ‘worship of the imperfect’.
When I came to a particularly exasperating passage where it was declared that ‘[t]here is no single recipe for making the perfect tea, as there are no rules for producing a Titian or a Sesson’, I lost my temper. “How can you call yourself ‘The’ Book of Tea,” I demanded, “if you won’t even tell me how to make a decent cuppa?”
The book did not answer me.
It was all I could do not to hurl it, Silver Linings Playbook style, out the window. The dreams I had woven, in which I emerged from The Book of Tea as some sort of tea sommelier with the ability to prescribe tea leaves for all occasions, were in tatters. Nevertheless, I believed the answer to the perfect tea was out there – and I was prepared to travel to the ends of the earth to find it.
So that’s what I did. Well, not quite “the ends of the earth”, but I did take an 8-hour flight to Japan. Which feels like the same thing.
When I arrived, spring was in full swing. The country was a carpet of pale pink blossoms, and I had imagined that tea houses could be found on every Japanese street corner. In fact, I did not manage to locate an authentic tea house until halfway through the trip – in Kyoto. The tea house was one of the oldest in the city, built in the traditional Japanese timber style and topped by a tiled roof.
I visited the tearoom twice during my week-long stay in Kyoto. On my first visit I chose the richest matcha on the menu. I was so busy congratulating myself on this sophisticated selection that I failed to realise that the matcha had been prepared so thickly that it had the consistency of house paint. And although I made a great show of drinking every last drop, to my untrained Western tongue it tasted a hell of a lot like house paint too.
My second visit was more successful.
I carefully perused the menu and this time settled on a less extravagant, but more palatable, hojicha tea. As the attendant patiently guided me through the brewing process, she explained that hojicha was a roasted, sweeter green tea. I watched as she boiled the water and then poured it into the pot of tea leaves.
“Now, allow the brew to steep for the space of a single breath,” she took a deep breath, theatrically puffing out her cheeks, “then serve.”
I watched as she filled the cup with a mouth-watering maple-syrup-coloured liquid. It tasted as good as it looked. Once I was alone, I eagerly repeated the process myself. The golden brew I created was not perfect like the attendant’s had been – I held my breath for too long – but the ritual of it delighted me. And while my hojicha was imperfect (or perhaps because it was), I liked to think it had character. It tasted earthy and sweet, familiar and fresh all at once. It tasted like it was mine.
Tea-making was undoubtedly an art - the loving way the attendant had brewed the hojicha had taught me that much.
It followed that, just as a person’s enjoyment of an artwork was subjective, so too was the drinker’s enjoyment of a cup of tea. Suddenly, the statement in The Book of Tea seemed perfectly reasonable: of course there could be no single recipe for the perfect tea. What one drinker might call an imperfection of taste, another might interpret as a defining quirk. As I savoured the last of my hojicha, I realised that the context in which a cup of tea was prepared could influence the flavour of the final product just as surely as the steeping duration. I thought of my copy of The Book of Tea sitting on my bookshelf back home and was suddenly glad that I had resisted the urge to throw it out. Perhaps, when I returned to Australia, a reread was in order.
I arrived home laden with Japanese gifts.
Kimonos, countless teas, interesting flavours of Kit Kats – all of which I dutifully declared to the notoriously unforgiving Australian customs officials. There was, however, one very valuable gift from Japan that I did not announce.
While I was none the wiser about ideal steep times or the optimum conditions for growing gyokuro green tea leaves, I had returned with a new way of thinking about the beverage: A philosophy of tea.
My mum still makes me the occasional cup of tea when I’m ill. Sometimes she puts in too much milk, or too little sugar, or fails to steep the teabag for long enough. It is even possible that, to the objective tea-drinker, my mum’s brews are nothing special. But to me, a cuppa from Mum will forever taste just as it did all those years ago: perfectly imperfect.
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