Thursday, May 25, 2017

Visiting Bangkok Chinatown on staycation, reviewing Ya Bao (tea buds)

I live in Bangkok, so it's normal that I would visit the local Chinatown and buy tea there.  I've written about the Jip Eu shop there (in a search query here), and about the one tea cafe there, Double Dogs.  Odd there is just one cafe in Chinatown, or maybe I'm just missing the others, and they're Google-proof.  Of course I'm searching in English; I can use Google translate to switch back and forth to do a Thai language based search but it's not simple.

I'll say a little about the Bangkok Chinatown, what it's like, and that shop, and describe a tea I bought.  In a sense it's not ordinary tea, Ya Bao, it's a different form of tea buds made into something like white tea, sold as white pu'er.  That could almost be three different subjects and three different posts, especially the review part, and I am using just that part as a TChing post (which appeared here).

Back-story:  a staycation

in Bali with a cousin

My wife went on a vacation to Bali without me this week with our kids.  We get out a good bit compared to the vacation time I have to spend on that, using it all, and I had an important meeting, and her cousin and his wife were signed on for that trip, so I didn't join.  No problem.  We visited Java and Bali (Indonesia) a year and a half ago, and Bali is nice but it's a lot like any other tropical island, with a few extra ancient temples around.  The beaches are not nearly as nice as those in Hawaii, where my wife and I both went to grad school, so that helped soften the blow a little related to passing on a vacation.

Technically this wasn't a "staycation" because I worked the whole week, but I did explore some.  For entertainment I walked around Chinatown two nights, not so far from where I work, and checked out a backpacker theme tourist area another, Kao San Road.  I typically never get out, besides  running errands and doing what kids do, so it made for a nice change of pace.  I'll skip mentioning Kao San Road but I will go into what the Bangkok Chinatown is like.

Chinatowns comparison

Our Chinatown is a little rough, to be honest.  I feel safe there, whether that's justified or not.  I really did just test that safety issue by walking several kilometers along vacant streets and alleys, seeing what's there and looking for one place in particular.  Once you get just a bit further West of Chinatown walking by homeless people setting up camp on sidewalks happens, something that would be a sure sign you really shouldn't be there in a US city.  For whatever reason Thailand doesn't have much of the kinds of crime that tie in with that.  Maybe because they're Buddhist?  Some people do very non-Buddhist things, clearly dropping the five precepts, but few enough take up mugging other people, stealing their money in that way.  So much for the superiority complex associated with developed world privilege, thinking that it's all that much closer to a utopia in "the West."

a side street dining area off Yaowarat, in Bangkok Chinatown (photo credit)

So by "rough" I mean that there are restaurants, which look like Chinese restaurants anywhere, in a US city or in China, but per appearances most food is sold and consumed in street-stall informal cafe settings.  In the Singapore Chinatown that's a wonderfully well organized, clean, structured setting, although I suppose pricing goes up a little for tidying up the environment.  Here the "kitchens" are food carts, not like food trucks, like a steel cabinet on wheels with a gas-fired wok set-up attached.  They're even cooler when the whole thing is welded to a motorcycle, Mad Max style, but that configuration is mostly used for fruit vending or something such.

I speak some Thai, maybe a few hundred words, so I can muddle through ordering, but that setting still doesn't feel familiar.  Part of that relates to crowding; some food carts have only two or three small associated tables, and more popular places maybe a dozen or more, but they'd typically be full.  Anyway this is supposed to circle back to tea, not just about dining issues.

I've already said that Singapore's Chinatown is well-organized, maybe a bit too much so.  The dining is better--unless someone loves street food, maybe--but lots of the main areas turn into tourist souvenir shops.  That's great for buying a magnet with a merlion on it, or a knock-off watch that will probably stop in a month, but somehow not as authentic an experience.  Bangkok's Chinatown retains the wholesale vendor theme, it's what drives their local economy, but then if you visit after six PM that means most of it is closed.

NYC Chinatown (One World Trade Center in the background)

We just visited the NYC Chinatown in January so I can compare it to both.  It looks like NYC, to me, maybe no surprise there.  I'd be more careful about wandering quiet alleys in the evenings there but it seemed friendly.  Nowhere in the US, outside slums, is as rough-edged as lots of Bangkok looks so it seemed modern in comparison.  I like that about Bangkok, by the way, but it does take some getting used to.  Maybe especially the smells, which I don't really notice now (funny, now that I think of it).  At any rate the NYC Chinatown is a good place to get tea (maybe better for ordinary grade versions), or a bowl of noodles, or some Asian food dry goods, back to that wholesale theme.  I wasn't looking for counterfeit brand-name goods so I'm not sure about that.

a nice gate at the Yokohama Chinatown

We visited the Yokohama Chinatown, a good bit outside Tokyo, two years back--the time just flies--and it was nice, more like Sinagpore's, but maybe a little more genuine.  Japan is so clean and well organized that nowhere there is likely to look like an average part of Bangkok.  Drifting off topic, but you can find tea from different countries in Japan, more true of there than here; odd it works out that way.  But if you go to a Japanese Chinatown looking for Japanese tea that won't work; funny I hadn't thought that through before visiting there.

What about Chinese cities, not really Chinatowns, but definitely Chinese?  I've only been to Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen (and Hong Kong, sort of a different thing).  They're awesome, maybe a little more modern and "normal" compared to "the West" than one might expect, but the different levels of unusual options would not disappoint.

Chinese people are great, I think.  Some do spit a lot, related to that one stereotype.  And for whatever reason our friend and local guide, my son's former schoolmate's mother, did end up shouting a lot at vendors when she showed us around Shanghai, but to me that was just local color.  The people were warm and friendly, and very genuine, especially as urban environments go.  Again I felt safer there than in a US city.  And tea is EVERYWHERE!  Turning up the best of local shops takes some doing but finding tea is a matter of just looking around anywhere you happen to be.  I should get back on track here though, about that tea, and about finding it.

Ya Bao from a Bankok Chinatown shop

I had been walking around aimlessly for about two hours.  Not finding a street-stall "restaurant" that had an empty seat, or that looked agreeable, I went to a familiar restaurant.  I'd been in one shop that had tea, including generic pu'er, but that theme was going nowhere, and the lychee I walked by seemed overpriced.  It's funny how I'm conditioned to value $5-7 here as if that's a substantial amount of money; I tend to live like a local in some ways.  I was considering stopping for a beer but that's not what Chinatown is about, and I only passed a jazz bar that wasn't of interest (not a dive at all, or I wouldn't have hesitated).  I had just about had it, and just then I found this shop, Sen Xing Fa, at the far end of a side-street.

one owner-family member, with pu'er

It's not the 90+ year old old-school Chinatown shop that Jip-Eu is; it's an ordinary tea shop.  It seemed odd that they sell commercial pu'er, some pressed white teas (a little), Thai commercial teas, and lots of bulk-stored teas, a good mix (ok, that bulk storage isn't exactly ideal).  At a guess this isn't the kind of place you'd find an upper-level range of Chinese teas, good Wuyi Yancha or Dan Cong, but I didn't try theirs to check on that.  It's probably mostly fine, I'm just getting a bit spoiled.  And I was looking for teas that are new to me.

I drifted towards an unusual looking white tea cake, and then after tasting that bought 50 grams of the loose version instead (this tea), since I didn't love that version.  You have to go with your intuition.  I also bought a pressed white tea cake, in the candy-bar block style, and a pu'er I have no idea what to make of (aged sheng, or at least it was sold as that).  Since this runs long maybe it's better to get back about those later.

The Ya Bao looks like tea buds, but not like silver tips / silver needle, as if from a different plant.  Per talking to one Yunnan producer they are from a different plant, and another vendor mentioned the look is different because they're picked in the winter instead.  Both could be true; I'll see what turns up about that.

The tea doesn't taste like tea at all, like a tisane instead.  This version's flavor is bright and sweet, with a distinctive pine aspect, pretty close to how brewing rosemary works out.  I did brew a lot of rosemary, by the way.  I bought a large size container of both that and thyme on sale in a grocery store and then, realizing that I don't cook much with rosemary, spent months drinking it prepared as an infused tisane (or as herb tea, if you're loose with how you use that word).  It's nice.

This is probably shifted a little from rosemary towards actual pine (which I reviewed here, and went into potential medicinal or nutritional uses here), which to me is a good thing since I like brewed pine needles.  I could even go back and review that post to confirm which tree's needles it is most similar to, but based on memory this is like White Pine, on the light, sweet, fresh, and delicate side as those go.  It just doesn't taste anything like tea.

a bit like this atypical tisane

I think this tea would be good or bad depending on how much someone expected and wanted it to taste like tea.  From there flavor preference would come into play, but I think anyone ok with using rosemary as a tisane would love it, and anyone that would hate that wouldn't.  It seems a little one-dimensional, but it would probably vary some based on shifting around brewing parameters, so I'm likely not getting the best out of it just yet.  I guess you could blend with it too, mix it with something else, but I wouldn't.

As far as this being "white pu'er" I'm not seeing that, either of those descriptions fitting.  It's nothing like Moonlight White teas I've tried, in a similar general range. The processing method for making this from the picked buds is simple, per my understanding from discussing that with a couple people, more or less just letting the buds dry, so maybe closest to making white tea.

other tea

Ya Bao; what is it?

Per a Yunnan tea maker contact it's grown in Dehong Prefecture, but he didn't know the specific plant type, just referring to it as "wild," not made from a variation of the two main tea plant varieties.  Most sources seem to describe it as just being tea, presumably the Assamica variety.  Yunnan Sourcing has a different take, seconding what that other producer told me:

These little white buds come from wild-growing Camellia Assamica Dehongensis varietal.  It is a sub-varietal of camellia that grows in the tropical area of Dehong and Lincang in southwestern Yunnan.  The buds are picked in early February and then sun-dried.  The flavor is fresh and a little fruity somewhat similar to a good white tea but more complex flavors.  The brewed liquor is whitish and clear, and there is a hint of fresh pine needles in the aroma!

a black tea version from the same plant type (photo credit Yunnan Sourcing)

The version of Ya Bao I tried didn't seem at all complex.  I read some other reviews of versions--for some reason a wave of product descriptions and blog posts published in 2014; funny how that works out--and those were a lot more positive than my two experiences, counting trying a pressed version in that shop.  Another tea vendor in the US completely echoed my take on the experience of only one version; it tastes sweet and a little like pine, but doesn't have a lot going on.

He and another Chinese tea producer and vendor expressed one other interesting idea (or concern, depending on your take), that unlike picking a silver needle / silver tip bud later in the spring harvesting this from the tip of a branch will prevent that branch from producing any new leaves at all.  This is surely tied to why it looks like a set of leaves early in development, not just a bud.  If it's not really a Camellia Sinensis plant--odd that other citation used "Camellia Assamica" right; that's not how that naming convention works--then this might not relate to later "tea" harvest potential anyway, unless there is a different leaf-based version to be had from this plant type as well.  The product in that last picture (with link mentioned there) seems to clearly be exactly that.

I'm sure adjusting brewing could turn up a couple more trace flavor aspects, but based only on this experience of this version I could take or leave it.  It's interesting and pleasant, worth trying out, and I'm glad I have most of 50 grams left for that, but it probably won't become a favorite.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hatvala jasmine black tea from Vietnam (Ha Giang / Ha Noi)

I first tried jasmine black tea in Indonesia, a common commercial tea alternative there (with a little about one version here).  I was surprised by how much I liked it.  Among other flavored teas I'll drink Earl Grey and that's about it (although I did like a coconut flavored version of black tea; I guess there's room for exceptions).  This version should be much better than that grocery store tea in Indonesia, given the quality of other Hatvala teas I've tried in the past (including this Earl Grey).

jasmine teas from Indonesia (Indonesian blog photo credit)

I'll say a little about Hatvala first (site link), but I've introduced them before in other reviews (like this one, about an oolong and black tea).  They seek out and sell interesting, better versions of Vietnamese tea.  On a trip to Hanoi and out in the country I found some interesting teas but did a little better through Hatvala (by mail) after hearing about them online.  As "Western" vendors go What-Cha carries their teas (link to one of my favorites, a Red Buffalo roasted oolong).  Hatvala also sells teas directly, but using that Western source might be a good way to try a couple.

You can go to Vietnam and all but miss that they drink anything but green tea, with most coming from the Thai Nguyen region (per my understanding; I'm no authority on Vietnamese teas).  Decent black tea is around, and oolong also isn't incredibly rare, but you might miss it.  As with anywhere turning up better quality versions is also an issue.  Their ordinary versions of green tea are fine, a bit heavy on mineral aspects, but prepared properly they can balance nicely.

It's odd that in Vietnam they tend to drink green tea prepared with boiling point water, served in a pot so that brewing time isn't controlled.  They seem to like the high level of astringency that results from both of those brewing choices.  Other better Vietnamese teas are a completely different thing, but I'll get back to this flavored version.

Vietnamese tea isn't as simple a subject as you might think (credit Hatvala)


On first taste this already seemed like one of the best flavored teas I've ever tried.  It's floral, of course, but maybe almost as fruity.  At any rate there's a lot of complexity in flavors experience, even if I am completely wrong about that fruit part.

One of the main flavors would have to be jasmine, wouldn't it?  It comes across completely differently than in green tea, which is why those inexpensive, commercial jasmine black teas in Indonesia worked so well for me.  Jasmine green tea can be nice, in a sense (with everything depending on preference), for that sweet floral nature being so intense.  I find that intensity to even be independent of flavor level that's present, to some degree, as just how the aspect characters mix, merging with the fresh, brighter flavors in green tea.  But it is easy for the flavors intensity to become a bit much in green versions.  Combining it with black tea strikes a completely different balance.

To some extent this does just taste like black tea mixed with that particular flower, but the sum is also somehow greater than the parts, so description will be a challenge.  It comes across as more complex than that.  Getting the level of jasmine right would be a critical factor, and this really works for jasmine being moderate.  It combines naturally with the black tea flavors, not seeming to override them, not as sweet and powerful as can be typical is in green tea versions (although of course those would vary in style).  The Hatvala owner said a little about what the tea is and how it's made as follows:

For the black jasmine tea we are currently using a wild black tea produced in a small factory in Fin Ho, Ha Giang province.  All of the jasmine teas are scented in the West Lake area of Hanoi using locally, naturally grown jasmine blossoms.  Blending is done by an old lady (she is approaching 80 years old) and her family.  They have been blending jasmine and lotus teas in this area for many years.  The jasmine season in the north of Vietnam is May to September and it has a stronger fragrance than the year round jasmine available in the south,

Blending is by layering freshly picked jasmine blossoms during the afternoon, layering it with the tea and leaving overnight as the blossoms open.  For the black tea this is repeated a total of four times (normally three for green tea).  Rule of thumb estimate is that by the end of the process approximately 2 kg of jasmine flowers are used for each kg of tea.

Lets try more flavors-list separation on the second infusion.  I'm brewing this tea Gongfu style even though it's not the most natural choice, it's just what I'm used to these days.  It's really a variation of those two main approaches, with the proportion a bit light and times drawn out a little as Gongfu brewing goes, so as much in between.  I had used Western style adjusted towards Gongfu style a lot in the past and I suppose I've ended up not far from that, just using the other equipment, a gaiwan in this case.  These aren't supposed to be objectively better versions of technique I'm describing, not necessarily a progressive learning curve, just the page I'm on.  This tea would be fine brewed Western style, and it worked out similarly using that approach the second time I tried it.

brewing in a gaiwan

The tea balances being earthy and sweet very well.  The flavor is not subdued but well-matched.  I could swear I'm picking up fruit, beyond the floral tone and earthiness of a black tea, surely from the tea.  It's not easy to identify.  It's not so far from roasted sweet potato but not exactly that, a little towards dark cherry but maybe not exactly that either.  The easier description is to just include them all as a list, to say the tea tastes like earthiness from black tea, a soft version of malt--it's not astringent, a typical pairing of one flavor range of malt and one feel element--and maybe including dark wood tones, then also jasmine, just a softer and balanced version of that, roasted sweet potato, and dark cherry.

in Seoul (mentioned here)

Part of the sweetness and complexity also reminds me a little of a bark or root spice, not one I'm familiar with.  This is back to that idea that when you walk through a traditional spice market lots of unfamiliar smells mix, many sweet, earthy and complex in ways you could hardly imagine.  It doesn't come up for me so often but it's the kind of experience that leaves a lasting impression on you.  Old style markets here tend to smell like fish sitting out on ice on an open table, and for good reason.  To put a name to that spice aspect it's along the lines of sassafras.

The tea is perhaps fading a little on the third infusion, or since I'm not paying close attention to times it could just be that.  I think either way it will probably go a couple more good infusions by stepping up times more.  I'm probably drinking this on the light side related to how lots of people might take black tea, but then I'd expect that to work as a generality about preference shifts, that people might tend to prefer tea brewed lighter across all types after gaining more exposure.  That's just me speculating, of course.  At any rate the balance is still great.  To me this works really well brewed lightly because it still has a nice feel to it, not as full and rich as some other types, but it's definitely not thin, and the flavors work well.

brewed leaves

I'm going to try and explain the part that can't be explained; good luck to me in pulling that off.  There was synergy between the jasmine flavor and black tea even in the much lower quality Indonesian commercial versions.  They weren't doing so bad with balance but they weren't on this level for success in that.  This is a bit of an aside but a friend living there said he experienced health issues related to drinking a lot of that tea, which may well have been processed with a chemical that didn't agree with him.  Due to talking with the Hatvala owner I am completely convinced this tea is natural, untouched by chemicals, and probably sourced to be relatively safely grown.  But that's my personal belief; guarantees about that sort of thing are difficult to assess, and here in Thailand that eve relates to accepting organic certifications.

In good Earl Grey the orange flavor (bergamot essence) and black tea combine well; the flavors compliment each other.  Per my current preference this works better.  Novelty might be part of that.  If you'd only ever tried so-so tea-bag versions of Earl Grey and then ran across a much better example it could seem like a different experience, and I think I'm there now with this tea.  Bergamot is a natural companion to black tea, with sweetness and complexity combining into one profile range with it, and depending on preference this is just as good or better.  With Earl Grey it seems the two fit more naturally into a black tea/base bergamot/high tone pairing, and does something similar, but with jasmine on the lighter side those black tea flavors just blend with floral.

jasmine garland in a local grocery store complex

A bit of an aside:  the smell of actual jasmine flowers can be on the intense side.  People use jasmine to make a garland here in Thailand, like a small version of a lei.  Basic versions are inexpensive, costing 10 baht (35 cents, give or take), and the larger version in the photo cost about a dollar instead.  They're even sold by people walking around at traffic stop lights.  The garlands are used for religious purposes, as a symbolic offering to a Buddha statue, or just as an air freshener.  If you put one of those in a bus it can add a nice background scent but in a taxi it's way too strong.

Around the sixth infusion this thins a lot.  The balance is still ok, with the jasmine fading at the same rate as the tea.  For a light oolong this would brew more times but it held up well for what it is.  It's a sign of good quality if the character stays positive throughout the cycle and this tea did.

General impression:  I loved the tea.  It's not as sophisticated and aspect-layered as some other versions of plain black teas, lacking some structure and complexity compared to better Dian Hong.  But that's splitting hairs, comparing it to some of the best black teas made.  Even for being more straightforward on those levels to me this might have eclipsed Earl Grey in expressing the highest potential of flavored black tea.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Lin Mao Sen Dong Ding (Taiwanese roasted oolong)

the shop is so beautiful I'll break form related to showing the tea first

This is a review of a version of Dong Ding, a mid-roasted Nantou area Taiwanese oolong, from the Lin Mao Sen shop in Taipei.  I'm reviewing a fair number of basic teas these days, which really relates to different purposes.  I never did try or review a tea from this shop yet, in spite of buying a couple awhile back now, and it works to compare it to a similar type I tried not long ago.  I shared some of this with a couple of monks I know here before I tried it, which is the kind of thing I never tend to do, so that triggered tasting and reviewing it.

I reviewed a similar Nantou roasted oolong from TShop recently, a NYC shop, a tea that tasted nice but gave up a lot related to better examples in body and feel.  It was sold as a modest level version of that tea, so a bit of gap in overall quality level seemed reasonable.  It felt a little like unfinished business though, not describing a better version in detail.

The rest of the back-story of this tea is about visiting Taipei to buy it.  I also visited another great shop there next door, Lin Hua Tai, and reviewed a nice lighter oolong from them here, compared to that TShop tea, and an Oriental Beauty.  Both places are really worth a look if you visit Taipei, and given the wholesale vending theme at both they would be a good place to pick up a good bit of tea.  I bought 150 grams of this one, the minimum amount that both shops typically sell, given that volume orientation.  I still have one "honey black" type to get to from this shop and that will cover all those teas I bought over the Christmas and New Years break, from those two cities on opposite sides of the world.

and they carry teaware, lots of it


The tea is full and creamy, with good flavors.  It's right on where it should be, even early on when it's still opening up.  I'll go over aspects, listing them out, but it's really about that, the way it all works together.

Flavors might not be the most exceptional part but I'll start there.  The tea is bright and sweet, very clean in effect.  It has a creamy feel that extends into a subtle creaminess in flavors that really stands out.  It's not buttery, but there is an effect that spans from feel into taste that seems to relate to cream.  It's a bit floral, but the integrated flavors spans lots of range.  Minerals underlie all the rest, but that scope isn't pronounced.

That medium-ish level of roast stands out, but it's not easy to take in what that is contributing given all the complexity.  It definitely doesn't switch over to tasting a lot like cocoa, spice, or toasted pastry, as more roasted teas might, still light instead.  It reminds me of a lot of teas that tried to strike that ideal balance and didn't quite get there.  If these flavors were off in just a small way, too toasty, leaving behind the floral character, not integrating the mineral undertone properly, or not roasted quite as much, it wouldn't work nearly as well as it does.

Feel and aftertaste are perhaps the real strengths, adding those extra layers to the experience beyond flavor.  It's the opposite of thin, quite full and rich.  The structure coats your mouth in a unique way.  The aftertaste lingers for a full minute after tasting the tea, with a very subtle part of that experience not really ever seeming to end, just continually tapering off.  I keep saying that I'm not as into feel as taste but it does make for a more complex experience when it all comes together, and you sort of perceive the lack when it doesn't.  In a good version of tea it's not so natural to say one aspect range really makes it work and they all kind of hang together.

It's the kind of tea that works really well brewed at different infusion strengths.  The flavor intensity would be fine brewed very lightly, and the feel doesn't become negative even brewed on the stronger side.  It works really well at different infusion strengths for different reasons.  Base tones either stay subdued brewed lightly or ramp up when stronger, with feel going from full and rich on the lighter side to a bit extra thick and intense.  Different people might prefer a different optimum infusion strength or it can be nice messing with that, experiencing a range.

It really took a few infusions for the tea to fully open up but it was bright, creamy, floral and complex throughout that transition.  After getting going it's a bit warmer but doesn't lose anything related to those brighter aspects.  It might move a little towards a light cocoa, or something along that line, but as an aspect that's subdued and integrated.  It could even be interpreted as a difference in how the mineral tones play out, or as something else joining that base profile, in the range of toasted almonds.

A few infusions later--a good number in--the brightness does fade some, and woody tones replace a lot of the floral nature, and mineral picks up.  The creaminess doesn't really fade, or that overall fullness and complexity.

All of this sounds a bit standard for the type, doesn't it?  The interesting part isn't about the length of a flavors list, although that is long enough, or any of those aspects being novel, although many are pronounced in especially pleasant ways.  It's a much better than average tea because of the balance it all strikes.  That roast effect gives it complexity without ever seeming like a medium roast level, related to being able to pin down a direct contribution, but it definitely adds depth.

Many, many infusions in--maybe 15, with the proportion of tea to water a bit heavy-- the tea stays clean, balanced, and positive.  The fullness fades, the brightness gives way a bit, and the aspects transition but it's still great tea, just as it is.  The flavors don't go off in any way, a good sign.  It thins, but even after brewing that many infusions it's still thicker in feel than moderate quality level versions.

This shop was well regarded by others I know that had visited there, and in online recommendations, and this tea is a good indication as to why.  Note that I'm not really trying to place it on a scale related to rare and exceptional versions of this type.  I liked it a lot; it's probably as good an example of this style as I've tried, definitely better than most.

If I'm remembering the price of the tea correctly it was a real steal for tea this good, on par in pricing with options nowhere near this quality level, probably even in comparison with most online vendors.  But then it is a wholesale oriented shop in Taipei, so one might naturally expect to find a good tea at a good price there.

Sukhothai, Thailand; no relation, just sharing it

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Doke black fusion

This tea needs no introduction, but I'll mention a little background anyway.  It's probably the one specific tea I've heard most about through other review and online discussion, the Lochan family / Doke plantation's development of their own signature style of black tea.  From the name alone it's a hybrid style, which I won't be investigating further in this write-up.  I'll keep it simple, a description of a tea.  That never works, but this time it will.

I should add that this tea was provided by the producer for review (many thanks for that).  I tried some teas from them awhile back, in 2013, provided as samples back then too, but scanning back I only reviewed one.  Their tea production is new enough that I've followed them online related to developing new styles since, but I've been all over the map trying teas from different countries since then, with no proper focus on any one of them.


The smell of the dry tea is nice, rich, sweet, a bit complex, with raisin or date undertones along with a bit of earthiness and other fruit, and probably some citrus.  The tea is small twisted leaves or leaf parts with some buds.

The first infusion I went a little light, brewing the tea essentially in between Gongfu style and Western style in a gaiwan, kind of typical for me.  I just tried brewing Longjing using a straight Western approach, and I'm sort of off that page so I liked it better a second time as I'm used to making teas now, which varies by type.  This tea would be different prepared in a conventional Western style, although in general that tends to just switch aspects balance around a little.  Vendors often recommend the style they think works best, or provide options, which is advice based on lots of relevant experience, but it could never fully account for individual preference differences.

The initial taste is really nice, sweet, with plenty of fruit (raisin, towards muscatel but not exactly like that, probably more I'll get to later).  It has a soft maltiness, nothing like an edgy Assam, but towards that, maybe better described as toasted pastry, similar but softer.  From there lots of description might fit, and that general range might extend a little towards cocoa; the tea is complex.  The flavors balance is definitely nice, without astringency to work around, and decent feel / structure.  It's no wonder people go on about this tea, especially given that it's just getting started.

The next infusion is a nice coppery reddish brown, at normal infusion strength, maybe a touch lighter than some would like their black tea prepared.  Brewed a little stronger the astringency picks up, still limited to more of a feel or structure, still not edgy.  That strikes a nice balance with the sweetness and flavor complexity.  It's enough structure that the tea wouldn't work as well brewed at significantly higher infusion strengths, not like some of the softer Chinese black teas that have no limit related to that, so you can keep going with range of concentration depending on preference.  In the range where I would prefer this tea related to flavors balance the feel is also positive, complimenting the flavors and the rest of the experience.

There is just more of the same related to those flavors mentioned earlier, a nice intensity.  There isn't really one dominant flavor; a number of aspects integrate and balance.  Raisin and cocoa does underlie the rest, and there is some citrus, maybe across a range of very light muscatel and a bright citrus tone, more like zest spray from a Thai juice orange, bright but not as bright as navel orange zest tone.  A general richness more or less relates to toasted pastry in flavor.  An underlying mineral tone does remind me a little of the taste of copper, going all the way back to sucking pennies in my childhood.  I even found out from experience what happens when you accidentally swallow one; the doctor said it would probably work its way out, and I've not seen it on a routine health-check x-ray since so it must have.

Those are the basics, as I interpret the tea, but with the degree of complexity one could probably keep going.  It all really works.  It's not so far off what I expect better Assam than I've ever tasted to be like.  I've tried some decent versions but none that struck this balance, none with this fruit focus and approachable nature.  But I've definitely not tried enough better Assams that invoking a type comparison here--as I just did--makes any sense.  And it's been long enough that I'm tasting this against a different set of preferences and range of experience, with a good bit of transition in brewing preference over the last couple of years.

The next infusion is consistent, not varied.  I might mention that mineral tone does underlie the experience but it really provides the context for it, along with the feel and sweetness, in three different senses.

All this makes me wonder about the "fusion" part.  Is the character so appealing to me because I'm really attached to Chinese black tea styles, and they've moved towards that, likely by adjusting processing steps?  I'd look into it but I really do feel bored with my posts going on forever.

The next infusion (four, I think) improves a little, the best one yet; that's a nice surprise.  The fruit brightens a good bit, not that it was at all earthy or murky before.  The character has been clean and well balanced throughout, but all that range extends a little towards that bright fruit nature in Juicyfruit gum (not that far from Fruit Loops cereal of pandan leaf, since that product reference is a bit dated).  I think other fruit description may have been warranted before too, it just would have been a supporting aspect, and it's easier for me to list out main elements than to extend that to a long list as some reviewers can.  It reminds me a bit of persimmon, in addition to what I'd already mentioned, maybe spanning the range of fresh persimmon with the raisin effect touching on that of dried persimmon, but surely even that's not the end of it.

The feel of the tea had been interesting before but that steps up just a little too.  I'm not all that attached to feel in tea; a bit of fullness to support the complexity of the experience is enough for me.  But it's worth noting this one is doing something different, related to the way your tongue reacts to it, it feels full, causing some tightness at the rear and sides of the tongue.  It has more aftertaste going on than black teas often do too, a lingering sweetness.  I suppose it is more pronounced at the rear of the tongue but I don't mean that as a comparison to anything else, or as any sort of claim, as people tend to attach to something described in a similar way.  I like tea for the taste, mostly, and this one tastes good.

On to infusion five, this is where better Chinese black teas wouldn't be finished, prepared in this way, but the longer infusion times and natural transition cycle would change their nature, with different elements coming out.  More forward and brighter flavors tend to have dimmed and underlying earthy tones tend to come forward around this point.  A little of that does occur but there's still plenty of brightness to experience.  That coppery mineral tone picks up, and the toasted pastry aspect has changed, moving a bit towards what I think of as tropical hardwood tone.  I'm not actually tasting any tropical hardwoods but I do keep my clothes in a wardrobe--like closet, but a furniture version--that has an interesting scent, like cedar or redwood's laid-back but much more exotic cousin.

This tea should have a few more rounds to offer, it will just be tricky to get the infusion strength right without overdoing it on the mineral.  The astringency could overtake the character too, brewed incorrectly, but it hasn't been in the form of a biting edge, it's expressed as a moderate feel and structure.  This seems like a good place to leave off anyway, maybe extending past a short and simple description as it is.

The tea is nice!  I was concerned it might not fare well in relation to its reputation, since high expectations can make it harder to appreciate a good tea rather than easier, but the novelty and positive character lived up to the build up.  Part of that is about how well a tea style matches up with preferences and this one worked well for me.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Teasenz Pre-Qing Ming Meijiawu (West Lake) Longjing

It's that time of the year again for spring teas.  I've tried some Darjeeling first flush, a very nice experience, but for me Longjing (also called Dragonwell) is the main spring tea I go out of my way to experience.  This one is from Teasenz.  It's sold as first flush Longjing, or as a pre-Quing Ming version, meaning an early spring tea, from the traditional source area, West Lake, or more specifically from the village of Meijiawu.

weather on a recent outing:  hot

Drinking teas seasonally makes perfect sense, enjoying fresh green teas in the spring, switching to mostly more oxidized teas in winter, maybe along with some masala chai, and associating some others with fall.  I just mostly don't.  I live in Bangkok and it's either really hot here or not quite as hot and raining.  The cool season is still hot.  I'm all over the map related to what I drink, and when, both tied to inclination and what vendors happen to send as samples for review.  I was buying a compressed Shai Hong (Dian Hong) from Teasenz anyway so I ordered their fresh Longjing as well, waiting an extra week or two until the product was ready.

Some bloggers tend not to review the same teas over and over, depending on their writing theme, and Longjing is a type that would tend to repeat in style.  I don't have rules or conventions for writing, beyond an inclination to violate assumed rules, so if it worked out to review a number of similar fresh Longjing then I would.  But it won't.  Then again I tried a really nice version sent by an online friend last year and couldn't believe I didn't review that, so maybe I'm just inconsistent.  Onto review then.

The dry tea smell is nice, fresh and sweet, with a bit of a nutty element (or toasted rice, all along the same line, that one characteristic aspect or range).  There is a touch more vegetal tone than I expected in the scent, a bit of extra grass swapped out for nuts, more or less, but dry tea scent doesn't matter as much as final result anyway.

The brewed tea taste is definitely in the right range.  There is a fullness and richness to the tea that extends the experience well beyond taste, and the taste is also nice.  Describing the one characteristic taste or range shouldn't be so difficult, and it is at the center of the experience, but it's hard to completely pin down.  It's a taste like nuts, or toasted rice, not completely removed from fresh cut green hay, or maybe it spans all that range, but somehow comes across as more integrated than three separate tastes.

I think the character of this version is just a little towards the fresh cut green hay from the nuts / toasted rice part.  That could mean more to someone with more depth of background with Longjing; I can only describe how it works out, or how it relates to what I've experienced, not the type-optimum, or processing inputs that led to aspects.

The tea has a very full feel related to how green teas typically come across, more like an oolong, a creamy feeling, although not exactly the same in effect as those.  It's not buttery, it's creamy.  The aftertaste extends quite a bit related to other green teas too.

It's probably not the kind of tea that gives completely different effects related to brewing variation but there is room for optimizing the balance of the elements.  There is an assumption that comes across in most tea writing--across types--that there is typically one standard, optimum way to brew every tea, and to me that probably holds up for this tea a lot better than for some other types.  But there still seems to be room for slight variation per preference.  Really one could brew this tea gongfu style, if they wanted to, and I did try that the second time, even though it works well brewed Western style.  Or I suppose it could be cold brewed, or prepared grandpa style, but this tea is a bit nice for using those approaches.

All that said, I went with a relatively short infusion the time next time to see how that shifted things.  The tea thins, of course, with the fullness and richness dropping back, but the flavor stays mostly where it was.  It wasn't astringent enough one would describe it as astringent but that range, the feel, was most of what changed.  Slightly less flavor intensity is not quite as positive, so brewing it on the light side but strong enough to retain flavor and feel fullness seems right.  Or just going with a completely standard set of parameters would work.

There is room for more description, more of the flavors list approach.  I'd be talking about Longjing in general as much as about this tea, or both really, so to be completely descriptive it would work better to describe the typical range in detail, or possibly that and the ideal, and where this stands in that range.  But that would be even wordier than this already is.  And I mostly just know when Longjing actually tastes like good Longjing, and then only in general terms, not on the level of people that have been experimenting with ever higher levels of sourcing options for this particular tea version for many years.

brewing in a gaiwan, the second time

As flavors list goes, so far:  nutty (closest to fresh roasted cashew, but not exactly that), toasted rice, fresh cut hay--the green version, quite sweet.  That sweetness isn't so far from the taste of very fresh green peas, which aren't particularly vegetal in nature.  Of course I don't mean canned peas or frozen peas; there is a part of the effect you only get in a very fresh version, something more or less just off the plant, picked only when ripe.  They're sweet in a particular way.

The "hay" aspect isn't completely separate from grass, the effect is just pretty far from what I would mean if I described a tea as grassy.  Mineral picks up just a little a few infusions in, as an underlying tone, with a little of the brightness fading, but the sweetness stays mostly unchanged and the fullness mostly continues through.

I tried the tea a second time made in a gaiwan, using a longer infusion version of Gongfu style brewing.  I liked it more, although I liked it just fine the first time.  It's hard to place that; it could've related to not getting Western brewing just right, or maybe more about moving away from Western brewing approach for so long now that I'm not used to it, and not typically being rigorous about using those standard Western style brewing parameters anyway.

The tea retains a lot of the brightness, freshness, and sweetness brewed lightly, using relatively short infusion times (around 20 to 30 seconds, using a typical proportion of tea to water for the approach).  It really seemed a matter of preference, that someone else might like the tea prepared stronger, where a normal Western brewing approach typically lands, and without significant astringency issues to work around it's not as if it doesn't work well stronger too.

It would seem to make perfect sense to me to prepare the tea more than one way and see how that varied it.  Since I bought this tea--it's not just a provided sample--I'll keep experimenting with it, although that definitely relates more to a preference to mess around than a potential to improve results.

Ranking the tea in the Longjing spectrum

One last thing:  how well did I like it, how would I judge the grade?  I think this tea gives up little or nothing related to other better Longjing versions I've tried related to feel, aftertaste, and sweetness; it's obviously very good tea.  The related fullness, creaminess, freshness, and brightness are all where they should be.  I don't remember ever noticing this much fuzz / down in a tea, which is a good thing, a sign of early leaves, per my understanding (this is already long of I'd go into more on that, but you can Google it).

Related to taste range it's a good version of a quality tea, I'm just less certain that it stands out as matching the best version I've ever tried, related to my own preferences.  That one really nice Longjing I tried last year showed off plenty of that one characteristic flavor element as soon as you opened the package, with the scent filling the room, even more fresh and intense in the brewed tea.  I think the aspect range for this tea wasn't far off that one's but it struck a different balance related to proportion of fresh cut hay element versus nuttiness / toasted rice.  It's splitting hairs, but then that's how I see a full description of a fresh Longjing working out, either you split the hairs, consider grade and also bring in subjective preference, or a review is just a flavor-list half measure.

Do I remember that tea right, I wonder; that was awhile back.  If I'd been drinking lower end green teas prior to trying that maybe the shift in level made it stand out as more exceptional than it really was.  Or maybe its status grew in my mind over time.  Or maybe I'm just not drinking green teas much lately, off that page for preference, and I'm rating it lower for an underlying preference shift away from the general green tea type.  In any case I'm just passing on my best guess, which is really all any tea reviewer ever does, although write-ups tend to get presented as relatively objective takes.

I should note that the source for that other tea wasn't an online vendor.  That friend goes out of his way to review and source competition grade teas from as direct sources as possible, and has for years, in a professional capacity.  If someone walked into a random shop or cafe to buy Longjing it almost certainly wouldn't be on that level, true here in Bangkok as well, or probably as good as this tea, for that matter.  I probably should try to verify that though; I've been meaning to go to Chinatown anyway, so I might as well try another version from there.

There was just a discussion thread about "The best green tea in the world" on the Tea Chat forum and someone mentioned a preference to buy teas at less than $1 a gram, which is a relevant part of that general grade issue.  Longjing is a high-profile and highly demanded type of tea, particularly for good quality, region-specific, early harvest versions.  A tea being sold at $1 a gram implies something about quality level, as does costing substantially more or less.  At a guess this tea I'm reviewing is quite good for the cost range it's in, although that seems a bit speculative on my part, given that I'm not trying out lots of sources of Longjing, I just drink it from different sources every year.

I'm also more or less penalizing the tea in description and evaluation for being a green tea, which is strange, since that's exactly what it's supposed to be.  To be clear I love Longjing especially for being distinct from that typical green tea character range, for not being grassy or vegetal, for tasting fresh but mostly in the range of nuts and toasted rice.  It would be completely possible for someone else to switch that around, and prefer this tea over any other they've ever tried precisely for striking the aspects balance it does.  I'm not even sure that actually relates to quality, that there could be plenty of stylistic difference beyond that one concern, just within a narrow range in this case.  I glanced around at some references about Longjing in writing this and one said a touch of vegetal nature of a specific kind identified the most sought types from the right region, and maybe that's exactly what I was tasting.

All in all it's a great tea, very fresh and positive, expressing a wonderful range of positive attributes.  It doesn't feel much like Spring here, being half-way through our Thai hot season, but it feels more like it for drinking this tea.

Testing a video addition, a Pikachu attack enactment, nothing to do with tea

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Masala chai pumpkin pie, really cooking with tea

I made a masala chai rice pudding not so long ago, but didn't actually add tea, only the related spice blend.  That worked out really well, just drawing on the spicing mix, but I couldn't help but wonder how it would've turned out with tea as a flavor element.  I'd written here about how to make pumpkin pie from scratch, awhile back, so it was just a matter of putting it all together in another desert, with tea as an ingredient this time.

To back up a little, we ran across a wholesale vegetable vendor in Phisanulok on a trip in Thailand, and bought what must be at least 20 pounds of Thai pumpkin, a half dozen of them.  That cost around $2, kind of crazy.  Vegetables cost less here but buying them out in the country at good rates for those areas is something else.  I could make a lot of pies.

The American pumpkin pie spicing, used for pies and coffee drinks, is pretty close to masala chai spicing anyway.  Per my understanding that would include cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg, with masala chai swapping out nutmeg for cardamom, and potentially adding star anise and black pepper, which I'll skip.  A touch of salt also works well in masala chai, which of course would've been part of the pie anyway.  So it's onto details, how I went about it.

How would one add tea to a pie?  There are a few options, which start from the assumption I didn't plan to actually mix the tea in as an ingredient (eating a good bit of tea alone would probably be hard on your stomach, but mixed with food would probably be fine).  The most obvious fix would be to add it to milk, to simmer that with tea added prior to using it to make the custard base (pumpkin pie is just pumpkin, sugar, milk (or cream or condensed milk), eggs, and spicing).  A less obvious solution would be to add black tea to the water used when roasting the pumpkin, which I did decide to try.

I added a lot of black tea; nearly a third of a cup of it, split between a CTC  Assam I had around and a Thai black tea I just bought.  I'm not sure how much difference it makes but I like the idea of splitting the tea input between an astringent, malty, rough-edged CTC tea and a smoother, milder, fruit or woody-tone tea.  I might've added some of a Taiwanese black to this instead if I'd not ran across that Thai tea, but it's a waste to use tea that's really good, and the version I've not tried yet that I have a good bit of is probably well over that threshold.  That orthodox tea takes up a lot of space for a limited amount of tea but the CTC version doesn't, and partly as a result the input of the latter really could be a bit much.

roasting pumpkin in tea--different

I added some spicing to the tea and water mix used to roast the pumpkin, some clove, thin sliced ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon.  It wasn't intended as the final spicing blend but it made sense to start the spice infusion process too since roasting would take about an hour.  There are different ways one could give the pie the ginger kick, with using fresh ground ginger or even juiced ginger standing out.  I have dried ginger powder in a spice rack but I'll go with all fresh ginger since we keep it around and cook with it anyway.  The effect of fresh ground ginger versus dried is quite a bit different though; there's definitely more risk of the pie turning out too spicy, so one would have to be careful about the amount used.

While setting up the roasting mix it occurred to me that I'd have a version of masala chai as leftover pumpkin broth after the roasting step.  That would be different than typical masala chai because it would have a strong pumpkin flavor.  How strong, you might wonder.  Since I've roasted pumpkin before I'd already have experienced that:  quite intense.  It works well to make a pumpkin soup base, or it's nice just to drink, if one is into such things (I am; I usually just drink it).

I'll review that masala chai version first, then get back to the details about the pie.  I might mention first about tasting the darkened, roasted pumpkin, that tea and spice blend input seemed a little strong.  That's normal; masala chai tastes awful without the sugar and milk because the flavors balance just isn't designed for drinking it that way.  Unless you're dealing with a light version that is intended to be drank alone, but it would have to be very light though, still back in the range of flavored teas.  A more typical masala chai mix is strong, and needs those counters to balance the intensity.  That's not a bad thing; the recipe design accounts for that as an input, focusing on the final effect.

Review of the by-product, masala chai with pumpkin stock

I saved the infused spiced tea and liquid blend, a by-product of the roasting step, refrigerated overnight.  The initial water I measured as 3 1/2 cups, and between evaporation and the pumpkin absorbing a lot there was about two large cups of tea worth left.  One part I heated, simmering it on the stove, and drank a second cup cold, to try it both ways.  Upon first taste it was a bit too vegetal, in part related to Thai pumpkin being a little closer to a squash than the jack-o-lantern style version (what Westerners call squash; they're all part of the same vegetable group, they're squash).  A bit more sugar and a few drops of vanilla helped offset that, along with just switching expectations.

The tea wasn't designed to be a final version, so the flavor profile had eased up quite a bit on spicing as I typically prepare masala chai.  Ginger in particular was quite subdued.  But it worked.  The pumpkin gave it an interesting complexity, not bad at all once I expected it to be there.  Beyond that it was just a mild masala chai blend.  I would expect some people to hate it and others to prefer it to versions without pumpkin depending on personal preference.  It definitely added some complexity, although it didn't taste mostly like pumpkin with all the tea and spicing in it.

masala chai stock photo, from an earlier post about that

It was interesting experiencing it cold and hot, as two versions.  The cold presentation helped the pumpkin input largely drop out, so I suppose preference for one of those two styles would depend on that factor.  I liked both; they were just different.  Pumpkin really was just another layer in the flavor, it just stood out a lot when initially tasting it because it's an atypical layer.  The balance of the spices was fine, I'd just prefer even more clove and ginger.

I was wondering if tea balance would work, since around a third of a cup of tea is a lot, surely enough to make at least a half dozen cups of tea, probably more like a dozen, now absorbed into a lot of pumpkin and remaining in three cups of liquid tea.  It was strong but fine.  At a guess that pumpkin absorbed a good bit more than half the tea flavor (and caffeine? who knows).  It seems kind of obvious but I didn't want to under-shoot related to tea flavor addition, to be concluding that the experiment would be interesting to re-try with more tea so that the tea taste was actually present.  It's bold to add so much tea to a recipe but I think that was in the right range.

There's one more choice to be made related to that since I have a third small cup of the strong tea left, half a cup really, which I could add back into the pie or leave out.  Either way would have worked, but in the end I did mix it in.  Water is not a typical ingredient in a pumpkin pie but I have some cooking cream at home, so it's easy to offset the addition by going with the cream instead of milk or half and half, as I usually do.  As I recall the old traditional version my Mom made when I was a child used condensed milk, but I stopped considering that type of ingredient more than 20 years ago, early in my cooking self-training.

To me cooking is about tasting, about projecting ahead where a flavor balance is going to go, then making adjustments.  Another part is about texture.  Using interim tasting as input really doesn't work so well in making a masala chai, if you don't add the milk as you cook it (which is the typical way to prepare it, to cook the milk with the tea), because milk and sugar change the flavor so much it's hard to factor that in.

Towards the end of making this pie it really turned into a struggle.  It's easy to run into trouble with crust temperature, since the butter or margarine needs to be at just the right degree of softness to form correctly, and that became a glitch.  It's hot here (I live in Bangkok, and it's the hot season now), even hotter in a kitchen while cooking, and once it started to soften too much I put it in the refrigerator, then the rest took too long and I overcooled it.

I had been using ground cloves in the past but tried grinding whole cloves this time instead, and our food processor isn't as suited to that as a spice grinder would be.  I grated fresh ginger for this pie, but it was difficult dialing in that spicing level along with the clove.  A glitch or two is easy to work through but when a few aspects don't click the venture can turn into a slog.  I was trying to rush this cooking process by the time it was over, already working it into a busy day, and that's just not really how experimental cooking works.  We'll see if that affects results or not.

The final results

the pie; crazy, but it's square

Sometimes these experimental food ventures work out well, as that masala chai spice rice pudding did, and often not nearly that well, or sometimes better on a second try.  On first taste this didn't click in the same way.  The clove and ginger were both a little strong, and I didn't get the salt level right to balance flavors.  That's just about not paying attention, since you can't easily tell how spicing will integrate but salt level is an easier call, even if it's quite subtle in this type of dish.

It wasn't immediately obvious if the tea played much of a flavor role or not, due to the spicing.  It all came across as a little too strong, not falling into balance, and I think the tea might have just helped push it further in that direction.  Backing off the more intense spices might have helped it play a nice supporting role, but I erred in the other direction instead.

It made me think through the differences in masala chai (the drink), and cooking rice pudding and pumpkin pie.  Masala chai needs to be intense, that's part of the whole point, and the sugar and milk provide compensation for some relatively high spice levels.  In retrospect I went quite light on the ginger and clove in that rice pudding, even backing off the cinnamon, allowing the cardamom to play a larger role, but I switched all that around in this case.  All of those rely on striking the right balance, which is especially important in pumpkin pie.  Layering pumpkin with intense spices requires the right touch or the pumpkin itself can nearly drop out as a flavor base that ties it all together.

With a rice pudding the neutral rice flavor automatically falls way into the background; there can be no substantial "rice" flavor, although it is in there.  With that dish you can potentially lose the "custard" flavor, the creamy fullness egg cooked into milk provides, which is already not going to stand out in a desert based on pumpkin instead.

Anyway, tasted on it's own it turned out ok, just a little intense, without striking that exceptional balance.  There wasn't much "pumpkin" aspect coming across.  That general spiciness also offset noticing the input of the tea, which probably just ramped up flavor intensity, complexity, and busy-ness, which it really didn't need.  I can't help but wonder if using so much CTC tea wasn't also a problem, if that edgy, biting, malt tone didn't combine with the edge of ginger and clove to dial up the flavor volume a little too loud.  Could it work better than plain pumpkin pie, if adjusted correctly?  Maybe.  One more factor comes into play.

The whip cream input, sort of

the kind of people that eat whip cream from the can

The adjustment period is not over once you finish the dish, although at first it may seem so.  I made the pie to go with whipped cream (you sort of design it for a certain level of that for balance).  We had a can of instant whipped cream in the refrigerator, with only a little already used to go with jello, so adding extra whipped cream would be an easy counter to the spiciness.  It's not just a fix because the spicing level was designed to include that, in the same way you would make two completely different masala chai versions if you planned to add milk and sugar or not.

Unbeknownst to me my two kitchen assistants ate part of it and expended all the propellant--nitrous oxide--by ineffectively eating it directly from the can.  This was in spite of clear instructions related to how making that mistake would be possible.  I told them to not eat it from the can, at all, and if they did to just tip it up while doing so, holding the can nozzle side down.  So much for me being consistent.  It was that kind of cooking venture anyway, a bit up and down.

I tried the pie with vanilla ice cream the second time, not ideal but it would serve the same purpose.  It was much better; quite good even.  It was amazing how it shifted the intensity down to enable the spicing to become reasonable, although still just a little heavy on clove.  I might've been able to detect tea as an input but it seemed to layer in to just add complexity and earthiness to the pie.  It's hard to say if that actually improved it.  Pumpkin taste definitely did get crowded out.

If I tried it with rice pudding again instead, and used better tea, and all but omitted clove and ginger, used them sparingly as mild support, that may work even better.  But I'm not sure I could really tell what role black tea played even if I got the balance right, or it might not taste like black tea at all especially if I did get it right.  That's an odd thought, isn't it, that the only way to balance the flavor properly might be to not taste it at all.

The reason that better tea in general is so effective in beverage form is that it's standing alone, or at least my tea almost always is.  Only blended versions aren't.  Most teas can be intense but only in a subtle way; the intensity and complexity comes from a tea drinker becoming accustomed to that range, to calibrating their sense of taste.

Masala chai really is an anomaly, and it's quite odd that bergamot in Earl Grey works as well as it does, or jasmine in a nice black tea.  Jasmine green tea or osmanthus oolongs are typically great examples of why those other two are exceptions.  Both can be fine until you become accustomed to plain teas, and then the lack of subtlety becomes hard to take.  Or maybe that's just my experience.  Jasmine green tea was a gateway tea for me but I have no idea when I last tried one.

It might be better to just make the pie without tea and have a nice tea on the side.  That seems an odd place to leave it, so I'll consider what someone else tried related to this.  Google had more to say about the masala chai rice pudding I made, which I'd not looked up when making that.

Thai fruit; no connection

Versus from a recipe

I'm not recommending that you do this, to completely hand your cooking experiment over to some internet reference source, but it wouldn't hurt to check one before starting out (like this article and recipe; Google's first pick for the terms I entered).  Of course I didn't; I read all this after making this pie.  This citation about author preference shows where it's going to go:

I prefer a pumpkin pie that is subtle in its spice and sugar; with a creamy and tender filling, against a crust that has both flake and crunch.  

I usually serve pumpkin pie with some whipped cream that's folded through with just enough maple syrup to take off its edge, but If in the mood for true gilding, I’ll serve it with a Black Tea Caramel... heady with Darjeeling and cardamom, it completes the whole masala chai thing the pie has started. 

I must admit I'm a bit flexible about the crust texture part but that is how ideal spicing usually goes for pumpkin pie.  Spicing supports the effect but stays in the background.  Related to texture, it's funny how I do like to cook, and experiment with flavors, but in a sense I really do have a "crocodile's tongue," as my wife says (a Thai expression).  I could spend a whole day making something I feel like eating, prepared just in the way I imagine it, or I could just eat grilled cheese sandwiches for a week.  And when I make pies frequently the crust does turn out flaky but it doesn't matter so much to me if it doesn't.

Here is her recipe related to spices (although adding that sauce mentioned changes things; that sweetness and spicing essentially becomes part of the equation):

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

That would be subtle.  I don't measure ingredients when I cook but I went stronger on spicing, with the actual black tea input adding a substantial layer beyond that.

Let's consider the caramel sauce spicing too (omitting reference to cream and butter):

1 tablespoon loose leaf black tea, Darjeeling is best
4 green cardamom pods, cracked
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 ml) water
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon whisky
Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt such as Maldon

So way, way less tea than I put in this pie, nearly by a factor of ten.  I can't imagine how this caramel could be "heady with Darjeeling" from adding enough tea to make a couple of cups worth.  Darjeeling is a good call, probably a second flush or autumn harvest version, maybe second flush instead to not waste the other.  Or a Lipton tea bag might work almost as well for mixing in a tablespoon of tea with all the rest.  Using a single vanilla bean might seem sparse but I've went on before about how much flavor those can impart, even adding a creamy texture based on adding only a limited amount.

I suppose it's appropriate that my first experience with really cooking with tea wasn't a resounding success.  It sort of worked, and maybe I'll get back to it.