Friday, July 31, 2015

Tealicious Bangkok cafe visit

I ran across a Bangkok café with "tea" in the name on Trip Advisor, Tealicious, so I tried it out for lunch.  The site information (Google + page referenced here, because their site isn't pulling up just now) mentioned a large tea selection as well:

We have probably the largest selection of fine teas in Bangkok, such as Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Yorkshire, English Breakfast, Marks & Spencer Gold, Tetley to name but a few.

In retrospect them adding Tetley to that list could have been a warning sign, or not mentioning any typical single plant tea types at all (Longjing / dragonwell, Tie Kuan Yin, etc.).  At any rate the reviews were really good, and it's sort of near my office, one "neighborhood" over in Silom.

The trip there was complicated by the Google map not showing the actual location; very close, but still hard to make it that last 100 feet since it's down the alley from where shown.  In retrospect I was right there, but a local motorcycle taxi driver I asked directions from pointing me in the opposite direction didn't help.

Anywhere in the West the alley it was in could have been a huge warning sign, but things being a bit rough-edged are just part of Bangkok's charm.  There is very little crime to speak of here, so none of those concerns one would have in a US city, and an alley having that developing-world look to it is no sign of what a restaurant might be like either way.  It just isn't a mall environment, which can often be a good thing.

don't worry; lots of Bangkok looks like this
a bit cozy, as long as only a few tables are there at a time


I picked out a tea first.  There was only one loose tea available, with the rest Twinnings tea bags and such.  No offense to Twinnings about the tea bags, I'm sure they're ok, but I'd just as soon not drink that, unless I'm stuck on a plane with no options or the like.  Since the one loose tea was a Chinese jasmine green pearl tea that's what I chose.

As they served it in a good-sized glass teapot I had a flashback to Hanoi, where I had a really nice green tea served at boiling temperature--a little hot for that type--in a good sized teapot.  It was great tea when I drank it immediately, not bad a couple of minutes later, and by the time a waitress brought me a glass to transfer it to and stop the brewing process it was sort of ruined and bitter.

This time the design of the teapot didn't allow for much contact of water with the tea so brewing was slow, and the tea itself was quite mellow.  After 5 minutes it wasn't really completely brewed yet, after 10 about right, and at 15 still not really overbrewing.  In the middle I compensated to speed it up a little by pouring the tea out of the pot to the cup, then across the leaves, and it worked out.

I ordered a jungle curry.  This reminded me of reading a little on tea pairing recently.  What would someone pair with a jasmine green tea?  What if just limited to Thai food?  Almost certainly not a curry, too strong and spicy to match with almost any tea, but I love that so too bad for the pairing idea. 

It seems the question deserves an answer though, aside from saying any spicy food would mask the subtle attributes of any tea.  A masala chai would work, because it's typical to add milk and sugar, and it's not a tea you need to experience that subtle range of a dozen flavor elements with, they kind of all merge into one nice harmony anyway.  There really should be a Thai version of that but here "Thai tea" means inexpensive black tea mixed with condensed milk, or a powdered and artificially flavored approximation of the same, so whatever the traditional version was that's in the past now.

Actually the tea was really rich tasting, a bit buttery (odd for a green tea), floral (of course; cheating to add flowers), sweet, maybe towards a touch of caramel, so it worked well.  Jungle curry isn't the full-on spice blast that green and red curry profiles bring, more a balanced blend, so although it was a little hot for me the two sets of rich flavors matched up.  Technically I suppose a soft mild cheese with crackers would have let the tea show itself a little more but it was fine.

To switch gears back to food reviewing, I ordered the curry "not spicy," which the staff pointed out doesn't completely make sense given Thai curries are a spicy blend of spices.  Since I've lived in Bangkok for a number of years I get that; "spicy" is relative here, and I'm good with spicy foods (hot for an American). 

Back in America in Thai restaurants my wife used to go through the opposite series of communication steps.  She would order something spicy, and a Thai server--or Laotian; odd there's no way an American could ever spot the difference, but they do tend to run and work in Thai restaurants--would say, "ok, spicy," and she would go on to clarify she is Thai, and she meant really spicy.  Then after getting the food she would ask them for fresh chilis, chili paste, and chili sauce and turn her food into a capsaicin science project that the wait staff couldn't believe, so hot that any babies in the restaurant would start crying just thinking about her eating it.  I guess the parallel doesn't completely hold because I was ordering food not-spicy knowing I was still giving them some space.

They may have cut back a little on the fresh peppercorns red pepper (not the sweet bell-pepper kind common in American; these are tiny and hot) but they seemed to overshoot "not spicy" by a bit.  See the pile on the plate?  It's just that; straight fire.  It was a relatively cool day in Bangkok (around 30 C / 84 F) but still odd to go out for spicy curry and hot tea at mid-day.

jungle curry, jasmine rice, decent green tea--very nice

In conclusion, the meal was nice, just disappointing if the idea was to find a café with the best tea selection in Bangkok.  The tea I did have was nice, better than I imagined it would be, and a good Thai curry is no insignificant thing.  It all cost a bit over 200 baht (or around $7), oddly a slightly expensive meal as local working lunches go but quite reasonable for tourist food, on par with meals in a mall. 

I would recommend this restaurant, and the jasmine green tea I had, but to find good tea in Thailand one should read further amongst these blog posts, or else get lost in Chinatown, but buyer-beware buying tea sitting out in giant jars or open bins like they have (which is just crazy). 

I just noticed writing this restaurant is rated #7 of  8753 places to eat in Bangkok on Trip Advisor.  The food was good but come on, top ten in Bangkok?  A monkey could boil some curry paste and vegetables together so I guess I'd have to try something else to better judge.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Double Dogs tea room visit (Shui Jin Gui reviewed)

As far as tea cafes go in Bangkok Double Dogs tea room gets mentioned most, aside from references to "high tea," the British version of a mid-afternoon meal that's more about different kinds of snacks.  I finally visited there, with the shop located in the center of the main street of the Bangkok Chinatown, Yaowarat road.

a little dark for taking pictures

I'd heard a mix of good and bad things about this place, that the tea was great, or also that it was normal tea and overpriced.  It seemed likely this was similar to the mixed reviews that three star hotels get here; based more on expectations than what the hotels are like.

The shop is in plain site on the main central road but still somehow hard to find.  Google Maps is close on where it is but not exactly right, so based on that you'd need to walk down the block a bit.  My first impression walking in was that the shop is dark, and small, just a few tables.  it looked like they had more private space in back, maybe a separate room, but the front wouldn't seat many.
I selected a Shui Jin Gui from the menu, without much to go on for description about the different teas listed.  First impression:  nice tea.  The first infusion the waitress poured for me was not brewed for long, hard to taste much, essentially just a long rinse. Later typical Wuyi Yancha flavors emerged, wood, leather, floral tones, cocoa and sweetness but seemingly related to aromatic sweetness in the smell of leather, not similar to the sweetness of fruit.
As can happen the complexity isn't well described by a list of flavors.  Perhaps a trace of slate or such mineral underlied the other primary flavors.  The tea was good, maybe only disappointing for being so familiar, due to drinking a lot of comparable teas recently.
I noted there was very little char flavor element to the tea, and later research indicated it was supposed to be roasted more lightly than other Wuyi Yancha, so that made sense.  Some references even said the tea should brew to a yellowish or greenish color instead of the more typical reddish brown, but it looked a lot like any other typical version of the other Wuyi Yancha types.
It brewed a number of small pots consistently, good for the tea type.  I probably would have had more luck picking up subtle changes over the infusions except for having a slight cold at the time.

After four or five infusions the tea body (feel) was thinning but a woody taste and floral sweetness remained.  The char might have picked up a little, having been diminished by shorter infusion times earlier on, showing up a little more as I lengthened timing to compensate.
Chinese cakes were nice, maybe not ideal pairing for tasting due to being a bit sweet, but a good snack with tea.  At cost of 260 baht ($9) the value was ok, given that this is a rare tea type and some of that relates to drinking tea in a cafe. 

Related to the issue of value it was the smallest tea-pot I've ever seen, so it maybe held 3 or 4 grams of dry tea, and the cup it brewed each time couldn't have been more than an ounce.  Of course I'm familiar with the gongfu-cha approach, and it was no problem spending 20 minutes brewing and drinking 6 ounces of tea, but with different expectations it could seem a little odd.  The staff didn't mention anything about brewing at all, but there was really only timing to get right or screw up.
Before I left I checked the take-out tea list (pictured here; no way to take it in that dark room without a flash though).  There were a lot of interesting sounding teas on it, most between 500 and 1000 baht per 50 grams ($15 and $30), a price range for which decent teas are to be expected.  Since quality is such a factor in that range it's hard to judge value. 

It would be the high point for some to take a break in a nice quiet café in the middle of a noisy Chinatown, but for me it wasn't worth it to buy a tiny pot of tea (and 3 or 4 grams of leaves) for over 200 baht versus 670 baht for 50 grams take-away and a dozen times as much tea at home.
I suppose I'd probably buy and drink some teas that I'd tried given that range but didn't buy any then.  The staff there didn't seem up to talking about tea, even after I was taking pictures of menus and such.  To be fair here in Thailand that can relate to English language competency as much as not having "service mind."

Bangkok Chinatown

Research section:

Reading around a bit about the general tea type I found an interesting description of the same type of tea sold by the same shop, so perhaps the exact same tea, but not necessarily so:
This tea makes you feel like immersing down in the deep sea of mind, exploring the marks of dignity and pain that imprinted  upon your life’s journey. Its characteristics is akin to that of a man in the late 50 years old. Deep and judicious, a frisky and wise old uncle. He is a bit of a rowdy, but a this is the roughness that accentuate the trace of his scars in life. He exhibits a dried passion, dry but peppery.
Are we still talking about tea?  A bit over the top but I like it, even though I have no idea what that means.  Actually another part of the same post mentioned more typical flavor elements, including cocoa, orange peel, nutmeg, and charcoal.  If it was the same tea it seemed to me there was an interesting earthiness to it that different people might describe in different ways.

It's normal for vendor content to crowd other types of references (reference sites, blogs, forum discussions), but in this case it was almost all just sales content many pages into a Google search.
This site is an unfamiliar general reference,
Shui Jin Gui, also called Golden Turtle in English, is a member of Si Da Ming Cong (the four famous Wuyi Oolong tea bushes). The other three members of the family are: Tie Luo Han, Bai Ji Guan, and Da Hong Bao. Shui Jin Gui comes from the Wuyi Mountain in the Northern Fujian province of China.
Of course that's what other vendors say too, although in rare cases there are five names listed.  The tea legend behind this one is something about a turtle god turning into a tea plant (ok...), and their description:
The tea has flowery sweet aroma with a pleasantly sweet aftertaste. Compared with other oolong teas, its taste is more subtle as it process with a lighter fire finish.
Another vendor site (Seven Cups) says a bit more about the typical taste, or at least of their product:
The dry tea leaves have a wonderful charcoal aroma, but after you infuse you can find the lightly floral aroma with plum blossom sweetness.
It was interesting they mentioned an alternate version of the "turtle" name origin (not so unusual for there to be more than one):
A torrential storm washed a few of these cliff-dwelling bushes down onto another farmer’s land. The bushes carried water and clay down the slopes with the tea bush on top, resembling an algae covered longevity turtle swimming in the water, thus the name “Water Turtle” was given to these bushes.
Maybe that happened; it really doesn't matter if it did or didn't.  I also mentioned this vendor description because there is a Tea Chat forum discussion of their teas, related to an earlier version of the same tea, or at least the discussion is from 2012.
The input is quite interesting, and everyone sounds very well informed and authoritative, even without anyone saying much about what the tea tasted like.  It's as well since impressions and descriptions vary, and brewing approach differences changes things quite a bit, and results already shift over different infusions, and so on.  Just mentioning a general impression works.
Other descriptions are essentially the same, and of course pricing for any versions of this tea aren't on the value-oriented end of the spectrum.  It's probably the case that lower end or knock-off versions of Wuyi Yancha tea would be sold as Da Hong Pao instead since it's more familiar, but that's still no guarantee that teas sold as this type would be genuine, actually what they were sold as.

One more description (Verdant's) ventured to the detailed extreme:

The burnt caramel depth transformed in the aftertaste to a lingering dark elderberry and earthy hazelnut profile.... The mineral notes gave way to sweet cinnamon and the warmth of ginger without the spiciness. Towards the very end, the aftertaste transformed into an almost vegetal creamy green bean flavor with a lingering honeydew melon sweet orchid finish.

Sounds nice.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sweetening tea, grades of tea, and a Thai Jin Xuan oolong review

Back to basics!  Jin Xuan is the other of the two main cultivars one finds in Thailand, along with Ruan Zhi, which I recently reviewed.  This one is from Tea Village, my favorite shop, which is in Pattaya (next beach resort over from Bangkok, famous for a unique entertainment industry there).

In that other blog post I said:  Jin Xuan can have a notable creaminess to it, even natural flavors that resemble butter to some extent.  Decent versions of both are pleasant and easy to drink, with good flavors, and better than average versions can be very nice, but in general the two teas are consistent. 

With that straight to reviewing.


The tea has a fresh taste to it, slightly vegetal, so it reminded me a little of green tea as oolongs go.  Most Thai teas are lightly oxidized oolongs, although some few from here aren't, like two darker Thai oolongs I recently reviewed.  The main flavor element was pretty close to kale, with a bit of a mild spice note, a hint of cinnamon, with a faint floral component and underlying mineral tone.  All those flavors reminded me some of the standard profile for Ruan Zhi, which is typically less sweet and more "structured," with different flavor elements, closer to how oolongs might normally come across in Taiwan.

If someone was really looking for the mellow sweetness, more pronounced floral component, and buttery effect of a Jin Xuan (typically not really tasting a lot like butter, although some do a little) then this tea might not be an exceptional example.  For someone that likes green teas and can appreciate a vegetal flavor profile, but also desires a tea that's easier on their stomach, this might be just perfect.  For me that problem with green tea only relates to drinking it without any food, and then only when I drink a good bit of it, so green tea paired with anything to eat is fine.

As is standard the flavors were relatively "clean," nothing unpleasant at all, with a nice finish / aftertaste, just not really exceptional related to that compared to some other similar style teas.  The tea brewed a lot of very consistent infusions, also typical for good examples of the general type. 

This is starting into tea enthusiast blasphemy, but I tried the tea with a little sugar in it.  What is so terrible about that?  I'll spell it out after describing how it worked out.  With the limited natural sweetness supplemented with sugar the vegetal flavors were a bit subdued and the character changed, closer to how sweeter Jin Xuan versions come across, so for some the tea would be great that way.

Since I don't drink sugar in most teas (few, really) it tends to make the tea taste like sugar, although in this case it worked well, a little extra sweetness helped shift the effect of the whole flavor profile.   

The rambling-on section:

Why not add sugar to tea?  If you like it that way then do it.  But there are reasons not to:

1.  because you're a tea purist:  not really the best reason, to adjust tea drinking according to your perception of  tea drinker status.  But it could work out related to developing palate and preferences, to drink your tea related to image instead of how you actually like tea.

2.  because is masks or changes the natural taste of tea:  to me this works better as a good reason, and is really what the first point is supposed to be about.  White sugar is a neutral sweetener, adding little flavor besides "sweetness," still that shifts the flavor profile and can make it harder to taste other flavors.  But really, a little matters less for this for covering up the taste.

3.  because the best teas don't need it:  not really a reason, right, you're either drinking the best teas that don't need any adjustment (according to your own preference, of course) or you're not, and either way adding a sweetener is a judgment call.  But taken together 2 and 3 say that if you are sweetening tea you are most likely drinking bad tea (or at least inferior tea), and by extension that you aren't a tea purist.  Taken one way all of this could be experienced as a pressure to drink your tea a certain way (unsweetened--but I guess it could extend to milk).  Of course this assumes a certain degree of exposure to these ideas and people making claims about sugar and tea.

For a relatively astringent tea maybe all this shifts a bit, more related to black teas.  You can "brew around" the astringency (bitterness, roughly) by adjusting temperature and brewing time (lowering both) but one might also offset this by adding sugar to compensate.  Or so it seems to me, but since this is purely in the realm of taste I guess someone could sweeten anything, even for those teas about which reviewers tend to say "don't add sugar to this."

Grade and cost related to tea

Related to grade, I recently started a discussion about Awareness of Tea in Thailand on an expat forum here.  Normally people go by pen-names (an alias?) but I guess for the sake of mentioning it I'll give up my anonymity there, which I wasn't really using anyway.  The point I was making there, part of a larger discussion, is that if cost is an issue then tea grade or quality is also an issue, and this ties back to the issue of sweetening tea.  Or so it seems to me.  The type of tea preferred also relates, and how much sweetness one likes in tea.

This would be the second tea reviewer faux-pas in one post, a lot for even me, but I'm going to venture into the one subject people are even less likely to address than sweetening tea:  cost.  I only went down that road because it kept coming up in that discussion.  People pushed me to it by claiming they drink tea-bag tea because of cost issues, which I don't accept; it's an awareness problem. 

Convenience is a real issue too (tea-bags travel well) but I can only take on so much in one discussion or post so I'll get back to that eventually.  I mentioned the actual price of the tea I just reviewed there (the Jin Xuan) but I'll leave it out here (it's on their site anyway), but suffice it to say it's a good price for a Thai tea in Thailand, not what someone could find in a region like the US.  Add a bit for shipping and someone could; the world is getting to be a smaller place now.

About that discussion, I'll quote myself at length:

The point is the pricing is low enough that anyone drinking tea-bag tea to save money beyond that might not be thinking it through.  The [Jin Xuan] oolong is much better tea (of course that's a judgment call; someone else might really like Lipton's better).  It's not a fair comparison since one is black and the other lightly oxidized oolong anyway.
What would be the next level up, for grade?  It's not exactly just a move upwards since tea-type flavor profiles differ but roughly speaking a reasonable grade of Tie Kuan Yin would be.  That cultivar (plant type) can be grown in Thailand but it's not common, and most likely better versions would come from Taiwan or China.  Of course how good a tea is depends on the tea, not where it's from, since it's based on lots of factors, some related to growing, others processing, even storage. 
Tea Village sells a Tie Kuan Yin for $7.85 for 50 grams, definitely not a higher grade of the tea for that reasonable a price, but most of their teas are a good version.  I think I did try it sampling different teas with the owner but I'm not really prepared to offer tasting notes.  Compared to the Jin Xuan it would be more floral in flavor profile, a little sweeter, perhaps slightly "cleaner" flavors, more refined, and often it will brew more infusions than other teas (although that Jin Xuan can be brewed a number of times consistently, whereas black teas maybe two or three depending on how you make it).
I'm not pushing their tea with this example, the point is explaining how grades work.  If you don't mind spending three times as much for a couple dozen cups of tea--still not a lot--the taste is different, and perhaps even the aftertaste or body (feel) of the tea.  If that cost is a factor then adding a little sugar may make a similar difference, it just wouldn't be exactly the same.

By extension I'm sort of implying that if cost isn't a factor, that if someone has $20 or $30 a month to spare on tea, with no concern about that expense, then they might well drift towards drinking better teas, and keep drifting, exploring new and better teas.  That can happen.  I like to drink a lot of types of tea, to mix it up, and I don't mind some being common grade / everyday tea (just not Lipton's--too common grade), but I would sorely miss drinking some better teas as well.

So I guess I'm indirectly condoning drinking ordinary grade tea, and sweetening it, although it's really not my place to accept or reject that. 

Good black tea is similar to that in some ways but quite different.  If someone likes tea from tea bags and wonders what better grades would be like I've reviewed some here, not investment-grade high-commitment cost tea but decent tea.  This is one from Hatvala in Vietnam that I loved ("Wild Boar") that cost next to nothing, and another was even better from Indonesia, from PT Harendong Green Farm, not expensive but not an amazing value like the other. 

If the teas sound interesting buying a good bit from Hatvala is probably the natural place to start (contact here); it would make a great everyday black tea but it's really much better than that.  That said I liked the darker oolong I reviewed a little better (the Red Buffalo), and other people might prefer completely different teas, different types, different grades, who knows what other differences.

Of course black tea starts to mean very different things in other countries.  I could go on citing and linking and for awhile but it would be too much; suffice it to say there's a lot to it.  No matter what direction personal preference leads it doesn't work to explain to a tea enthusiast that there is a good reason to just stick with Lipton's (no offense intended about their tea, it's just not good).

not about tea; a Thai temple from a river ferry