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.

1 comment:

  1. Tea can be called an ancient drink since it has the history of tea plantation around the world for many years. I prefer tea over fizzy drinks. Thanks for sharing.