Thursday, August 17, 2017

The real meaning of hui gan

I have no idea what hui gan means, personally, although I've read lots of discussion about it.  One thing seems clear:  people are using the term to mean different things; they subscribe to a range of varying definitions.

Not unheard of in this blog, I won't be offering much of my own opinion.  I just ran through a similar post context in reviewing a blogging life-cycle, related to people stopping blogging about tea, in which four other people that did that passed on their own insights.

The experience of tea is what it is, regardless of how it is parsed or described, and to a limited extent adopting foreign concepts to frame my own experience isn't a personal interest.  In writing this tea blog I struggle to separate flavors into parts, into an aspect list, and do something with relating the experiences of feel and aftertaste, but my success at any of the three seems limited, to me.

But in this case the concept of hui gan has came up a few times recently and I want to pass on some ideas from that.

I'll start with a more literal and basic definition, from Bablecarp (a tea term definition database):

hui gan (Hui Gan) = pleasant aftertaste, literally Returning Sweet (回甘) [2,1]; or, much less commonly; also, a non-specific label for virtually any effect after the liquor has been swallowed, literally Returning Feeling (回感) [2,3]

Posting that very citation in a tea group is what drew me into this concept and subject, in the form of a Chinese Malaysian online friend sending a long rejection of that definition and explanation of "gan" by message.

I'll get back to that part, and start with another article reviewing the concept I've read since then.  The whole article really deserves a read, even if someone disagrees completely with the interpretation after going through it.  Here are some parts of a recent "Going, Going, Gan" article in the Cleaver Quarterly, written by Angie Lee (which really doesn't summarize by citation well, but doing so will provide access to most general points covered):

I have been to a tea master’s shop in Hong Kong where he brews a pot of Pu’er tea, pouring it into cups no larger than thimbles. We drink it down. There’s a fragrance, with a slight astringency, at first, and then layers of other flavors – tangy plum, honey, and sweet citrus – pile on, and the liquid tastes thicker than water.

The tea master looks at his watch, counts to 15, and exhales. We wait. And then it comes. Sweetness in the back of my throat and a cooling tingle on the sides of my tongue, goosebumps up and down my arm, hairs at a salute. A few of us look around as if the air conditioning has just kicked on... 

Select foods are known to produce gan 甘, this sweet-tasting, air-chilled sensation that follows an initial sting of bitterness. Gan is peptic, but also poetic – the quicker the conversion from bitter to sweet, the more desirable, but there is no shortcutting the bitterness. Gan is an afterimage.

So far so good.  In tea circles it's often used in the form of "aftertaste," but somehow there is always more to it.  I could almost stop at this point, since it's not as if more explanation makes it any less vague.  Maybe the opposite is true, and it ends up making less sense, as further citation of that confirms:

Not surprisingly, all gan-producing foods are native to China... 

Translate gan from Chinese to English and you get “sweet,” but go the other way around and sweet will always register as tian 甜. Tian is sugary, tian is when someone is being sweet to you, tian is what you say when someone is being a kiss-ass...

Gan is not just a taste, it’s an often-eerie sensation that something or someone has come and gone. A little like the way “bittersweet” is used more often in describing a relationship rather than a specific taste. No food actually tastes bittersweet. 

Gan is found in ginseng (a rhizome valued for its medicinal properties and resemblance to miniature humans) as well as in licorice root (not the red twisted candy), but not in star anise or anything made with anise oil, which tastes like licorice without the special bitterness. 

...Lastly, gan is found in Pu’er tea picked from old trees. 

As you read the rest it becomes even less clear what "gan" is, not more so.  That last citation already contained an example:  ginseng has almost no taste at all (the root and related tisane infusion), so it could hardly be aftertaste, in any normal sense.  That ties into the conclusion:

Unlike its friend umami, whose tongue-tingling delight ends as soon as it’s swallowed, gan isn’t a flavor...  Gan is curious. Gan is a transformation that may or may not happen. We may fail to find it, or have a muddling of sensation – no returning sweetness – but the act of listening transforms the moment.... Gan is a gift, and it’s neither here nor there. If you’re lucky, it’s a glorious buzz, this muddy footprint, this temporarily sunning dog.

this guy gets it

It sounds a bit zen-like, as if not making sense is part of a designed approach here.  A commenter on the Facebook page post for the Cleaver Quarterly was not impressed:

The overall content leads one to believe the author does actually know "gan", much less how to describe it. But without going further into minute details or refuting every bit of factual error, I will make just one point: contrary to what the author thinks, gan is not social, it's not philosophical, it's NOT "curious", it is as solid as salty, sweet, sour, pungent, or bitter, and every bit as REAL a flavour as any other organoleptic sensation. And if the author does not cannot see that, I don't know what to say.

No hint there what gan actually is, in that comment, never mind hui gan.  To me that's bad form, to criticize ideas without actually adding a specific criticism.

Discussions in tea groups turn up alternative definitions, like this one in a Reddit thread, or this one on Tea Chat, or one that started 13 hours ago in a FB pu'er group based on this article posting (at time of first draft of this post).  A lot of reading only broadens possible meanings, it never settles into a narrow range.  It means something like aftertaste, or feeling, or both, or something else.  

Again I'm only passing on other people's ideas here, and my friend's explanation goes long, so I'm going to cite that and be done with it.

A Chinese Malaysian friend weighs in on the meaning of "gan," edited

After a longer explanation of "gan," which I'll get to next, that friend passed on this summary of the concept:

Often times, both taste and sensation could be felt, simultaneously. It is not uncommon for a person to make the funny sound, similar with an animal lapping water, with quick movements of the tongue tapping the roof of the mouth to savour '甘' or 'Kam', an awareness more than a sensation but not a flavour proper per se I had mentioned earlier, whilst experiencing bitterness. Perhaps the 'sensation' or 'awareness' of '甘' or 'Kam' could be closely described as having an ice-cold fingertip gingerly brushing the back of one's neck. Such a feeling is felt sporadically and enveloped the rear of the tongue and the soft palate of the mouth. Others might have different description.

So far so good.  I like his writing style, by the way, very clear and precise, with a tone that reminds one of reading a classic novel.  That's the clear and simple summary version; here goes with the longer explanation:

First and foremost, the character, '甘' or 'Kam' is not 'sweet'.  Then, what does '甘' or 'Kam' truly mean?

The expression 'Kam' is only suitably used if it involves Chinese medicines, certain vegetables, fruits and nuts, such as bitter gourd, some pomelo and walnut, repectively. Of course, our favourite drink, tea.

What is the similarity shared amongst these foods? The crucial characteristic with all these foods is bitterness. It is therefore, for one to really find 'Kam', the food itself must at least has a hint of bitterness.

To further explain 'Kam', it is inescapable to explore a few Cantonese phrases. 

'苦口良藥' pronounced as 'Fu Hau Leong Yeok', means 'Bitter medicine provides good remedy', a phrase often used to cajole a sick person to take the Chinese medicine. 

'甘甘哋' pronounced as 'Kam Kam Dei', having '哋', a combination of '口' or 'Hau' also 'mouth' and '地' or 'Dei' also 'ground', is strictly a Cantonese characters, provides the meaning 'a little bit', thereby making '甘甘哋', a conversational Cantonese, exclusively, referring to tastes and flavours.

Both the phrases, '苦口良藥' and '甘甘哋', are usually used together, it means 'Take the medicine, although bitter, it also tolerable as it tastes Kam'.

Unlike those distinct tastes of being categorically defined as sweet, salty, sour, hot and bitter, 'Kam' is neither a taste proper per se, nor 'pleasant' for the lack of accurate and better description, but it is more than a sensation or awareness that lingers in the mouth. 'Kam' is a redeeming or compensating feature of bitterness and for it to manifest itself, there is a prerequisite that the medium being savoured, must be bitter or at least a tinge of bitterness. However, not all bitterness would necessarily has 'Kam'.

'甘' or 'Kam' is not 'sweet' because in Chinese, 'sweet' is '甜' or 'Tim', certainly not the intention of the creator of these characters to have them used interchangeably. A Chinese character could always be used unaccompanied or in combination with other letters, in various situations creating nouns, verbs and adjectives. However, it is not common to have different characters describing the same taste, creating redundancy. It is well known that amongst the many difficulties of learning Chinese, especially Cantonese is its uncompromising jigsaw puzzle trademark, both in writing and in conversation, requring precision in numbers of strokes of a letter and pronunciation, respectively, having each character applies to each situation, tastes in particular.

Perhaps, the words '甘蔗' or 'Kam Jeh' also known as 'sugar cane', a noun, had somehow provided the confusion that '甘' or 'Kam', an adjective, is associated with 'sweet', merely with the existence of the word 'sugar'. However, with '甘蔗', the letter '甘' is not used to refer to 'sugar', the character '蔗' or 'Jeh', a standalone character in itself, is sufficiently understood as 'sugar cane'. 

Also, '竹蔗' or 'Juk Jeh', a variant of sugar cane, boiled in a pot of water for its stock, used as traditional remedy to reduce discomfort caused by measles and mumps during childhood. The liquid is not as sugary as sugar cane juice, but leans towards bitterness, it qualifies as Kam. Therefore, normally '冰糖' or 'Bing Tong', means 'Crystal sugar' is always added as sweetener.

I strongly believe that '甘' or 'Kam' being defined as 'sweet' is a lazy and reckless decription offered to others especially to the western society and younger generation of the Chinese, without giving much thought that by so doing, would deny the true identity of '甘' or 'Kam', vis-à-vis taste or sensation... 

...Please remember that I am not here to convince your goodself of the precise definition of '甘' or 'Kam', because there is no specific English vocabulary providing the corresponding designation to this Chinese character used to define the taste or flavour, but only to identify with absolute certainty the error and fallacy of equating '甘' or 'Kam' with 'sweet' or 'pleasant aftertaste'.

Just like any other Chinese characters, '甘' or 'Kam' is a mere ordinary letter, even in combination with other Chinese characters, but if it is utilised to illustrate foods, a more detailed narrative is needed to properly explain this letter in relation to 'sensation'. 

Other references

After all that it would be easier to stick with "aftertaste" as a definition, but to the extent that I understand it I trust that friend's summary.

Or one could just go with nonsense as a final summary, as in the Cleaver Quarterly article, that it's something that absolutely can't be described.  That final Zen koan definition was that "it's a glorious buzz, this muddy footprint, this temporarily sunning dog." Mind you parts of that article were simple and clear, and did match the rest of these other ideas better than that conclusion, but parts of it also seemed to directly contradict other parts.  But then sometimes complicated ideas can be like that, a bit irreducible.

Or that Reddit thread discussion I had mentioned passed on a nice simple version in the introduction (here related to hui gan, since the term as used to describe an effect of tea is expressed as both characters combined):

Some people say it's a sweet lingering aftertaste rising in the back of your mouth after swallowing.  Some people say it's a cooling sensation (something like what menthol gives) you feel in your throat and back of your mouth after swallowing.

One could just go with one of those definitions, or both.  I turned to one of the classic blogs for a final working definition, the Tea Addict's Journal, and didn't find one there, but I did find a summary of some general ideas that relates:

From observations and discussions with other tea drinkers, I think after a while, we all move, slowly, towards a deeper and more subtle appreciation of tea, and that means that we start moving away from just looking at what the tea taste like, and put more emphasis on what the tea feels like. Good (and usually expensive) teas invariably feel good in a way that inferior teas do not.  They don’t always taste all that different, however...

...The chief difference among them is the feeling you get from the tea.  What I mean by that is not that it makes you high or your head spin or what not (although I suppose it could do that).  Rather, it is the physical sensations that you have in reaction to, first, having the tea in your mouth, down your throat, and then the reaction that your body has towards it that distinguishes the better from the not so good.  A nice one is full, thick, smooth, hits all corners of the mouth, leaves a strong, lasting aftertaste, stimulates the tongue and throat, and gives you a feeling of qi.  Bad ones are just a beverage — you taste it, it goes down, it’s over.

I think the subjective perspective focus here, in terms of this relating to a specific form of individual experience, not in terms of it being not-objective or made up, could easily be overlooked or misplaced.  Regardless of the extent to which there is one specific, limited range of experience that relates to gan / kam, and there probably is, it only means something to someone once they learn to relate to that experience.

Getting the labeling right--partitioning off specialized terms to identify limited experience range--is only a part of that, and probably not the most important part, although using the same terms in the same ways would help with communication with other tea drinkers.


  1. I appreciate your discussion of how gan and tian are not the same. It is common for languages to divide experiences into different numbers of categories. For example, Chinese has two different colors which in English we would call "green"—qing and lv. However, I DO think that hui gan is way more mystical and magical in the English-speaking tea world than it needs to be. I accept that it's a different type of sweet from the sweetness of sugar that we don't have a separate word for in English, but that doesn't mean you need to go on a vision quest to understand hui gan. I'm with the Facebook commenter you quoted on this one for sure.

    Here's a cool study that shows the sweet aftertaste of tea is probably due largely to epigallocatechin (EGC) and epicatechin (EC). Converting EGCG to EGC with the enzyme tannase leads to tea with less astringency and more sweet aftertaste. Since the paper is written in English, I guess we don't know for sure how "sweet aftertaste" should be translated, but my guess is it's "hui gan". Might be worth contacting the authors about it for your next post!

  2. Thanks for the input; I'll check it out. It has been interesting how this concept leads to exploring different ways of describing or even experiencing tastes in different cultures. We would tend to assume that all that is very consistent since we're all starting from the same sensations and capacities but it does seem possible to catch more, well beyond just describing things differently.