Friday, April 30, 2021

Meetup with Joshua Linvers, a Canadian tea sommelier


photo credit Suzana, as usual

Another meetup!  At least the people we meet with are completely different, from different parts of the world, varied cultures, and with completely different takes on tea.  This time my friends--Suzana, Ralph, and Huyen--and I met with Josh Linvers, a Canadian tea vendor and sommelier (on Facebook, Instagram, and his own vending and blog reference site). 

An hour into this session we were still on random small-talk, covering a bit here and there on how we got into tea, on Japanese and Vietnamese versions, tea history, and broad preference trends, all over the map.  It didn't seem like this was going to lead to something unified to write here about.  Eventually the tea sommelier theme came up; that works better.  As an aside, his site name is "sommerier," which someone might wonder about relating to tea instead of wine, but seems to clear this up:


1920–25; <French, Middle French, dissimilated form of *sommerier, derivative of sommier one charged with arranging transportation, equivalent to somme burden (<Late Latin sagma horse load <Greek ságma covering, pack saddle) 

I wrote the basics about Joshua's thoughts on tea pairing with food last year, with a longer and more detailed summary on his own page about that.  It's not that complicated, or at least the basics aren't.  Tea can't necessarily stand up to strong flavors in foods the way wine can, so it needs to play a more complementary role.  Most typically you can't pair similar combinations, because it overpowers the tea expression of the same scope, so you need to settle on offsetting balance, aspects that enhance each other, which is where it gets more complicated.  A quote from a wine-making friend in that post describes that context well, from Dan Senkow, a really great guy, very insightful and funny in his own way:

In simple terms one may either use an element in the wine to compare or contrast. So, this may be done with flavors, textures, weights, or a mixture of the above. Example a heavy lobster bisque with a light crisp wine or a rich opulent creamy one. 

So the creamy wine--or tea, in this example--won't match with a creamy soup, because real cream in a lobster bisque is much heavier and stronger than it could ever be in a milk oolong (Jin Xuan), so that oolong could end up tasting like water.  Per Joshua's input and approach that milk oolong could pair really well with any food that works well with a creamy, buttery input, that isn't expressing a lot of that itself, which would tend to overpower the related range.

There is a Taiwanese oolong example on a menu graphic shown in that post I just cited but I'm not sure it works as an example of this tea aspect.  Maybe; that was a fushoushan oolong and pumpkin mille-feuille, pumpkin layered with cream and pastry sheets.  Me speculating about how that pairing works seems pointless.

I'd mentioned in that earlier post that all this wasn't something I am eager to take up, and I've not tried to pair any tea with food in the year since.  Except for that happening on its own having breakfast, but that's definitely not an example of that.  I just had some Anhua Qian Liang hei cha with a mango; I suppose the towards spice range earthiness and sweet citrusy fruit were fine together.  Maybe just not some sort of complementary, magical combination.

Joshua did list out some of what seemed to work really well for him, with my memory not tracking most of that well.  Gyokuro and scallops comes to mind, and savory pork, like pork belly, with a fruity sheng.  Lots of sheng isn't fruity but I'd imagine anyone reading this would get the reference; some is, and sweet, approachable, and flavor intense floral range can lean towards fruit in some versions.  I tried a Mannuo sheng that was pretty fruity recently, and a wild-origin Yongde sheng that was, in a slightly different sense.  He also mentioned that smoked Lapsang Souchong works really well with cinnamon buns, which does sound interesting.  If more of that was around here I'd check on that.

It was interesting getting more of his input on how universal this appeal seemed to be, if most customers "got it."  Back in that mention of Dan's input about wine pairing, he emphasized that what people like is the right yardstick, not what an expert tells them they should appreciate, or what is objectively best.  We see a lot of that play out in ordinary tea appreciation, people being on completely different pages.  Josh didn't extend all the way to root causes but it seemed like people self-selecting as foodies who open to exploring tea and wine pairing probably come into it with a broader than average appreciation of food range.  What clicks most would still be individual, but most could still relate to what kind of works in a general sense.

in-depth discussion but less than ideal screen capture results

It would be nice if I could collect some of the other fragments of discussion into novel facts or insight to pass on here.  We talked about purple tea a good bit, what that's about, and what we've tried (an Assamica plant type or set of types that evolved naturally to become purple).  I think I may have only ever tried one version, or at least that's the only one I remember trying.  It was ok but unremarkable, and trying one version of any tea tells you nothing at all.  

If you try a single tea version and it's the best quality, most exceptional, most type-typical version you can learn a lot from the experience, but you couldn't place it as being that by just trying one version.  You couldn't place that context even if someone you trust told you that was the case, that a version represented that.  But we can pick up good information from others in lots of cases, and if someone had said that about a few other versions in relation to types then they would probably be right.

I've really not did justice to that tea and food pairing theme.  It was especially interesting how Josh can shift how he sees a tea to tie that in, to get a sense of where to place it in relation to food.  But he specifically stated that 90% of all tea just isn't good enough for exceptional aspect character to support a great complementary pairing, and that it doesn't really work in all of the other 10% of cases.  In some cases a tea is just good, and can express one or more very exceptional aspects, flavors or otherwise, but may not pair well.  In the best case a combined food and tea experience can evoke a certain response, a surprise at how the sum is greater than the parts, maybe even triggering a vivid memory of a prior experience.  

I get flashes of that reminder of other experience in relation to aspects, more so than dominant flavor elements.  A tea aspect will remind me of walking in a certain type of outdoor environment, the forest scent there, or a food I've had in the past but haven't experienced in a long time.  One tea was a bit grapey in a way that reminded me of visiting my great grandfather, of a specific type of grapes that grew there, not so far off Welch's grape juice but different than any other kind I've ever tried. 

Of course the pairing idea isn't mostly about recreating a nostalgic experience, more about a marriage of inputs that work well together.  Since tea can't "stand up" to flavors the way a dry white wine can (let's say a Sauvingon Blanc, although I was really a red drinker myself), it has to be more subtle than that.

In Western tea circles less is more in relation to what you experience of food along with tea.  I don't want to go as far as saying that something could get missed related to that, because we have to miss most of all the range of possible experience when we choose to have any specific experiences.  Focus and deeper experience is all about narrowing down range.  All the same there is something there.  Joshua gave a good example that only highlights part of what I mean.

He said that fruit tends to not be overly sweet and intense in flavor in Canada, because the growing season is so short.  And because of mass production farming as an input, a part we really didn't get into. Strawberries can be pleasant there but almost never sweet, rich, and full in flavor as in the best examples.  It's a bit sad, when you think about it, that beautiful, expensive, large and colorful grocery store strawberries in Canada or here--tropical fruit is the way to go in Thailand--have almost no flavor compared to the wild strawberries I would pick by roadsides as a child in Pennsylvania.  Back on the initial topic, he said that if you drink a bit of matcha before having those strawberries, or any fruit, that shift in your palate makes the fruit taste much sweeter and more intense.  That's a novel thought, isn't it, that we could move off considering what flavors might negatively impact tea experience (or positively, as I've covered here), and move on to how a tea might radically shift the food experience instead. 

Josh is also into Japanese pottery, with more detail on this example and photo credit here

Changing topics a bit, it has been nice how friendly, interesting, and insightful these people joining these sessions have been.  It was great meeting people I already knew well in earlier rounds, and introducing them to my friends, but this adds depth, not knowing what's coming in the discussions.  Josh is really more in the middle; we've talked a good bit.

One more tangent and I'll let this go.  It was interesting the way that Josh seemed to approach tea through the lens of wine appreciation and food pairing.  In general Western tea enthusiasts track through a fairly consistent form of tea appreciation, where at first they embrace complex, intense, and approachable flavors, as in Tie Guan Yin light oolongs, then onto other range that takes more acclimation, like sheng pu'er, or maybe at least white tea or hei cha. Then it's often onto appreciating mouthfeel and aftertaste aspects more, the whole experience, and then maybe ending on "cha qi" appreciation, folding in how a tea makes you feel.  What he is describing isn't completely different but the focus is a little off that sequence.  He's definitely not learning most of the background he is applying through online tea group discussion and the same references familiar to most Western tea enthusiasts, so he's not necessarily tied to those forms.

Josh even talked about how focusing on tea experience, and maybe also how it interrelates with food, can support experiencing more sensory depth in everyday life.  It can make it easier to notice scents around you.  I was just talking to Ralph about how odd it was that when I first moved to Bangkok I was struck by how novel everything smelled, not just the stinky canals and fragrant flowering trees, and very aromatic Chinatown shops and mixed-input old markets, but all over.  Now I rarely smell anything at all; it's all so normal it blends into an unnoticed background.  It seemed like that was part of what Josh was getting at, that we can tap into that background more than we typically do, if we choose to.  Some focused range of sensory experience can help serve as a gateway to that.  Or who knows, maybe I got that part wrong.

I am planning to do a different form of discussion soon, having a guest join who is more suitable for explaining a complex set of ideas versus discussing personal exposure, and other conversation.  I'm not saying that I plan to turn this form into a podcast theme, but I do intend to do a more open meeting version.  I'll mention more about that in the usual places, in that one international theme tea group I moderate, or in a Quora Space I write about tea.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Meetup with Gundega Silniece; tea culture in Latvia

credit Suzana; she always takes the best pictures

About yet another social meetup with an online contact.  I've not met Gundega Silniece before in person, a tea vendor based in Latvia.  It was a very relaxed, free-flowing, and pleasant discussion though, as if she was already a friend. It was great getting to know her better, since we hadn't been in close contact through online discussion, but I'm not going to emphasize that part here.  Let's just say that she is nice.

I want to share more about tea culture in Latvia instead.  I've done a number of local area posts about tea culture in different places, in Russia, Poland, Sweden, even Kazakhstan, with this post covering other writing about those and other places, mostly about us visiting a lot of Asia.  This won't be like those posts, not a more comprehensive glance at a local tea scene, or preferences, just extracts from a conversation about those same themes.  

I had considered having Gundega contribute more about her tea business, but she didn't want to use this content as a way to self-promote, to move discussion into more commercial scope.  That's respectable.  And practical; I can't have that much of a Latvian audience.  To check out more background she also has an Instagram account or a local shop sales page.

She did contribute pictures, which I'll mostly add at the end, that tell some of the story, just not more about the context.  Related to this discussion I only had the Zoom-style pictures.  Those didn't turn out as well as screen-capture versions since we experimented with using Teams, the Microsoft version I use for work.  Zoom and Teams are about the same; it wasn't different.

Gundega in her Riga shop

Latvian tea culture

The main interesting part about tea themes there is how hearing bits makes it come across as developed and complex.  I specifically asked her about connection to Russian tea culture, since a lot of the same themes seem to carry over:  an emphasis on both tea and tisanes, an appreciation of Chinese tea culture, and a diverse tea vending theme, which includes a tea club form.  I mean "club" in the sense of a night club, not a cafe, or an interest group, like Tea Masters, which she is also involved in.  That's also an educational institution, and they host competitions; probably all that is familiar to many.

Her answer to that was informative.  They do have different types of cafes and shops there, and also a night-club oriented business.  It doesn't seem as heavily based on the old Chinese social club theme, which in a negative spin resembles former opium dens there, with the version Gundega described more tied to a bar or concert event theme.  How is this possible, one might wonder, that two forms that don't exist in other places can thrive in these two places?  She offered her opinion on that, framed as speculation, not a final answer.

She thought that the form of the local culture in Latvia enabled certain themes or forms of interest to work that wouldn't necessarily work elsewhere.  It had to do with other artistic appreciation, and forms of social gathering.  Fair enough.  Ralph, another member of that group, is familiar with club scenes and outdoor events, and to some extent surely also related subcultures extending beyond Germany. He seconded that there are sub-culture groups and perspectives, tied to Germany and a region further East, that may embrace themes like music, live entertainment and other gatherings, and beverages in novel ways.  It's absolutely not the form they were both talking about (which might not have been the same), but all that reminded me of that catchy old "Techno-Viking" video.

live music with tea and tea cocktails; pretty cool

One interesting point Gundega made was that very localized "scenes" in Riga might support different themes, which may not work at all a couple of blocks away.  I definitely don't doubt that. It makes more sense in relation to places I've lived in the US than in Bangkok, where all the areas are a mix of different themes.  That's at least outside the red light districts here, which probably include a narrower band of sub-themes I'm not familiar with.  In the US there can be a clear edge to an area in cities, and a block or two over it's a completely different place.  She made it sound even more locally distinct than that.

To back up a bit, earlier on Gundega explained what general tea preference is like in Latvia.  People drink a lot of tisanes, which is common across Eastern Europe, per my understanding.  Then they also explore a lot of types of better "real tea," which I didn't necessarily expect.  I'm sure the uptake is somewhat limited across a lot of scope (eg. the number of people into Darjeeling, or Japanese green tea), but it's not as if it doesn't come up.  In Russia the grocery-store level of preference and awareness tied mostly to Ceylon, with some blends, and then at the higher end there was a lot of focus on Chinese teas, mostly on sheng and shu pu'er.  Gundega clarified that although there were commonalities with Russian tea culture there really is no direct cultural link; that just relates to common causes, like being nearby, and of course an earlier political association, which doesn't necessarily involve an ongoing connection.

I asked how the pandemic was affecting tea sales and functions, and the answer was exactly what you would expect, one that would apply to most places:  impact was significant, and definitely not positive.  So it goes.  She was upbeat about that, grateful that her life is still working out, even with significant impact in terms of income and normal daily routine experience.  I guess that's as good as most of us can do, take it for what it's worth, and try to see the positive in it, like spending more time with family.

Gundega had met Huyen related to attending a Tea Master's competition event in Vietnam some years ago.  That didn't launch into a lot of shared experience discussion, but it did help us bridge to discussing tea themes there that she had already learned a good bit about.  It was really interesting hearing about detailed uptake of regional tea interests there in Latvia, and a little about her impression of some, and about import issues, just a bit off the topic here of local main forms of tea culture.  We had a nice discussion about the age that children can drink tea, that bridged into her account of children's tea ceremony competitions, held through the Tea Master's organization.

a childrens' brewing form competition

To be clear all this really hasn't done justice to the range of things Gundega is working on, related to selling teas, developing new experience themes related to tea (that club context), Tea Master's participation, or supporting tea tours.  I think we missed a main one entirely in that discussion, about a new European collective organization being developed, or maybe that only came up in a short set of comments about reviewing tea quality issues.  These meetups are more social than about interviewing people joining about such things though, and hearing background about tea in Latvia and some of what she is working on was enough.

one competition related to identifying tea versions

compressed tisane blends are a type subtheme there too

the Teams captures from the Windows version have narrow landscape form issues

approach to tea and the local area and culture there all sounded great

Monday, April 19, 2021

Song Yi Tea blind sheng tasting (old plant source Mannuo)


I'm trying the second tea version sent for review by a Taiwan based vendor I reviewed versions from awhile back.  At least initially this is a blind tasting format; the label is Chinese, and I didn't look it up prior to tasting.  I just assumed it was rolled oolong at first, since they sell both sheng pu'er and that, but it was clear enough even before opening it that it wasn't that, from the feel.  It's really nice smelling sheng.

I'll fill in what it is in the conclusion section at the end in a final version of write-up, but it turned out it was a 2020 Mannuo Ancient Tree sheng pu'er (with their main website here).  The post title theme works either way, as a direct review of that or tied to the form in which I tried it, or failing to choose, and listing both.


First infusion:  very pleasant, sweet and creamy.  It's fruitier than sheng typically is, reminding me of a Nannuo that was a favorite in the past, or maybe even the somewhat matching character of several LBZ versions.  This is too light yet to really get a read on where bitterness level and type will settle, but surely it's moderate. Feel is a bit soft too, not necessarily thin but lacking a typical structure.  Some of that is probably related to a processing style input, but I won't go into guessing about that part.  This has that white grape / pear flavor aspect range I really liked in that one Nannuo (the first tea I bought from Moychay, a random pick that worked out well).

Second infusion:  a pleasant bitterness picks up in this, moderate in intensity but positive in form.  It tastes a bit like biting a tree bud, kind of "towards aspirin" as all bitterness is, but in a pleasant form within the broader range.  Sweetness stands out more, still in that fruit range, and the creaminess.  Sheng usually isn't this creamy; that part is hard to place.  It pulls that taste, which is moving more into a light orange citrus, towards creamsicle.  Creamsicle with a bit of complementary bitterness is interesting.  

Along with flavor extending a bit into cream the feel is like that, full and round, not missing structure typically present in sheng but swapping out a good bit of that for a very different fullness.  That Moychay Nannuo was like this related to flavor, a bit, and it was a low-bitterness and approachable feel tea, but it didn't have this creaminess, and didn't shift into citrus range like this.  Next round it should be more where it's going to be across a longer cycle, maybe just a bit more novel.

That bitterness is present in a stronger form in the aftertaste, or at least a higher proportion in relation to the rest.  That's pleasant.

Third infusion:    intensity is good; this is really hitting, even for being brewed relatively quickly.  Now bitterness does match the sweetness and creaminess, with complexity ratcheted up.  Right after you swallow the tea you get a rush of the experience strengthening, then the rest lingers.  A bit of stronger light mineral fills in; that's part of this becoming more complex and intense.  Feel is a bit more structured, but not astringent or challenging.  This really does seem like quite pleasant tea.  

I'm curious about what it is, and how old it is.  It could be a very young tea that just happens to be on the soft side, but it would make perfect sense for this to have had a couple of years to round off rough edges to get to this character.  The brightness and apparent freshness marks it as not really transitioned much by age at all.  If this was stored very dry this could be 3 or 4 years old but if it had spent time in Taiwan in more humid environment I wouldn't expect it to be more than 2 years old, and it could be quite young, just a soft tea to begin with.

Fourth infusion:  the real story of this tea is how appealing that set of aspects is, and I can't really do justice to that subjective experience.  It's just good.  It's so good that considerations about how it might improve with aging kind of drop out; it doesn't need to improve, and I'd need to be holding a lot of this tea to want to see the results of that experiment, versus just drinking through it.  "Creamy" may not be as clear as it could be; this coats the inside of your mouth.  It's a cool feel sensation, along with that pleasant and novel flavor range, well-matching bitterness level, and positive form of aftertaste.  

If this tea cost a good bit that would be justified, regardless of its origin story.  It's a more positive tea than I tend to usually drink.  I've reviewed an LBZ version not long ago (or "presented as such," for the skeptics, who probably shouldn't be reading this blog anyway); it would be interesting to compare the two.

Fifth infusion:  the flavor is so complex that it's hard to do better with a description.  It's on the fruity side, but that complex range of flavor could be interpreted differently, and it's my impression that it covers a set.  The list hasn't changed:  creaminess (both feel and taste), citrus (between light orange and lemon, maybe tangerine), mineral (just a bit warmer now), other fruit (kind of subdued and in the background), floral undertone (really as floral as fruity now, but in a form that comes across as vague for covering some range).  Then there's sweetness and bitterness, with both relatively intense while you drink the tea but hitting like a wave as aftertaste when you first swallow it.  

I'll skip further rounds; I have a couple of things to do.  I will look up what this is and write some thoughts on that.  Related to trying those later infusions it stayed positive but dropped off, not extending into as long a sequence of similar range character rounds as many sheng tend to.  I didn't see that as a sign of moderate tea quality, more a function of how "approachable sheng" tends to work out.  It wouldn't be unusual for people to frame that more negatively, looking for structure in their sheng, and a different kind of intensity.


I looked up what it is

2020 Spring Ancient Tree Raw Pu'er sheng Puerh Loose Tea 150g (950 baht; about $30)

Name: 2020 Mannuo Gushu Sheng Puerh

Year: 2020 Spring First Harvest

Country of Origin: Yunnan Province, China

Altitude: 1300m above sea level

Flavor: Sweet Flowery Scent, strong aftertaste

That age makes sense; it was just a soft tea to begin with, with quite moderate but notable bitterness, and mild astringency.  The brightness and freshness definitely matched it being young.  The "ancient tree" part we can almost set aside, but to some extent older plants and more natural growth teas can seem to relate to moderate astringency and novel flavor range (respectively).  Gushu often can be subtle in flavor intensity with a strong mineral base flavor, but then more wild growth versions would shift that to be softer with more focus on fruit or strong floral flavor.  But it's best to take the mapping of marketing description and hearsay character per input with a grain of salt and just go by what the tea expresses.  It's definitely not a personal strength of mine to map out a large matrix of origin locations and input conditions to experienced aspects, which is why I keep the guesses a bit vague in more blind tastings.

I've tried tea from that origin before but not enough to establish any baseline.  I think I might've reviewed a pressed version from them (yep, a 2018 version, a pressed cake, the more conventional form).

Again value stands out for this tea, as much as the character.  This is selling for $60 per standard cake, more or less, 20 cents a gram (not far off what the other one was).  This is much better tea than some prior $80-90 versions I've tried from Yunnan Sourcing and Farmerleaf, although there is some adjustment to be made in that "better" evaluation related to it being based on preference, and me liking fruity and approachable sheng.  That said, this tea is a steal.  

The general character reminds me of a "wild tea" version I tried selling for well over 50 cents a gram not so long ago, which may or may not have been a good price for that; it can be hard to tell when versions aren't mainstream, types that don't turn up often (as far as I know).  That was this Moychay Yongde "wild" sheng version related to sweetness, interesting flavor, moderate bitterness, great intensity, and softer feel structure.  Then again if I tried them side by side maybe I would think my memory of that character similarity was off in some way.

One might naturally wonder if there isn't a character limitation at play that I've referenced a few times but not completely spelled out, related to the "oolong pu'er" theme, and this being so approachable at this young age.  Related to letting this sit for 15 years and appreciating it then, probably.  This will warm in tone and drop out some freshness over the next two years, but there's no astringency to soften and transition to something else.  I don't think it would be more positive after that two years, and would probably decline in appeal after that.  It's really good now though.  

To some this bitterness could be disappointingly limited, and the creaminess could be a flaw, a gap in expressing more feel-structure instead.  This is a sheng an oolong drinker would love, and for some that would be a huge turn-off.  I couldn't relate to seeing this character as a gap, the set of aspects I've expressed, but subjective preference is like that; we work with the perspective that we have.


I've stated clearly that I really like this tea, and that it seems like a great value to me, with one more aspect of my own experience highlighting that.  I bought some for my niece as a wedding gift before this post was finally finished.  I might get around to buying more for myself too.

I didn't criticize the "ancient /  old plant source" part here.  Was it that?  I don't know.  I think I can accurately spot some typical patterns related to older plant source sheng, tied to a certain feel range, and strong underlying mineral content, and this doesn't match of that.  The "wild" plant type theme might match up better, and those two ranges can overlap.  

I asked the business owner, or business-front staff, (Sonya?; I'm bad with names), why this tea is as good as it is, which couples with the question of why it sells for what it does.  I probably sound really skeptical of any kind of input in this post write-up, since I must have said "take that with a grain of salt" a few times, so it's odd that I even ask, but there had to be a novel story there.  She said that having a close contact in Yunnan was a factor in buying pretty good tea.  

As I understand it the rate isn't necessarily the thing; it's being able to find pretty good tea versus pretty mediocre material, lower elevation plantation grown leaves. Both of those tie to local market rate expectations, perhaps not as differentiated by quality level as a factor as one might imagine, although that part is way outside the range of my personal experience.  Old plant source tea not being from plants that are that old might factor in too.  But for as wishy-washy as I am about stating clear opinions I'm pretty sure this is good tea.  Good in relation to my preferences, definitely, but I think the other kind of good too.

the kids; been awhile since I've shown pictures of them

Kalani is doing an over-dramatic pose phase

a house for a kitten we may adopt

it has a door and windows, and a decoration theme

there is even a bed, and artwork on the walls

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Is the designation "Ceylon" problematic?

Originally published in TChing here.

Is Ceylon a problematic colony-themed origin description?  Maybe, maybe not.  In general the political correctness movement seems to have not been taken up so quickly related to tea, since "Oriental Beauty" is still around.  All the same someone asked in a discussion something related to this split, between teas from Sri Lanka being called Sri Lankan versus Ceylon (awhile back now, but I'd meant to write about it).

Of course Ceylon is the established tea origin and type brand name; that's a given.  I've personally never given it much thought if that's problematic, in relation to it being a former British colony name.  So I asked around in a couple of groups to see what the consensus perspective is, or if there is more relevant input to turn up.

This input in a Sri Lanka themed Facebook group was interesting:

Sri Lanka is the current name of the island. But the world is known Ceylon tea, Ceylon Cinnamon, Ceylon rubber, Ceylon gems etc. Either the authorities should go for entire re branding or use the popular brand names.

white and black Ceylon versions

That's true; I've seen such reference to other products.  Let's check one of the standard media stories on the rebranding to see if they add anything on that, this one from the BBC:

The government wants the country's modern name to be used instead. The decision comes 39 years after the country was renamed Sri Lanka.

The change will be made as early as possible in 2011...

But the name Ceylon has persisted in many institutions, including the Bank of Ceylon and the Ceylon Fisheries Corporation...

The Ceylon Tea label, however, is unlikely to change, as the industry believes it's a brand of quality for the country's most famous export.

Not much for detail, besides adding that perspective and a timeline, the supposed shift happening 10 years back now.  I just saw an online post about Ceylon cinnamon today, as chance has it.

A Reddit Sri Lanka sub passed on lots of great feedback.  To be clear those are expressions of personal opinion, not necessarily the input of historians or cultural experts (although who knows, maybe those "Redditors" are that).  I'm not implying that the consistent opinion expressed there is uniform across Sri Lanka, or objectively correct; maybe the demographic that would be on Reddit tends to naturally share one opinion.

Officially tea originating from Sri Lanka is designated as 'Ceylon Tea' . There are several govt/public entities that still use Ceylon in their name eg Bank of Ceylon, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.

Ceilão, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese (16th century), was transliterated into English as Ceylon. The Sinhala name for Ceylon was Lanka.

So the 2011 re-naming venture didn't take, even at the government level, and "Ceylon" wasn't a British name for Sri Lanka, beyond being an earlier name they adopted.  More on that:

The earliest mention of Sri Lanka in roman letters is as Sielen Diva, Sielen meaning Seredipity and diva meaning island or land. Later known by Arabs as Serendib. It's likely that the Europeans changed this to Ceylon during the colonial days.

Todays word, Sri Lanka, literally means (respected) land.

Sounds like a good place to end, except someone else disagreed with that derivation:

Actually, "sielen" is a corruption of "sivu helayan", which means "four tribes" (raksha, yaksha, naga, deva).

Serendib and serendipity came from "suran deep", " golden (beach) land"

One thing they all are agreeing on is that the British didn't invent that term, Ceylon, and it pre-dated their colonial period by a good bit.  No one thought that Ceylon should be ended as a product category-brand designation, or that anyone sees negative connotation in it now.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Setting the record straight about Mei Leaf


The subject of this vendor won't end.  The back-story should be familiar:  Mei Leaf is either regarded positively, as a good source of tea and informational videos, with a personable owner (Don Mei), or else negatively, as a vendor prone to exaggeration, overcharging, PR mis-steps, or even lying and making false product claims.  Some people see Don Mei as annoying instead, as a tea vendor version of a used car salesman.  Can both perspectives be right?  Probably, in this case, but I do settle more on the second myself.

I've written about Mei Leaf before, reviewing their teas, and speaking about this controversy, and about published product details that look a little off.  Really all this takes some unpacking.  In general I'm not the person to tell people who not to buy tea from; I have no interest in that.  The problem comes in that I do discuss tea issues in a variety of places, and informing people of options also overlaps with conveying negative impressions of some of those.  Let's start with an example that's not Mei Leaf, and unpack the Don Mei controversies one by one after that.  

Some of all this maps onto either mentioning, or else not telling people, that Harney and Sons is a limited range option in beginner tea groups.  It's probably not bad as the actual tea products go; probably as good as tea that comes in tins tends to get, selling at a good value.  But moving past cinnamon spice flavored versions and mass-produced conventional types is a standard step people take in tea exploration, or else don't, if they never really dig deeper and branch out.

First, for further reading in this post I said a bit about a tea issue, obvious contradictions in that product listing (not directly related to the roasting sheng issue, but indirectly related).  And I've reviewed a tea from Mei Leaf here, a long time ago, 5 years ago to be specific, back when the brand was named China Life.  I went to a tasting where a number of their teas were served in February of 2017, 4 years ago, and I'm not sure if the re-branding had went through then or not, but at a guess it already had then.  

It doesn't matter, to me; changing a company name doesn't wipe the slate clean, related to then selling different things or using a different approach.  Obviously sourcing could have improved since then (it really should have), and pricing strategy could have changed (although it probably didn't), so let's start there.

1. Sourcing, quality level, and pricing

The typical discussion claims aren't that Mei Leaf tea is bad.  The often expressed theme is that their tea is overpriced for as good as it is.  There's an easy answer to that, but it's a little too easy:  teas sold out of physical shops are almost always higher in cost, because you pay extra overhead for the site rental, staffing, related costs, etc.  I'm open to paying a bit more in physical shops from time to time, to support all that, and keep shops open as a valuable option.  Luckily it doesn't work out that way related to Bangkok Chinatown shops, because overhead there is so low, but that's a tangent I won't address further here.

To me a primarily online business cannot use that as justification for describing teas as better than they really are, or selling well outside a standard price range.  But then there is no standard price range, to some extent; vendors can charge whatever they want for tea.  Vendors can state how good they think a tea is but that's always vague, and every tea is always described as good tea, in one form or another.  Pricing tends to imply a quality level, but it's not a direct connection.

Let's look at an example of how one particular tea type stacks up related to this, to get a feel for how well what I'm claiming really works (which is partly based on echoing a hearsay claim, and partly on making that same claim based on personal experience).  I picked a standard, well-known tea type to compare across different vendor sources, a type of Dan Cong (Chaozhou, Guangdong origin oolong).  This wasn't an example cherry-picked to show this difference, but instead one that should be easy to find versions of elsewhere, since no single tea type has been the subject of as much hype as this one:

Mei Leaf Duck Shit (Ya Shi) Dan Cong oolong, 1.14 cents per gram (30 gram quantity)

Wuyi Origin Ya Shi / Duck Shit Dan Cong, 48 cents a gram (25 gram quantity)

Tea Drunk (NYC shop) Ya Shi / Duck Shit Dan Cong, $2.25 / gram (28 gram quantity)**

Seven Cups (online shop) Yu Lan Xiang Dan Cong, 56 cents per gram (per 50 g; the most expensive Dan Cong they currently list, with no Ya Shi in stock now)

Yunnan Sourcing King of Duck Shit Dan Cong, 55 cents per gram (per 10 grams)

**Note:  this Tea Drunk citation was an error in the first published version, mixing up a 7 gram and 28 gram pricing for the calculation.  $2.25 is getting up there for tea pricing, but for the highest physical shop overhead cost range and most expensive tea type it might be a more reasonable value than it seems in comparison.  Really tea pricing depends on quality, and it's not as if there is any clear ceiling on those levels (quality or market price), as if $3-4 per gram for an unusual type of rare and high-demand product couldn't possibly make sense.

some Wuyi Origin already brewed Ya Shi / duck shit leaves

See a pattern?  The "two" physical shop locations are priced higher (with an error in the original write-up related to one), and the rest around 50 cents a gram.  The Seven Cups example isn't actually Ya Shi, but since they sold a half dozen types of currently listed Dan Cong, and that was the most expensive example, it probably works to assume their Ya Shi, when back in stock, would be around that range.  If it was really 10-20% higher that doesn't change the story being told here.

But what about quality level?  That's really what determines value in relation to price for any tea.  Is it possible that Mei Leaf sells the best Ya Shi version of these five vendors?  Technically yes, but in practice no, not really.  

Anything is possible, but Wuyi Origin is an incredibly well regarded, award winning direct from China vendor (don't take my word for that; do a search in any tea forum or group of that vendor name and confirm it yourself).  Seven Cups is a very well regarded online US site; the owner of that business played a formative role in developing current specialty tea awareness and culture to what it is now.  

Tea Drunk I'm a little less comfortable making claims about. That shop name comes up, as one of the best positioned shops in NYC, but someone would have to try the tea versions to get any decent input.  Nicole Wilson of Tea for Me Please says that their teas are good; that means something to me (even mentioning this type in that post).  Yunnan Sourcing probably isn't buying Dan Cong of the same quality level as Wuyi Origin and Seven Cups (which Wuyi Origin is making, not buying), but again tasting the teas would be better input than anyone's guesses.  It's standing in here as an extra comparison anyway, as a standard online vendor example.

Let me be clear on part of this context:  hearsay is valid input; it just has limits.  A longstanding tea acquaintance who lived in London passed on his evaluation that Mei Leaf teas aren't bad, but also not good, and definitely not worth what they cost.  That kind of input needs to be evaluated in relation to the source, and I trust that guy's opinion about as much as any others.  He said that Post Card Teas (a physical shop there) are also a bit pricey, but at least better in quality level.  

I've tried more than a half dozen versions of Mei Leaf teas myself, some just before the roughly 4 year back re-branding, and that really described all of them; good but not great, and not a good value.  To be clear if I don't like a tea I typically won't review it, so everything appearing in this blog doesn't represent everything I've tried.  

That reminds me to look up the first tea I ever tried from China Life (re-branded as Mei Leaf), a Dian Hong (Yunnan black) version, to check on cost and value for that buds based tea, reviewed in 2016, so 5 years ago.  I didn't mention value then; as is common for most bloggers I will only do so when a tea seems to be a great value, or if there is a concern that one is outside a standard pricing range on the high side.  I wouldn't have as easily evaluated value 5 years ago, especially for a less common tea type.  I looked up that pricing on the Wayback Machine internet page history:  it was selling for 14.50 British pounds for 30 grams, or equivalent to about 65 cents per gram converted today.  That's a good bit for a black tea, even a buds based version, but 5 years ago that would've been sky high pricing.  Over time people have acclimated to approaching $1/gram for rarer, higher demand versions, but it wasn't always like that.

This dated pricing issue--all these personal experience references from 4 years back or older--brings up an obvious problem:  no one who has spent years figuring out sourcing preferences and has noticed that Mei Leaf's pricing runs high, per quality of tea, or just in general, really, is going to have sampled a lot of their prior Spring lineup to keep on confirming that.  Unless they just figured this out.  They would move on, source-wise.  Let's check one more tea type that is familiar to me, Jing Mai sheng pu'er, one of the main origin regions, known for approachable character and somewhat moderate cost versions.

2. Second tea type comparison, Jing Mai origin sheng pu'er

A bit of a problem, since Mei Leaf only lists a blended version, but in a sense that should be instructive.

Paradise Snapper, He Kai & Jing Mai Sheng Gushu Spring 2020 (47.5 cents per gram, $95 for a 200 gram cake)

One of the most crisp, physical and zesty PuErh teas, made from a blend of He Kai and Jing Mai Gushu trees (estimated 300-400 years).

We wanted to create a tea which was bright, bracing, physical and delicious. Jing Mai is well known for its bright, high and zesty aromatics and we love this area for this character. This year we wanted to add a more adult edge to this lighter tea region by blending with another of our favourite regions - He Kai.

He Kai is in the West of Xishuangbanna and has a resinous, creamy and mineral character. Blended with the Jing Mai, the result is a very unique and powerful tea. The orange, apples and sweet flowers of Jing Mai combine with the mastic cream and rocky quench of He Kai to make a tea which is one of the most engaging teas.

Bright, zesty, crisp and quenching with plenty of physical bite and a deep Hui Gan sweetness. A wild and untamed tea with potent effects.

Who knows about the colorful description part; we can really set that aside.  Both teas are estimated to originate from 300 to 400 year old tea trees; that's dubious.  It's just not possible to date tree ages like that, for reasons that are explained in that video.  Good gushu versions of sheng are typically sold for around $1/gram, and I've never heard of a gushu version being used in a blend; that just doesn't happen, typically.  Blending is usually used for moderate quality material, to offset flaws in multiple versions, and to create something better than more than one limited-appeal input.

I've recently reviewed Jing Mai versions selling for around $30 (kind of low) and $70-some per 357 gram cake, and bought one sold for closer to $90 last year, but this "gushu" issue throws that off.  I just doubt that it is that.  Let's check in with a standard, known, reasonably well-regarded source on what their high-end Jing Mai is selling for, and in what form, from Crimson Lotus, a main US vendor:

Elemental Puerh - 2020 Jingmai Old Tree Sheng Puerh Tea Dragon Balls $ 16.99 (6 8-gram dragonballs, so 48 grams of tea, selling at 35 cents a gram, or $126 for a standard sized cake).

To start, I wouldn't buy dragonballs.  Those never brew well, related to the first several rounds brewing the outside layer while the middle unfurls.  This is described as from "old tree material" but that's it; I would assume that means "gushu," in excess of 100 years, or however one uses a timeframe cut-off for that term, but not necessarily 300 to 400 years old plants.  That comparison really didn't help a lot, but it is limited input, an indirect sort of baseline.

A reasonably well-regarded Jing Mai based vendor, Farmerleaf, tends to sell "wild arbor" presented teas from Jing Mai in the $80-100 per cake range, with gushu material selling for that more standard $1/gram range.  Here's an example of that, maybe a great-value tea for selling for $58 per 100 grams (so 58 cents per gram):

Spring 2020 Jingmai Ai Ban, $58 USD (100 gram pouch)

Every Spring season, we're busy making tea in Jingmai Mountain. We pressed most of our ancient garden productions into the Jingmai Gulan cake. We also keep a few batches from our favorite gardens in loose leaf form.

Ai Ban is located on the South-Eastern slope of Da Ping Zhang, it is cultivated by one of our uncles and grows leaves of consistently high quality.

This tea has an amazing mouthfeel, a mix of minerality and flowery freshness that makes it distinct from other tea gardens in Jingmai. On top of this special mouthfeel, you'll get a deep and lingering sweetness in the throat and a complex fragrance.

That "Gulan" cake they just mentioned had listed for $268 for 357 grams; not quite $1/gram but approaching that, 75 cents instead.

So what should we make of a blended, well-known source area cake, with old plant material selling for 50 cents a gram?  It's open to interpretation.  It sounds fishy to me, related to this needing to be a high-quality blend versus a mix that compensates for flaws, but if someone wanted to believe it is "real" they could.  And that is really the gist of the last blog post I wrote that talked about Mei Leaf; if someone is looking to accept what any given vendor says they don't need a lot of evidence to just go ahead and like a tea, maybe even especially an expensive one.

About blending, I don't mean to imply that it's an invalid practice, or that results can't be spectacular, with great material used as input.  That's seemingly the theory behind Farmerleaf mixing sources for that Gulan cake, and Crimson Lotus specializes in making sheng versions based around this principle, as White2Tea does, and Kuura (an Australian source); lots of vendors.  To me it's not unrelated to how very good Cabernet can be sold on its own or else blended as a Bordeaux style blend, not necessarily considered a lesser wine for being mixed with other grape type inputs, or necessarily selling for less.  In the world of tea a 50 cent per gram blended sheng is unconventional, but it's not as if it couldn't possibly make sense. 

Of all these Jing Mai versions I've discussed (that I've tried) this second one listed from Tea Mania, a 2016 tea without the age shown, might be the best (per my judgment, which is a bit subjective).  But then different versions have different strengths, and are at different places in an aging cycle, making it harder to judge a favorite.  It was a great value at $65 per 357 gram cake, reviewed here along with a Moychay version comparing the two.  But then I liked the freshness related to being newer in the Moychay version, and the Tea Mania version has settled and aged really well since that tasting.  I think the two were just made in different styles.

3. Exaggerated tea descriptions

I don't care about that part.  Description is a subjective process, and obviously Don has a good imagination, and continuing on and on with tea description is up to him.  Maybe it's even accurate.  In general vendors, bloggers, and people just discussing tea tend to only list a few main aspects of a version, maybe up to a half dozen, often including some feel and aftertaste coverage, so it's atypical.  

You can't really criticize the elaborate "cha qi / feel" descriptions, unless you are very sensitive to such things yourself, and have tried the teas, so who knows about that part too.  I suppose it's all a bit much.

4. Scandals, obvious lies

I really want to include this part in order to mostly set it aside.  One of the most recent scandals related to Mei Leaf related to them including Native American image themed stickers along with products, which of course caused outrage.  In a sense that's not even about tea.

An earlier claim that tea came from 1600 year old tea plants was the highest profile claim problem.  The oldest documented tea plants are right around that age, so to say that a moderate cost produced tea is from essentially the oldest tea plants in existence reflects a clear lack of awareness of that background.  Maybe the source was over 100 year old plants (gushu), and maybe it wasn't, but anyone making 1000+ year old tea plant claims is just pushing fictional story lines to an absurd degree, most likely just repeating what some farmer told them, which never made sense originally.

Then almost every sheng pu'er Mei Leaf sells is gushu (old plant sourced), even if it's blended or roasted, or shu.  Some matches a price that might make sense, and some is obviously too low, because source area wholesale costs do settle to known levels.  The general price levels are high enough to cover some relatively exaggerated claims (like selling Ya Shi for $1.14 per gram; if it was great tea that would be high enough, but not unfair), but once the claims become outrageous enough the $1 a gram range no longer applies, for example trying to say a Spring LBZ is selling for that (which I don't think Mei Leaf would do, but other somewhat related examples do come up).

The roasted sheng I mentioned in the earlier post works as an example: supposedly that starting point material was 500 year old Lao Man E plant source sheng, which they were selling for 80 cents a gram, which they then roasted on a whim.  The source and pricing claim is a bit of a stretch (kind of absurd to the point of impossible), but then using a roasting step for a tea like that makes just as little sense.  It's conceivable that it was flawed tea, explaining the unlikely rare source origin and for-type moderate cost, and roasting it "saved" it, but that's not much of a practical story line that makes sense of an odd mix of ideas.

I don't see the obvious scandal issues as problematic as these other details not adding up.  If you watch Don's videos you can spot obvious mistakes or errors, if you know what you are looking for, and in essentially all cases those are sales points for his own teas. This is a bigger problem, that small omissions or bigger errors point towards details not always being right.

5. Taking advantage of tea "newbies"

This bothers me.  People claim that "I've learned a lot from Don's videos," and I agree that well over 95% of the content is completely accurate, maybe 99% of it.  He has done a lot for tea awareness.  Then he also exaggerates tea descriptions, includes errors obvious enough to spot in some product descriptions, and surely includes many errors that you can't easily identify in others (although some you can spot, if you know the content as well as he does). Would it matter if most sheng he sells is really from the next village or region over, instead of as described, or from younger plants instead of older ones?  Sort of.  Maybe not, in a different sense.  

It makes sense to use vendors that you think you can trust to help identify those issues for yourself as you learn, and if a vendor is including obviously false claims then they are also probably including harder to identify ones.

Setting that aside, the value issue alone makes Mei Leaf a bad source of tea.  At a guess his Ya Shi version really probably is on par with Yunnan Sourcing's (it's probably harder for a business based out of Yunnan to source great Chaozhou origin tea), and not as high in quality as the other three sources I listed.  Two of those three sell tea that's probably better for around half as much.  At best the quality level is equivalent, but I doubt that's true, given the reputation of at least two of those vendors.  This is back to where you can benefit from following the input of others who have been through this vendor review process long before you ever even started.

One problem with that approach is that if you ask around in places where most people are new to tea, like in this Reddit question, you won't be drawing on that kind of experience.  People on the newer side of the experience curve are active there, in general, with notable exceptions in a more experienced core group there.

Someone could raise the argument that all this isn't fair to Don, that if he's going through a learning curve himself then his business practices and tea quality level from 4 to 5 years ago don't apply to what he's doing today.  Maybe.  That still requires that someone accept that he's selling tea versions that are so much better than the best regarded US sources that they are worth twice as much, per that one Ya Shi oolong example.  Or it shifts emphasis to wanting to support Don, to pay extra to help him, for producing good online content (let's say), like a tea vendor Patreon sort of theme.  I follow that line of reasoning myself, in supporting local shops, I just see Mei Leaf's main business as online sales.

To be clear I have nothing against Don personally.  He runs a business, he's trying to make a profit, and that's valid.  As I see it my role of trying to support tea awareness--which he also does--directly contradicts his apparent business practices, which as I interpret it relates to charging higher than normal market rates for tea.  Again, it's possible, just seemingly unlikely, that Mei Leaf is selling the best quality tea available on the Western market, and that pricing practice is justified.  More likely it's that physical shops tend to charge more to cover overhead, and they hold to that.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Visiting a local Bangkok market


Catching a local video blog that included descriptions of a local market visit reminded me to take some extra pictures of a recent stop at one.  Here it's a lot like taking pictures in a grocery store, just not the kind of thing that comes up.  Instead of filling in general background explanation I'll let the pictures and descriptions of what was there tell that story, leaning a bit towards fruits and deserts since those are of interest to me.  We go to grocery stores a lot more often but I like the slightly different selection at local places.

My mother-in-law, Mama Nid, buying a lunch for me, fried pork, Northern-style sausage, and sticky rice (or glutinous rice, if you must).  We normally get fried chicken here but it was sold out.  That sausage form is really nice, dry in texture with a lot of herbs added, and a spicy edge to it.

The sidewalk right outside that inner market area, essentially the same place.  The umbrellas protect against the rain in the rainy season and sun in the hot season.  It rained that day, even though it really should be hot and dry now.

Fruit!  Pomelo or Asian grapefruit is similar but a little different (foreground), with two kinds of mangos, a small version of orange, peanuts (fresh boiled or steamed), apple and Asian pear, and what I think is a hybrid fruit from plum and mango, but that may not be right.  There are a lot of different versions of banana here too.

That fruit that looks like a plum and mango hybrid, kind of a rough looking version here, selling for 80 baht ($2.60 or so) per kilogram.

One of the main types of mango, used to make mango and sticky rice.  They're nice but sweetness stands out more than other flavors, with just a bit of citrus to it, so not as interesting as some other versions.

Mango and sticky rice, a version with coconut milk mixed in as it's eaten with mango.  This shop sells different Thai versions of custards too, and the more colorful deserts are coconut based dishes closest to jelly, but not that.

Pumpkin and custard go together a lot better than it sounds.  We bought pumpkin elsewhere, just without custard, which I'll have for lunch today along with corn (sold as fresh-steamed sweet corn still on the cob), sticky rice, and left over pork ribs from that first shop photo.   The yellow items are sweetened shredded coconut and something vaguely like a custard made from coconut, but not that, a sweetened and thickened egg yolk instead.

There were vegetables there but even the ones with no US equivalents aren't as interesting as the fruits and snacks.

Ready to eat curries and such typically cost about 30 baht, $1, for a small amount like this.  Most dishes are eaten with a plain steamed jasmine rice.

Curries and an egg and tofu dish.

Fresh seafood, sitting out in trays or pans, with ice added to keep it cool.

Mama Nid again, buying that sticky rice, to go with mangos we already have at home.  I'm not sure why but no one in my family eats much fruit, except for me.  Kalani eats some.

The back part of the market is dry goods instead, clothes and whatever else.

Jasmine wrist leighs, used as offerings to local deities at small altars or else as car air fresheners.  The smell is really intense; I hate being in a taxi that has one of those in it.  One of these would be intense for adding fragrance to a whole house, at a cost of 20 baht or so (60 cents), or maybe only 10, depending on the source and design.

Back to a desert theme; these look like tacos but they're sweet, some with a savory and salty component.  The yellow part is sweetened shredded coconut, and the white part like marshmallow.  They're good.  That blogger I mentioned walked around a market saying how amazing everything was, and then you think really, or is that just him being amazed by the novelty and range?  Thinking it through I think the fruits, vegetables, prepared foods, and deserts are kind of exceptional, so if it's just bias for him it also applies to me.

Candied versions of something I don't recognize.  I eat most of the fruits and snacks I've shown, but not these, typically.

On the strange side, I think this is a liquer-like tasting fruit (salaya?) mixed with pepper, but that's really a guess, since I've never eaten that.  That fruit is nice on it's own, but it's really spiky, so hard to open without getting stabbed.  I didn't see a photo of one but I can look it up from old pictures:

That's it.  It works to use a butter knife and a napkin to open those without pulling the spiked back out of your fingers.

What that market looks like from across the street; we walked over to get noodles at another shop.

Of course there really are tuk-tuks around.

That noodle shop, kind of how those tend to look.  You can pick from a rice-noodle based version thinner than linguine (more or less standard), and thicker and thinner rice noodle versions, and then one or more wheat based noodles, or what they call ma-ma, ramen noodles.  The white balls are usually fish balls, but a pork version looks the same.

At that shop.  She is so nice that it's great going on that kind of outing with her.

An odd looking tree bark, and a good place to park a small bike.

Fried fish being sold on a sidewalk table.  That price range is $1 to $5, converted.

I've been eating a lot of what Americans call Mandarin oranges for weeks, the version on the left, which Thais call Chinese oranges.

An equivalent to a mortar and pestle, used for mulling spices in Western cooking, is used to make raw papaya salad and other Thai dishes.  The metal item is a Korean style barbecue device (a cheap aluminum version of one); you put burning coals in that and then meat on top, with the rim tray making a broth you can cook vegetables in.  It works really well, or at least thicker steel versions tend to.  The upper left is a version of a charcoal based "stove," I think.  It's not so uncommon to see street food cooking using wood as the fuel.

A shop selling a lot of bright plastic pails and tiny stools, and coolers and such.

A local shop selling a lot of random stuff, like an old version of a hardware store, kind of, except that most of it isn't hardware.  What looks like tennis racquets are electronic devices that swat and kill mosquitos, like a hand operated bug zapper.

Another way local markets look, a picture I saw looking up one other, here with Mama Nid a few years younger, in shorter hair.  The picture is too blurry to really make it out but the foreground is a mix of meat paste cooked into a form not familiar in Western food, served in banana leaf.  It's good, just hard to describe.

When I first arrived here the smell in those sorts of markets was really intense, both positive and negative, but hard to take.  Now I tend to not notice any smell, since it's all just normal background.  Wearing a mask must counter some of that too.