Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Sounds of Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth?

I hate long goodbyes. I guess I’m that kind of person who believes that really good friends will always keep in touch; whereas the fair-weathered variety, who appear from the woodwork whenever anyone is leaving, may or may not keep in touch depending on a whole load of factors. If they want to stay in touch, then they will find a way.
 
But I was really touched this week as I was sitting in the office, minding my own business, when I was asked to go up to the board room on the 6th floor.
 
 
The entire assembly of my fellow workers trooped up with me as a large fruit and cream cake was produced from nowhere to wish me well in the future.
 
 
I have been working in Beijing for the past two years – it seems like it was only yesterday that I was being interviewed for the job – and the time has simply flown past.
 
Beijing is one of those cities that surely has something for everyone. Love it, or hate it (and I actually love it, despite all its shortcomings) you can never get bored in a place like this –though for sure you will get frustrated, disappointed, disgusted and resigned, while at the same time get excited, amazed, impressed and want to keep coming back for more.
 
Famous sites that are on every tourist’s itinerary – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and so on – lend themselves to appearing on my disappointment list, while other places that 99.99 per cent of tourists have never even heard of (let alone some of the Beijingers themselves!) are must-see places that I always insist my visiting friends go to.
 
I haven’t met a single person in Beijing, for instance who has even heard of the Ancient Architectural Museum – which isn’t surprising as it’s almost impossible to find, even with a good map.
 
 
I have only met one other person who has found their way to the Eunuch Museum – the only one of its kind in the world. The Watermelon Museum, where you can gawk at plastic models of water melons, must also surely be unique. And who cannot be moved by a visit to the Museum of Tapwater?
 
 
And if you ever need a quick escape from BJ, then a visit to Tianjin just “down the road” or Shanghai – a little further down the road - is guaranteed to raise your spirits. Whereas BJ looks over its shoulder to the past, TJ and SH look to the future; they’re the exact antithesis of the northern capital.
 
They’re also amazingly cleaner than BJ, not least in the way that you won’t find everyone competing with one another all the time to see who can spit the most. Rarely have I been anywhere in this world where the local population likes to gob as much as they do in BJ. It’s disgusting; but then I guess all nationalities have their less appealing habits that others really hate.
 
But while it’s easy to list the negative things about any place in the world, with Beijing it is also incredibly easy to find things to savour. Amazing places such as Hong Luo Si spring to mind. It may be nearly two hours away by bus, but the fact that none of the expats here seems that interested in finding their way there by themselves surely reflects more on them than the fact that some Chinese in times gone by were stupid enough not to have built it on one of the routes frequented by BJ’s ever expanding subway network.
 
 
Some places such as the Botanic Gardens also change season by season. The first time I went there I wasn’t much impressed. The last time I was there it couldn’t have been better. And the many times in between showed the gardens up in totally different ways. It literally is never the same from one visit to the next. (Oh, and don’t forget you can get in for free if you walk round the side to the north west exit!)
 
I mentioned BJ’s subway – which must surely rank as one of the top ranking subway systems in the world. It’s massive; it’s overcrowded; it’s incredibly cheap; and it’s expanding exponentially, such that they even have a plan for a new line to be opened every year for the next few years. But good though it undoubtedly is, I much prefer taking the bus if at all possible. Not only do you get to see a lot more, and not only are many of the fares a mere 20 per cent of the already-cheap subway fare, but you also have a good chance of even getting a seat on one of them. Many foreigners tend to shy away from the buses as they have no idea how they work. But this is a poor excuse in my book; and anyway, when you work out how easy they are to use, you will go back to using them again and again.
 
As well as BJ’s 160+ museums, there are also loads of beautiful temples and parks which have a propensity to delight. Near my office is a 9km long park made from what’s left of the old city wall and called Yuan Dadu Chengyuan. It’s a microcosm of Chinese open-air society and is a delight to walk through every time I go there. Other parks such as the Black/purple Bamboo Park or Taoranting (which surely must have one of the best Chinglish signs in the whole of BJ) are also a joy to experience.
 
 
BJ is also a place where you are never short of something to do. I found I greatly enjoyed teaching English to Chinese kids who are well mannered, fun to be with and want to learn. Equally rewarding were the lectures I gave to incredibly polite and earnest students at Renmin University – and the fact they even paid me was a bonus as far as I was concerned.
 
And every day, the discovery of something new, be it a place, or a thing of beauty or just enjoying the totally different ways that the Chinese as a whole live their lives, was stimulating in the extreme.
 
I well remember my visit to a dentist in one of the big hospitals here. (I even had my dentist back home in the UK falling over herself with laughter when I told her at what had gone on.) It was both amusing but in another funny kind of way incredibly impressive too. I have recommended this Chinese dentist to everyone I have met who is in need of some work on their mouths and all have come away equally impressed.
 
So my two years are drawing to an end and I am now torn between looking forward to the next chapter in my life and also knowing I will miss new friends too numerous to mention here.
 
Thank you, Beijing, for putting up with my foibles. It has been an amazing time and I will always look back fondly at it. And I really look forward to welcoming old friends to come visit me in my pastures new.
 
As those obnoxious children in The Sound of Music sang: So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, adieu… except in this case it will not be ‘adieu’ nor even zàijiàn but very much ‘au revoir’.
 
For have no fear… one day I will return!

Monday, June 24, 2013

A lesson in good food and marketing

Being the arch glutton that I am, I was delighted to have been asked recently by the parents of Tom – one of the kids whom I teach English to at weekends – if I would be interested in trying out Mongolian food. There’s a restaurant that opened in October 2009 that is situated in the northern suburbs of Haidian District in Beijing and which serves authentic cuisine from the steppes of Central Asia.
 
“Xibei 99 Yurts” is a restaurant whose lamb from Inner Mongolia is widely regarded as among the very best in the city. (If you’re wondering about the ‘Xibei’ part, it’s because it is owned by the Beijing Xibei Catering Co. Ltd.)
 
Now, as we all know, a yurt is a portable, bent dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. According to Wikipedia, the ‘structure comprises a crown or compression wheel usually steam bent, supported by roof ribs which are bent down at the end where they meet the lattice wall (again steam bent). The top of the wall is prevented from spreading by means of a tension band which opposes the force of the roof ribs. The structure is usually covered by layers of fabric and sheep's wool felt for insulation and weatherproofing… Complete construction takes around 2 hours.’
 
Near the entrance of the site is a map so you can find out where the yurt you’ve booked into is located. Tom says someone told him there are only 86 of them. I can only count 68 as shown on the map, if you include the toilets (a loo-yurt?); and a little online research confirms that at the present time there are actually 66 dining yurts in operation. But I doubt anyone is really that fussed.

 
The yurts themselves are apparently purchased from Mongolian and Kazakhstan ethnic groups and many of them are said to have the owners' pictures and original decorative items still on the walls.

 
But wait a minute! What’s this? Ninty-Nine yurts? I search my iPhone dictionary. No! 九十九 is the Chinese way of writing 99. So what’s with this Ninty-Nine nonsense?

 
It appears that it’s not just a typo on the awning. It’s a typo EVERYWHERE in the restaurant complex. OMG! Could this go in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest branding mistake in the whole of Beijing? I wonder…
 
In the centre of the complex one can wander about peering into the kitchens to see what’s cooking…

 
…while armies of waiters heave their trays around the grounds delivering to the 66 yurts…

 
…or use cycle trucks if it all gets a bit heavy.

 
The lighting around the site is subtle – I assume they represent a yak yoke or something – but they also look very good at night time.

 
Lamb, of course, can be regarded as Inner Mongolia's signature meat; that and goat too. So to put the punters in the right mood, you see the occasional stone beastie sitting around doing what their real life cousins also do – ie not a lot.

 
Ninty-nine Yurts is indeed famous for its popular lamb dishes, such as roast whole lamb, lamb's back, kebabs and boiled goat.
 
Hey, there’s even a kiddies’corner – a mini play zoo ...
 
…errrr, no. This is just to show off to the punters the freshness of the meat they are about to consume!

 
The restaurant sources its sheep and goats from the remote mountains of the Urad Middle Banner grassland in Inner Mongolia, which provides high-quality wild grass and herbs. Unfortunately for them, these featured pets will soon be joining some of their friends …

 
whence they will be laid to rest on a smart wooden board, offset with a sprig or three of lettuce.

 
As well as the punters searching for their proper yurts, and waiters carting the unfortunate sheep that have departed this earthly paradise to go and meet their maker, you can also see some eye candy dolled up in pinks and blues and golds…

 
This girlie looks resigned to having a total stranger putting his arm around her shoulders. I wonder if that was included in her job description?

 
Actually these girls form part of a troupe performing typical Mongolian music to add atmosphere to the restaurant experience. Mongolians are famous for a weird, but beautiful, form of throat singing music known as hoomii.
 
This unique type of singing involves the production of two distinctly audible pitches at the same time, including a low drone, derived from the fundamental frequency of the vocal cord vibrations, and higher melodic notes that result when the singer's mouth acts as a filter, selecting one note at a time from among the drone's natural overtone series pitches.
 
Apparently during the Qing Dynasty they greatly valued Mongol court music and made it an integral part of royal ceremonies, especially at feasts. So it would appear this would be an ideal accompaniment for the meal.

 
Because we are making up only a small party (there are six of us) we have been booked into a yurt that caters for a number of visiting parties. Only the large gatherings are worthy of a yurt of their own.

 
In fact our yurt can cater for up to 100 people in one go…

 
It’s huge. I never appreciated that these tents could be so big inside – a bit like Dr Who’s Tardis.

 
One area of the wall has a collection of Mongolian head dresses on show. Some have been worn by horses and others by people. But I am left guessing how the well dressed Mongolian would prance down the street wearing one of these…

 
But enough of such banter. It’s time for the serious stuff, as we settle down to rummage through Ninty-Nine Yurts’ leather bound menu…

 
A lot of effort has gone into the design of this tome. There’s a theme running through it of pictures and verses depicting the Mongolian grass lands where the sheep and goats are reared. But it would appear they used the same translation agency as for their branding…

 
I ponder for a moment. I know that FYI is short for ‘for your information’; but Fiy?
 
But turning the page I find that the creativity is drawn from a famous Mongolian song: “Swan geese, in the sky, fly in unity”…

 
It’s quite moving, don’t you think?

swan geese,in the sky,fly in unity,
long is the river,yellow is the autumn grass,sorrow is the musuc on the praire;
swan geese,southbound,ly over the reeds,
the grey sky is boundless,where are they heading for.home is where the heart is.
swan geese ,coming back from north, take my yeaming,
fading is the song,trembling is the music ,warm is the spring on the prairier;
swan geese ,flying thuough the grey sky,how far away is th sky,
the glass is empty ,fill again.I won't go home till i' m drunk tonight.
 
Some of the items featured in the menu jump out of the page at you. Oh, I can’t wait to try out the wan liao (碗料) seasoning. Yummy yummy…

 
We start off with the standard beverage for every Mongolian meal. Tsutai tsai (literally "tea with milk") typically contains water, milk, tea and salt. A simple recipe might call for one quart of water, one quart of milk, a tablespoon of green tea, and one teaspoon of salt. But the ingredients often vary. Some recipes use green tea while others use black tea. Some recipes even include butter or fat. Another common addition to the Tsutai tsai is fried millet. The amount of salt in the tea is also often varied. And it’s the salt that hits the first timer more than anything else. I guess it’s a bit like drinking tequila with salt, or the way Indians put salt in their laban. That’s certainly the same effect you get.
 
To offset the shock of drinking this cream-coloured sea water, I am offered some Mongolian yoghurt which the Chinese invariably find far too sour. I am pressed to pour some honey into it (to make it more palatable!) but I love it the way it is. It’s about the same ‘sourness’ as the yoghurt you find in the Middle East.

 
Then comes a procession of plates to our table. Here’s a fish called 鲫鱼, or ji yu, which is quite boney, but has a good taste once you have done battle with its skeleton…

 
There are also small portions of pickled cabbage, chilli, garlic, carrot, and chinese chives (韭菜) – jiu cai.

 
Pickled cabbage and glass noodles soup (牧民酸菜粉 – mu min suan cai fen) is another Mongolian favourite …

 
and a basket of different breads, made from various cereals and date paste, garlic and other interesting additions has me coming back for more…

 
And finally the pièce de resistance – 毡房烤羊背 (zhan fang kao yang bei or roasted lamb’s back ) is brought over on a wooden board, together with dipping sauces of chilli and cumin and pieces of garlic to kill off the effects of the grease in your stomach.

 
The restaurant provides plastic gloves for the convenience of customers, as it can get very messy munching the mutton from the bone.

 
Everything is washed down by the Tsutai tsai and bottles of beer; and soon, even with the best will in the world, we are all pretty well panggugu, not to mention haobao! What the politically correct brigade in the UK would say of the Ninty-Nine Yurts urging of its customers to drink to excess, I cannot imagine.

 
As is common all over China, especially as it is now government policy for everyone to cut down on wasting food, one of the fuwuyuan (服务员) is called over to place the left-overs into a doggy bag. Someone in our party is not going hungry for the next few days!

 
We stagger out into the night air and pass a yurt or three given over to doing the washing up. Few restaurants have automatic dish washers, presumably because human labour is still cheaper than automation.

 
The mind boggles over how many plates and cups and chopsticks this place must get through every evening…

 
As we pass through the exit, I notice the ornate sliding gates that I had not seen on our way in. They’re pretty posh I think; and like the entire complex they exude an air of class about them.

 
The Ninty-Nine Yurts is anything but bashful about proclaiming its identity to the world at large.

 
As we say goodnight to our piece of Inner Mongolian heaven, I find myself wondering if calling it the "Ninty-Nine Yurts" is in fact a wonderful piece of marketing reverse psychology – guaranteed to get people telling all their friends about this amazing place.
 
Well, as you can see, it definitely worked as far as your favourite blogger is concerned!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Way of Tea - How can I ever look a tea bag in the face again?

I wonder sometimes why many in the West think that their version of modern-day living is any better than what you find in other, less-developed parts of the world. As McDonalds and KFC and Starbucks conquer the globe with their versions of fast food and ‘real coffee’, is the rest of the non-American world any better off as a result?
 
In some ways, the same can be said of tea. Back in the 1950s in Britain we all used loose leaf tea, and jolly good it was too. Then some bright spark invented the tea bag and we all thought that this was a major leap forward in civilisation. Sure, you can still get loose leaf tea in the UK, but who bothers with it any more except for top notch establishments?
 
Yet here in China the tea bag has never really taken off. Everywhere you see people pouring hot water onto their tea leaves – and I do mean everywhere. On buses and trains from a thermos; in shops and offices from hot water machines; everyone enjoys their brew and the only tea bags I see are reserved for hotel bedrooms and other establishments frequented by ‘laowai’.
 
Whenever I go to teach English at weekends, I am offered tea by the principal of Langge School – ZhiJuan. Not for her the lowly tea bag. No way. Instead she chooses a special tea from her vast collection, pours a little into a bowl, pours hot water onto it, ‘scrapes’ off any floating leaves with a lid and then decants the liquid into a small jug from which she pours it out into sip-sized cups. To drink a dozen cups of her brews at one go is the norm and very nice they are too.
 
Recently, Xiaoyan – the mother of one of the kids I had been teaching – asked if I would be interested in learning about how to make the perfect cup of (Chinese) tea. It would be part of my education; something I really should have found out about when first I came to China – not just as I am about to leave this wonderful country.
 
She didn’t mention it then, but I found out later that it just so happens she had only recently gained her official endorsement as a professional tea practitioner. And her teacher, Sun Xuelian, would be delighted to educate me in the ways of the Chinese tea ceremony.

 
The Occupational Qualification Certificate is, I suspect, a bit like the British NVQ system – qualifications assessed in the workplace through observation of performance. The back cover explains it all, complete with British-spelt English, which itself is something of a rarity here in American-English dominated China: “This certifies the competency of the holder for a specific occupation and serves as an effective public notarial document on the holder's skill level for the purpose of overseas employment and labour export. The certificate is validated with the seal of human resources and social security administrative authorities or the working agencies of human resources (labour) and social security of the concerned departments directly under the State Council or the PLA and CAPF.” (That’s the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police Force, in case you were wondering!)

 
The Chinese tea ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is a Chinese cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of tea leaves. In modern day China, virtually every dwelling has a set of tea implements for brewing a hot cup of tea. A visitor to a Chinese home will be expected to sit down and drink tea while talking.
 
The Gongfu Cha Dao (功夫茶道) also known “Gongfucha" makes use of a small teapot of about 100 – 150 ml to enhance the aesthetics, and more importantly "round out" the taste of the tea being brewed. Pots come in all shapes, as a chart on Xuelian’s wall amply illustrates.

 
Actually Xuelian also teaches art in her little basement studio. I somehow don’t think she can get enough tea-making students to earn a living from that alone.

 
The basics of the tea equipment used is simple enough. Spread out on the table is a glorified drip tray. It can be made of stone or clay and I guess it’s like the tea-equivalent of a child’s sand-pit! Expect it to get messy – I mean, very messy!

 
From one corner of the tray is an escape hatch from which a rubber or plastic hose reaches down into a bucket. At first glance it reminds me of a catheter attached to a patient in a hospital who has just undergone surgery and can’t get to the loo on their own!

 
Some of Xuelian’s pots are really rather nice. I particularly like this one which is made from two immiscible types of clay which result in a swirling pattern after the final firing of the pot.

 
This next classic design, however, is known as Xi Shi (西施). Shi Yiguang (施夷光) was one of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China who was said to have lived during the end of the Spring and Autumn Period in Zhuji, the capital of the ancient State of Yue. Xi Shi's beauty was said to be so extreme that while leaning over a balcony to look at the fish in the pond, the fish would be so dazzled that they forgot to swim and sank away from the surface! Anyway, the pot is meant to replicate the shape of her breast and nipple … from which I can only surmise that maybe the fish had a point! I guess she must have been a pretty hot young lady!

 
There are many different ways of brewing Chinese tea depending on all kinds of variables, not least the type of tea being used. For example, green teas are more delicate than oolong teas or black teas and should be brewed with cooler water as a result. A good quality oolong tea is good for anywhere from 4 to 8 infusions while some Pu’erh teas can even last for more than eight infusions.

 
Actually, the temperature of the water is really important. In the UK the accepted wisdom is to boil the kettle and to then pour out the water while it is still boiling. Not so in China. It needs to be hot but if it is too hot it can spoil the taste. The temperature will depend on the type of tea you use. For instance, if you serve green tea, heat it to about 85 degrees without letting it boil. 95 °C should be used for Oolong and only boiling water is used for compressed teas, such as Pu’erh tea.
 
And were you aware that as a rule of thumb, the temperature of the water can be determined by the size and the sizzling sound made by the air bubbles in the kettle? At 75–85 °C, the bubbles formed are known as "crab eyes" and are about 3mm in diameter. They are accompanied by loud, rapid sizzling sounds. At 90–95 °C, the bubbles, which are now around 8mm in diameter and accompanied by less frequent sizzling sounds and a lower sizzling pitch, are dubbed "fish eyes". When the water is boiling, neither the formation of air bubbles nor sizzling sounds occur at all.
 
Once you have rinsed out the teapot to ensure it is free from any debris, it and the cups are then warmed and sterilized with hot water, and the excess is then poured away onto the tray, whence it makes its way via the catheter into the bucket below.
 
The second stage of the preparation is to give everyone present the chance to examine the tea and appreciate its appearance, smell, and other characteristics, after which "the black dragon enters the palace" – i.e. the teapot is filled with tea. If you are going to make a good job of it, you spoon the tea out using only bamboo or wood – never metal. The pot is normally filled up to a quarter or even one-third with tea leaves, which for a 150 ml tea pot equates to around 15 grams of tea leaves.
 
Hot water is now poured from a height above the pot until the pot overflows and any debris or bubbles which form on the surface are then scooped away gently to keep the tea from around the mouth of the pot, which is then closed with the lid.

 
And then?
 
And then, you throw it all away! Customarily this first brew is poured into the cups but it is not drunk. It is essentially a slightly extended way of washing the tea leaves and warming up the cups. So you don’t drink this tea. Instead you either pour it out of the cups onto the teapot to keep it warm prior to the next fill up with water, and also to make it shiny over time, or you throw it over your tea pets.
 
Your what?
 
A tea pet symbolises wealth and fortune and is basically a small work of art made of different kinds of clay, just like the tea pots, and is normally placed on a tea tray. During the ceremony, tea is poured over them and over time they darken and mature into …errr… darker and more mature – and even coloured and shiny – tea pets! (I told you it was messy!) Many people have large collections of them. A popular type is Jinchan (a type of three-legged toad, which is said to be able to spit out money - perhaps because it sounds like jinqian - meaning money!

 
Now you repeat the procedure, pouring on the water from a great height to show your skill in pouring, letting the tea brew for 10 to 30 seconds, and then pouring the tea through a sieve into a jug, ready for it to be used to fill the tea cups. Each time the tea is poured, you add 30 more seconds to the brewing time. The better the tea, the more infusions it will withstand. You never refill water into the small teapot until you are ready for the next serving.

 
Normally the server pours the tea into the small cups which have been arranged in a semi-circle around the drip tray. The cups are never filled to the top. Instead the normal height is around 70 percent which in practice means you have a better chance of not burning your fingers when picking it up! But if you believe what they would tell you, it is because the Chinese are said to believe that the rest of the cup is filled with friendship and affection. Yeah, OK!
 
So the first cup of tea has been thrown away. Now it’s time to savour the taste… right? Wrong!
 
First the server passes a cup to each guest and invites him or her to smell the tea. It’s a bit like sniffing a fine claret before quaffing it down; the tea can have an amazing “nose” which you could well miss were you just to go straight for the tasting part.

 
Etiquette demands that instead of nodding your thanks or blurting out ‘xie xie’, you should actually thank your server by tapping on the table three times with your finger or bent index and middle fingers.
 
This custom is said to have originated in the Qing Dynasty when Emperor Qian Long would travel in disguise through his empire. Servants were under strict instructions not to reveal their master's identity. One day in a restaurant, the emperor, after pouring himself a cup of tea, filled a servant's cup as well. It was a huge honour for the servant to have the emperor pour him a cup of tea. But he couldn’t kneel and kowtow to the emperor since that would reveal his identity, so he bent his fingers on the table to express his gratitude and respect – supposedly the bent finger being the head and the other two the arms.
 
There is also an etiquette as to how to hold your cup – balancing its base on the middle finger while holding it by thumb and index finger, all the while keeping your arm down so as not to show off your arm pits!
 
And to show your appreciation the first time around you can slurp your tea loudly!

 
Apart from the glorified drip tray, there is also a range of wooden or bamboo tools that normally can be found. They are called “ cha dao liu jun zi” - six tools of cha dao. Cha lou is a ring shaped funnel for pouring loose tea into pots with small apertures; cha chi is a spoon for dolling out the dry tea leaves (metal spoons are strictly off limits!). Other tools serve as prodders and pushers, too…

 
and perhaps the most useful of all – wooden tweezers, or cha chi for picking up the tea cups when you want to empty an unfinished cup and pour its contents over one of the pets.

 
Another of the seemingly weird things one is expected to appreciate after drinking the tea is the appearance of one of the tea leaves once it has been uncurled and smoothed out following its immersion in the tea making process. During the initial tea production, the tea leaves are traditionally turned constantly in a deep bowl. This process slightly damages the edges of the leaves such that not only does it make the edges of the leaf turn red, but more importantly when it is being brewed, the leaf more easily gives up its full flavour to the water.

 
When it comes to making green or flower teas, then the traditional earthenware pot sometimes gives way to a glass variety – such as this one that has a removable filter built in.

 
The dry leaves might be placed in a container – cha he – for ease of pouring into this pot, and a wooden spatula used for pushing the leaves out of the container if friction stops them pouring easily.

 
Once the water has been poured onto the leaves inside the filter, they soon rise to the top, whence the filter is removed and the remainder of the glass pot is used for pouring out the tea.

 
For the darker teas such as the pu’erh variety, it is common to be offered something sweet to suck on as this helps remove the tannins from building up in the stomach.

 
Amazingly this entire lesson has taken some two hours to get through. Even more amazing is the fact that the next day I am visiting a shop in the Ancient Cultural Street area of Tianjin when my new-found expertise is put to good use. This shop, which sells upmarket jade and other works of art, is run by Fan Jian Qin.

 
Not only does she serve her upmarket potential customers tea, as they contemplate their purchases, but she also has some rather natty little tea pots, such as this squirrel pot…

 
or even this tiger model which I rather fancy…

 
But it’s here that I have a second lesson that I wasn’t expecting to add to the previous day’s education. For it appears that something that many Chinese add to their enjoyment of the tea ceremony is the addition of incense. And those in the know don’t just pop out to the corner shop to buy a joss stick. No. They make it up for themselves! In this case Jian Qin begins her demonstration while her friend Zi Han looks on…

 
The basic ingredients consist of a bowl half full of ash from previous incense burnings (and for those of you who are about to ask the age old chicken-and-egg question, the answer is you can actually purchase spent incense powder); and of course some powdered incense – in this case two IKEA jars of Sandalwood and Eaglewood – which is called Tanxiang and Chenxiang in Chinese, the latter being a type of agarwood similar to the oud they use in the Middle East.

 
Just like in the tea ceremony there is also a set of special tools for shovelling, prodding and dusting up…

 
Jian Qin starts by flattening the ash in the bowl. In clockwise circular strokes, moving anticlockwise round the bowl with each stroke being slowly contemplated, the ash gets firmed more and more until some ten minutes later it is as flat as a bowling green … though she apologises that she might have rushed the job a little!

 
Next she takes a brass moulding template and places it carefully on the ash.

 
Using small quantities of the incense powders, she uses one of the tools to press them into the slots of the mould such that by the time she lifts the template away, a patterned incense flower has been left on the surface of the ash. It’s just like when you go to buy a cappuccino in Costa Café when they sprinkle chocolate powder in the shape of their coffee bean logo onto the top of the froth – though with a lot more care, naturally!

 
She uses a splint to light the incense…

 
and like a gunpowder fuse it slowly burns, filling the room with wonderfully scented smoke.

 
The idea is now to sit back, and enjoy the scent and enjoy the tea and enjoy each others’ company, which we all do.

 
And to think that we Brits actually used to think that using a tea bag was so cool! Oh please!