Hong Kong, though once controlled by the British, remains quintessentially Chinese, though its role as a port and trade center reflects a mix of cooking styles from a wide range of Chinese regional cuisines.
Ever since Emperor Shen Nung sat under a camellia tree 5,000 years ago, tea has been China's national beverage. Some of the camellia tree's leaves were blown into a cauldron of boiling water and the resulting fragrance tempted the emperor to sip the brew. From that accidental beginning, China's tea culture flourished through the succeeding dynasties.
From a medicinal tonic favored by the aristocracy, tea developed into a popular drink for lord and peasant alike. Fermented, half-fermented or not at all, tea leaves acquired their "black", "oolong" and "green"' qualities and trade names. Initially prepared into blocks, the leaves were powdered; in more recent times, the dry leaf form has become customary.
The teahouse that served "house" blends or prized imports from respected tea-growing areas (such as Hangzhou and Fujian) sprang up all over China. One street in a town might support three or more, just as an English village happily accommodated a handful of pubs.
Although the Chinese never developed elaborate tea rituals and ceremonies in the manner of the Japanese, they have followed one definitive treatise on tea-making. The 1,200-year-old "Cha Ching" ("Tea Classic") is the one work of a Tang Dynasty scholar and poet, Lu Yu.
He identifies the proper way to brew tea, what water to use and the ideal surroundings in which to sip the heavenly nectar. First of all, you will need a smokeless fire of charcoal made from olive pits. Then, you must obtain fresh water from a slow-moving mountain stream and boil it until you hear "the sound of breakers majestic". Pour the water over a quarter of an ounce of tea leaves in a pure white porcelain cup. The cup must be fine enough to hold the heat yet not burn the hand that holds it. Now throw away that water, add more water to the cup and sip...slowly.
In Northern Imperial China, teahouses were regarded as retreats for gentlemen, and later for businessmen. Deals would be discussed and sealed in the neutral, relaxed surroundings of a teahouse, rather than in offices.
Some teahouses in Hong Kong still maintain such a tradition, and are frequented by British government officers as well as Hong Kong Chinese industrialists and entrepreneurs. This being Hong Kong, however, dim sum are definitely available.
Teahouses were, and are, also places where disputes could be settled amicably over tea. Courts of law were not spots where Chinese felt at ease.
They preferred to accept the judgment of a mutually respected arbiter. The disputing parties would agree terms and apologies, pay for the tea, shake hands, and part in peace. In the same way that London later developed its insurance and stockbroking businesses out of simple coffee shops, so the Chinese were using teahouses as places to conduct business.
Today in Hong Kong, traditional teahouses are still to be found in the older communities. The most famous example in Central District is the Luk Yu Teahouse, a half-century-old living monument to the sedate elegance of old Hong Kong. Stained-glass murals and massive framed scrolls decorate white walls. The teahouse's original black ceiling fans spin lazily in the air-conditioned rooms. Mirrored and marbled private wooden booths are conspiratorial businessmen's havens. To go for yum cha at the Luk Yu is to enter another era. It is best experienced mid-morning or mid-afternoon, outside the breakfast and lunch rush hours when every seat and table is usually reserved for regular customers. This very special teahouse is Hong Kong's appropriate tribute to that 8th-Century tea master—Luk Yu being the Cantonese version of Lu Yu.
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This page modified January 2007
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