IN PRAISE OF ORIENTAL BEAUTY AND OTHER DELIGHTS
Deep in the hills of northern Thailand, Madam Soo teaches Roy Hamric to appreciate the unique flavour of oolong tea
THE hilltop village of Mae Salong, known as Thailand’s most Chinese of villages, is nestled on a remote ridgeback near the Burma border. It was settled by remnants of the Kuomintang army in 1961, after it had fled to Burma following the fall of general Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated army.
In the past few decades, the soldiers have switched from growing poppies to cultivating prized tea bushes. Originally imported from Taiwan, the bushes around Mae Salong produce some of the finest tea in Asia, and the village has become an unlikely attraction for hardy tea-loving travellers.
During my first night in town, I visit a karaoke bar where three televisions play sitcoms from mainland China and Hong Kong. The next morning, I walk down the main road, where Chinese characters on shop signs outnumber Thai script.
Lisu and Mong villagers fill the morning market and I hear Chinese dialects, not Thai, spoken everywhere.
The next day, a sprinkling of tourists brave a one-hour drive over the sharp mountain switchbacks to the plantations. And they come for only one thing: fine tea. Almost everyone in the village gathers leaves, works in a tea-processing factory or tends a small tea garden on a plot near their homes. Many varieties are grown but one of the favourites is oolong, which connoisseurs say compares favourably with fine wine.
I want to learn how to appreciate fine tea and it’s obvious Mae Salong is the place to do it. That afternoon, I spot a small, nondescript tea vendor’s shop on the main road. It’s simple: two wooden tables and a few stools. A picture of the Great Wall of China adorns one wall. An elderly woman with close-cropped white hair sits on a stool eyeing me, as if she has been waiting for me to show up.
Her name is Madam Soo and, speaking in broken English and Thai, she gives me a short course in tea tasting. ‘‘ What kind of tea do you like?’’ she asks. ‘‘ Oolong,’’ I answer. ‘‘ There are many varieties,’’ she says. ‘‘ What kind?’
‘‘ Please serve the one you like best,’’ I tell her. So she picks up a plastic bag full of tea buds. ‘‘ Oolong has been used as a medicine for thousands of years,’’ she says, selecting only three or four small buds. ‘‘ Tea stimulates the blood circulation and calms the mind.’’
Western researchers claim drinking tea lowers cholesterol, improves the functioning of the kidneys and strengthens the natural immune system. In scientific terms, it’s all about polyphones and catechins, which are organic chemicals found in all tea leaves.
The trick is how much oxidation or bruising is allowed in the processing of the leaves. Bruising releases oils within the leaf; green tea leaves are unoxidised or undergo no bruising, while black tea leaves are fully oxidised or thoroughly bruised. The oolong leaf is bruised halfway between green and black tea leaves, accounting for its singular fruity taste.
Wordlessly, Madam Soo pours hot water into a small, unglazed clay teapot. She drops in four oolong buds, which expand as soon as they hit the just-boiled water. Connoisseurs say the small clay pots improve with age and bring out the best flavours. After a few minutes of steeping, she pours the tea through a fine strainer into two small, narrow-lipped clay cups.
She picks one up, motioning me to inhale the aroma. I hold the tiny cup with the fingers of both hands. It’s Dong Fang Mei Ren, or Oriental Beauty oolong tea, which Madam Soo says she saves for special occasions. The colour of Oriental Beauty tea is one of its gifts. Imagine the clearest water. Imagine you prick your index finger with a needle. A trickle of dark blood rises. Then you place that finger into the clear water and stir. The water suddenly glows light red, the natural colour of Oriental Beauty.
The scent is like a soft, fruity breeze, with a hint of honey, peaches and oranges. With my first sip it is as if I have never tasted tea before. A stream of subtle, sweet flavours flows over my tongue.
With each sip, Madam Soo nods and smiles in appreciation at me. It’s another lesson in how to live, learn and travel well.
Prized bushes: Tea growing in Mae Salong