Babaocha: Eight-treasure Tea
Served in a delicate teacup with lid, is a healthy and flavourful drink that is made by mixing tea with seven other ingredients, hence the name eighttreasure tea.
Babaocha (eight-treasure tea) is a special kind of beverage that is made by mixing tea leaves with different ingredients. The drink is popular in northern, and especially northwestern, China. Since it is usually brewed in a cup with a lid, people also refer to it as gaiwancha (covered- cup tea) or sanpaocha (three-brew tea). The eight ingredients generally found in babaocha include wolfberries, longans, raisins, red dates, dried fruit, rock sugar, sesame seeds and tea leaves. According to the time of year or one's personal preferences, chrysanthemums, walnuts, rose petals, ginseng or cassia seeds can also be added. As different combinations of ingredients can bring about different effects, people can prepare healthy teas with various flavours.
People first began drinking babaocha more than 2,000 years ago during the Zhou Dynasty (11th century–256 BC). The earliest form of the tea was said to have been used by ethnic minorities along the ancient Silk Road for entertaining guests. As the saying goes, “When guests come from afar, gaiwancha should be served.”
Babaocha makes most people think of northwestern Ningxia Province, which is mainly inhabited by the Hui people who drink tea with a zhong (“handleless cup”), or gaiwan (“cup with lid”). Special ingredients added to the tea make the Hui minority's “gaiwancha” unique. Hui family will undoubtedly serve tea to their visitors. They invite Muslim guests to sit on their kang (heated brick bed) after exchanging greetings and offer the tea, which is colloquially known as “sanpaotai.” Besides tea leaves, the beverage also contains rock sugar, longans, dates and sesame
seeds, giving the tea a mellow and fragrant flavour. Hosts will usually top up their guests cups' when they are drinking. There is usually hospitable conservation as well.
Babaocha is not only popular amongst the Hui minority in Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai, but also among the Han, Dongxiang and Bao'an ethnic group; and so, has become an important drink for entertaining guests. People from the Dongxiang ethnic minority especially love babaocha. They continue to make refinements to the tea set, tea leaves and the proportions of ingredients, invariably choosing a “sanpaotai” tea set which consists of a cup, lid and saucer. The finest clay is also used to make the set to ensure its quality. The choicest leaves are used alongside pure water, such as freshly-melted snow or spring water. The leaves are then put in a sanpaotai cup and rock sugar, wolfberries, red dates or walnuts are added according to personal preference. Finally, boiling “mudanhua” water is added. Any floating leaves are submerged by gently rubbing the surface of the tea back-and-forth with the lid. When drinking the tea, the saucer is held in the left hand, and the lid is lifted with the thumb, forefinger and middle finger on the right hand. The lid is then slanted a little and rubbed against the brim of the cup slightly. The well-brewed tea should smell fresh and fragrant. To properly drink the tea, it should be sipped, savoured and swallowed slowly. The strong scent of the sweet and faintly sour tea will fill the nostrils, creating a refreshing feeling.
During the Ming Dynasty ( 1368– 1644), the trade of horses for tea flourished in the Hezhou area, promoting tea drinking as a custom amongst the Dongxiang people. Over time, babaocha became indispensable to the Dongxiang and finally a unique tea- drinking culture emerged. Today, local people still maintain a curious custom. When a young man is to go on a date with a girl, he will try to inquire about her tea- brewing and cooking skills in advance. This is because some people believe there is a close connection between the taste of babaocha and the appearance and brewing skills of a person. When brewed by different people, the same tea with the same ingredients, will taste differently. Therefore, this is a method by which young men can discover whether a girl would make a good wife. The betrothal gift given by a young man to his fiancée is called “tea money,” and the engagement is known as “songdingcha” ( giving tea money).
When it comes to babaocha or gaiwancha, it is important to mention the people of Sichuan, as the gaiwan (cup with lid) was originally developed in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The Sichuan people are very particular about tea. Legend has it that the gaiwan was created by the daughter of Cui Ning, governor of Sichuan, during the Jianzhong period of Emperor Dezong's reign (AD 780–805) of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). At that time, people often scalded their fingers because there was nothing beneath the teacup, so Cui Ning's daughter invented a wooden saucer to support it. Later on, to prevent the teacup from slipping away, she fixed the cup by putting a ring of wax in the centre of the saucer, thus creating the first ever chachuan (saucer, lit. “tea boat”). Thereafter, people used paint instead of wax to make it more convenient to use, and the ring evolved into various forms. Therefore, the peculiar chachuan culture, also called gaiwan tea culture, emerged in the Chengdu area. This unique way of drinking tea spread from Sichuan to surrounding provinces and gradually reached all of the parts of southern China.
Chengdu is a land of tea and teahouses and is a paradise for tealovers. The short, cold, rainy autumns there make teahouses the perfect places to meet with friends. People in Chengdu employ various, subtle hints when drinking tea. If they place the lid upside-down on the table, it means that they have no tea left and would like the waiter to add more water right away; if they leave the table and put the lid on their chair, they want to show that they will be back soon and to signal to the waiter not to clear away their tea set. Waiters in Sichuan are skilled at simmering, boiling and brewing tea. However, the person most skilled is usually the chaboshi (“tea master”), who shuttles from table to table carrying his teapot.
Babaocha is not only nutritious and energy- giving, it also brings tea- lovers great joy. Legend has it that ginseng babaocha— referred to as “imperial babaocha” by Empress Dowager Cixi ( reign: 1861– 1908)— also contains eight ingredients: the male flower of Eucommia ulmoides, ginseng, wolfberries, longans, red dates, hawthorns, liquorice and black Tartary buckwheat. This kind of tea was enjoyed by the imperial family for many centuries. With its delightful fragrance, it is suitable for drinking during any season. Regular consumption is good for one's health.
Beijingers are partial to jasmine tea and make babaocha with jasmine flowers. They place a few jasmine tea leaves into a gaiwan, add Chinese wolfberries, walnuts, longans, sesame seeds and dried fruit and add water to the cup for the first time. At first, the tea assumes a light colour and has a weak taste. However, after the lid is placed over the cup and the tea has brewed for a while, a distinctive taste from the fruit and longans develops. It is delicate and slowly becomes stronger. As water is added for the third time, the sesame seeds absorb the tea and float to the surface, and the melted rock sugar dissolves, ascending like a pall of smoke. The tea leaves have all completely unfolded, and the delicate scent of the tea fills the nostrils. It is truly wonderful that such a small cup of tea can have so many flavours.