A holiday sandwich like no other

Holiday time is for over-indulgence. And that’s what this sandwich is. It popped up on my my pinterest page and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Until today.

Woah.

Amazing.

I think I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.

Introducing the Roasted Strawberry, Brie and Chocolate Grilled Cheese Sandwich (by ‘How sweet it is’) – click for the original recipe.

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The only thing to follow this sandwich was a cup of sheng pu’er tea. And a sit-down.

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Thunder Tea Rice

Hawker centres are such a fantastic to sample the local Singaporean delights. Before going to Singapore, I did some perusing online, and found this intriguing blog on Thunder Tea Rice. I couldn’t wait to try it – it sounded so delicious, super healthy and includes tea!! Yay!

Thunder Tea Rice involves an oversized bowl of brown rice, with all sorts of delicious ingredients: sprouts, soy beans, peanuts, green vegies and dried anchovies. Plus, a bowl of a soupy green matcha tea with basil and mint mixed in. We bought the set meal, which also includes a huge piece of tofu encrusted with a yummy topping.

The brochure tells us that the dish is advantageous for health and weight management by increasing your metabolism and detoxification, as well as treating a number of nasty diseases. I particularly like their quote: “The tedious way of preparing Thunder Tea Rice dish also contributes as a physical work out especially during the hour-long grinding to make the Thunder Tea Rice paste”. Nice.

This dish was so amazing that we’ve replicated it twice since coming back only a few weeks ago! Zac made it for our masterchef 2.0 challenge. When Zac replicated it though, we did the paste in the blender!

If you are travelling to Singapore and want to try it out, you can find it in the Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre – Stall 12. It’s easy to spot, as there’s a HUGE queue at lunchtime.

Masterchef Beijing 2.0

As Andy won our first ever Masterchef challenge, he was given the honour of determining the next challenge. Everyone was given a colour and a key ingredient.

I was given ‘blue’ and ‘pasta’ and I haven’t forgiven him yet!

Being pregnant, I’ve been very conscious of trying to eat as nutritionally sound as possible. But think of a naturally blue food… blueberries. And they’re kinda purple anyway. Now think of another… exactly. Our genetics naturally steer us clear of blue foods, as we assume that they are mouldy.

So, I just decided to go silly and had an ‘under the sea’ theme and go nuts with some food colouring. Let’s call it prep for future children’s birthday parties.

1st course was a Collins Class submarine made from cannelloni tubes, stuffed with ricotta, lemon juice, dill, celery, walnuts, lemon rind and yoghurt, topped with a bechamel sauce. Cheese on cheese. And it was actually quite yum, until I added blue food colouring and made it look gross.

2nd course was a gnocchi oyster. I resisted the temptation to turn the gnocchi blue (this was the last thing I cooked, and I was starting to think the baby might be coming out with a blue tinge by now) and instead made blue sea salt. The gnocchi is sitting on a puttanesca-style sauce. And I was actually happy with this course! (I used the same gnocchi recipe that I wrote about here).

3rd course was a disaster. I wanted to make a chocolate lasagne, with blue cake layers, which would then kinda look like a coral reef. But the pasta part really just made it weird. It would have been much better as just a blue blueberry cake with chocolate sauce. And I’m pretty sure the colouring made the cake taste weird.

These are a sample of each of the courses (entree, main and dessert). Nic made black food with potato, Zac made green with rice, Andy made orange with tofu and Michelle (the winner!) made red with white bean.

My overall favourite dish for the night was Michelle‘s white bean dessert – I can’t resist posting a photo since it was so beautifully presented:

If you’re interested in our first Masterchef Beijing challenge, you can find it here!

A Green Tea Factory

We’d had such a lovely Lóng jǐng adventure in Hangzhou, we decided to try again whilst in Shàoxīng. We knew that there was tea around. We’d seen tea farms whilst on buses doing some day trips around the outskirts of the town. We’d seen pictures of vast tea fields on ads. We’d heard that Shàoxīng is where ‘Gunpowder Green’ tea comes from – made famous by Twinings in Western countries many years ago. So, we started asking questions. Many people looked at us blankly. Some said just head to the tea area and start asking around. Hmm… what to do? We got online and found some phone numbers. Zac braved the Zhèjiāng accent and we eventually found someone who said we could come and have a look at their company!

As you’ve probably noticed, our previous tea adventures have been very rural. We’ve met the farmers, we’ve dined with families and we’ve got to the roots of the production. This time was different. We found the big sign announcing the factory, and a lovely little girl met us at the front gate. We sat in her office and sampled some of the new products for the year. Their new green tea was quite robust and delicious, and totally different to the lóng jǐng we’d had a few days earlier. The company is a collaboration with Japan, so they make a lot green tea powder for ice-creams and snacks. They also provide the green tea powder for a delicious new iced tea on the market. It has absolutely no sugar in it, yum!

We then moved into the lab for our tea-tasting! Have a taste in a lab is a completely different experience. The tea is weighed precisely, the timer is set for brewing and there is much less consideration for the temperature of the water!

We tried 4 distinct teas (left to right):

  • Mocha: ‘Matcha’ tea – the Japanese green tea powder. This is sieved and then whisked in hot water with a bamboo “brush”
  • Pingshui yinzhu: The fresh one that we tried as we came in
  • Houji cha: Looks/smells like coffee! It’s the tea that is used for iced tea and it’s quite low in caffeine (babies apparently drink it in Japan!)
  • Genmai: Green tea mixed with roasted rice. We tried a couple of combinations, and decided: the more rice, the better!

Note the weighing scales and feather duster. New tea-tasting equipment for me!

After the tasting session, we went for a wander through the tea fields. The factory has 10,000 acres of tea bushes and produces 300 tonnes of tea per year. 80% is picked industrially and the rest is hand-picked for their high quality loose-leaf teas.
You could see which tea bushes had been mechanically picked as they had a rounded shape. We walked past a beautiful blue reservoir, crossed a very thin stone bridge and sweated our pores out!!

You can see the difference between the machine-picked and hand-picked bushes.

Matcha leaves must be covered for the last part before the harvest to maintain the deep green colour

 Read more about tea:
Long Jing Green Tea Adventure!
Find out where the tea story began!

Photos courtesy of Zac.

龙井茶 Lóng jǐng Green Tea

I’m in the middle of a gorgeous exploratory holiday through Zhèjiāng, one of China’s smallest provinces. It’s famous for a number of things, but the first and foremost is Lóng jǐng Green Tea. Lóng jǐng translates as “Dragon’s well” and the tiny village of Lóng jǐng is situated just up the hill in the capital city of Hángzhōu.

Zac, my husband, had previously travelled to Hángzhōu on business and had attempted to buy some tea. However, every tea shop he visited had outrageously high prices (more expensive than Beijing!!) and the quality just didn’t seem up to scratch. As the streets of Hángzhōu are lined with Lamborghini and BMW shops, it’s easy to see why this happened. Zhèjiāng’s recent history includes a lot of China’s entrepreneurs and massive export companies. Apparently, a large percentage of the world’s shoes come out of Wēnzhōu, a major city in the south of the province. So, there’s money. Big time.

When we knew that we wanted to explore Zhèjiāng, Zac got back in touch with his driver from the previous trip. The guy had chatted about tea and seemed to know what he was talking about. We gave him a call, he asked us which car we’d like (money!) and he picked us up one day in his black Audi. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He told us where the best tea was and took us there. When we asked if there were any other places where we should go, he said no. This is the only place for lóng jǐng.

When we arrived at Lóng jǐng village, he parked the car right next to the actual Dragon’s Well! A little grandma grabbed our arms and handed us a bucket with a rope. We plunged the bucket into the well and drew up icy cold water. We washed our face and hands in the cool, sweet water. It was the best tasting water I’ve ever had.

We then followed him a short way up to a house behind the well at 狮峰山 (shīfēngshān – Lion’s Peak Mountain). We were welcomed by the loveliest lady who used lovely slow Chinese to explain all about her teas.

There are two harvests a year for lóng jǐng and the smaller of the two happens in Autumn. For this farm in particular, they don’t pick the leaves, they just cut them and place the cut leaves back into the soil as fertilizer. It is impossible to use chemicals on Chinese tea; it would affect the flavour too much. The biggest harvest is during Spring, around “Tomb-Sweeping Day” (清明节 qīngmíngjié). There are 2 types of  lóng jǐng, named according to their harvest time. The first is 明前 míngqían, which means ‘before Tomb-Sweeping Day’ and the second is 雨前 yǔqían, which means ‘before Guyu (谷雨)’ – the rain period following Tomb-Sweeping Day. Míngqían is the more popular of the two, and we tasted this one first. For a green tea, it is reasonably robust, and one batch of the tea can be steeped (泡 pào) about eight times and maintain it’s flavour.

Then, the lady brought out her best tea: 极品龙井 (jí pǐn lóng jǐng – high grade). And we were overwhelmed. We thought the last tea was amazing. We thought the last tea smelt wonderful. We thought the last tea looked bright and green and fresh. Until this one.

This tea was much more delicate, but it had a beautiful fresh, sweet flavour. There was absolutely no bitterness. The flavour coated your tongue and stayed in your mouth much longer than any other green tea I’ve tasted. This one can only be steeped about 4 times. It was 10 times the price of the last one we tasted!!! It was also a beautiful looking leaf. It was like a small opening bud, and each leaf had more than 3 parts. The leaves don’t break apart when brewed either – they maintain their perfect shape. The tea farm only produces 5 jin (2.5 kg) of this tea every year. It was like the baby of the 2 previously mentioned teas – if it was left on the tree for longer, it would become the others.

Once drinking that, there was no going back. We weren’t leaving without buying some, especially since the price here was about 1/3 of what she sold it for in Beijing. Our tea lady said that there was once a guy who paid her almost double the price so that she would handpick the best leaves so that they were all the same size (we weren’t that fussy)!

However, we thought we’d better try our favourite ‘green’ tea whilst we were here – white tea. White tea is from a different tea bush (same species) and this white tea is called “Bái lóng jǐng” (White Dragon’s Well Tea). It was hilarious – after our amazing previous tea, this one came out and the colour just SHONE! It was so much brighter and more vibrant than her best one! The flavour was beautiful, but still didn’t rival the jí pǐn lóng jǐng.

As we sat and chatted to this tea lady, she continually munched on the leaves from the teapot (she also said that Mao was a big fan of eating tea leaves). She said she drinks about 1 jin of tea a month (0.5kg), but an average tea drinker would probably take 3 months to drink that much. At one stage she held out both her hands and asked me to feel them and tell her what was different. Her right hand had very thick, tough skin with a few callouses – this is her ‘wok’ hand; the hand she uses to roast the leaves in the wok. It’s pretty special moment to realize the personal attention that all of these leaves have had from her!

Tea Tasting Workshops

When I’m not being an English teacher, you might find me at The Hutong on a Saturday afternoon. The Hutong is a cultural exchange centre that runs a variety of classes linked to Chinese culture. I have experienced a number of amazing cooking classes there myself as a student as well!

 

 

My interest is tea started many years ago, and you can read the story here. I am so happy that I have been able to turn a hobby and interest into something that I can share with others.

Typically, I have a mix of expats and tourists that come to my classes. The class runs for 2 hours, and we usually taste 6 teas. I also run through the parts of the tea ceremony and equipment that you can use to recreate what you have learnt at home.

If you are interested in any of their classes,  here is The Hutong calendar of upcoming events.

The Tea Obsession and Sailor Moon

I first travelled to China on a backpacking holiday in 2004. It was the dead of winter, and I’d come from sunny Adelaide. My husband (boyfriend at the time), Zac, and I soon discovered that tea tasting was a great way to warm up. The welcoming nature of Chinese people means that they are quite happy for you to come and sit in their tea shop for hours, sipping hot tea and thawing out. And you don’t have to buy anything (though I usually did because I felt sorry that we’d taken so much of their time)! My first chinese character that I learnt to recognise was chá, 茶, a welcoming sign when your toes are numb and your legs are tired. So, we traversed the country, sampling teas from many a province, without really knowing what we were doing. I bought a delicate tea set to perform tea ceremonies at home and for my birthday Zac organised a tea tray to be brought back from China for me.Hence, I returned to Australia and moved on from my Twinings Lady Grey. I would spend ages perusing the concoctions devised by The Tea Bar and T2 in Australia. I’m pretty sure tea and tea shopping kept me sane through my many hours of thesis writing!

Upon returning to China to settle, Zac and I both had a mis-match of English teaching jobs. Zac used to go to one students’ house weekly for a private English class and he was always served amazing tea. When complimented on their tea collection, his student offered to take Zac and I down to Maliandao (马连道), Beijing’s ‘Tea Street’.

It was sensory overload. As you drive along this street, tea shop after tea shop drifts past the window. Each window is stacked high with tea canisters, paper-wrapped tea bricks and beautiful tea cups. We got out of the car at a four-storey “Tea City” and went inside. The first thing to do when walking inside a tea market is breathe…. and breathe…. and breathe again. The scent is amazing. It’s very earthy with subtle floral hints. You have to experience it for yourself.

We were led to a small shop on the ground floor and sat down around a table in front of a cute girl with gorgeous skin. As my Chinese was minimal at the time, the chinese conversation washed over me. Bits and pieces were translated and we tasted tea after tea for a couple of hours. I was overwhelmed. The tea was unlike anything I’d tried before. We left Maliandao with a few samples of tea and a sense of widening horizons.

We went back. And back. And back. Each time learning more and more about tea and tea ceremonies. We became good friends with Sailor Moon, which is what we named our gorgeous tea lady after her once wearing a sailor’s outfit. And, in 2008, we were invited to her family’s tea farm for the harvest in Anxi county, Fujian Province. We spent a few days in the seaside capital, Xiamen, then took a bus and a long drive to her family’s property.

The rolling hills are lined with rows and rows of tea plants. In front of each plantation is a family home. Now, the tea business is lucrative in China. If you can grow good tea and market it well, you can make a lot of money. At first, it was quite strange to see three-storey homes dominating the landscape, full of antique chinese furniture and the latest in bathroom fittings, but in retrospect, it makes sense. Sailor Moon’s family home is multi-storey. The ground floor was mostly tea production and then a kitchen to one side. The second floor had bedrooms for the six family members and the third floor was yet to be finished. Next door, in a dilapidated state, stood the old family home. The only sign of life was the old tea roaster, still used by the family for cooking the leaves.

 

We stayed on the farm for a few days, learning all about how to produce tieguanyin (铁观音), the only tea that the family produces. Conversation was difficult at times. Sailor Moon’s family only speak ‘minnanhua’ – the dialect of the local area. So, to communicate with the family, we had to use standard mandarin to talk to Sailor Moon and she would translate for her family into the dialect. We were the village novelty for those few days. The first day we arrived, we had to do a welcoming cheers with everyone who had dropped by, for any possibly reason anyone could think of. And we weren’t sipping. Each ‘ganbei’ involved a BOWL of beer. I chickened out after a while, but poor manly Zac had to continue.

We accompanied Sailor Moon on her tasting trips into the main town. As her family only produced a limited amount of tea each year, she had to source more supplies for her tea shop back in Beijing. When she’d settled on a main tea supplier who she was happy with, she agreed to work for him for a few hours in order to get a great price on his tea. This is when we realised how special this girl was – a man with a huge reputation in the area was willing to trust her to taste and make decisions about the tea to buy for his company. The next few hours saw farmer after farmer wander past the door with a hopeful look in their eyes and a sack of tea. Sailor Moon would first stick her head in the bag and take a big whiff. If she was happy, she’d make the tea. If not, they were sent away without a tasting. Many a sniff later, she would take a sip. If she was satisfied, maybe one or two more. If not, she would quietly leave the shop and daintily spit the contents of her mouth onto the street. We learnt a lot on this evening. We were allowed to try most of the teas coming through, however, this was business and she couldn’t let her thoughts be known until she’d made a decision. So, we taught her two english words so we knew whether she thought it was a good tea or not. ‘Awesome’ and ‘D.B.’ (Dog’s Breakfast). In this way, we were privy to the flavours that are sought after in a good tieguanyin.

This was an eye-opening holiday and has been the catalyst for our tea obsession. The tea journey continues, and I plan to document it here.