This past Sunday I hosted a tea tasting at my house. It's been a while since I visited the spirit of Tea, but I found her to be as soothing, inspiring and ethereal as ever. Spending an afternoon drinking tea is always good for the soul, no matter what the circumstance. This is no disloyalty to coffee, mind you, because of course coffee is what pays my bills, but tea has its own merits that often go undiscussed, especially in coffee circles.
One of the teas we tasted is Ti Kuan Yin Oolong, named after the Iron Goddess of Mercy. I think this was one of the favorites of the afternoon. I read a story by Diana Rosen (www.teamuse.com
) to my long table of tea-tasting guests that serves as the basis for my elaboration here:
In Fujian's Shaxian province, there lived a farmer whose life was plagued with drought and poverty. He and his neighbors spent their days struggling to plow, plant, water and harvest enough rice and other crops in order to feed their children. Each day was a challenge.
Every week, the farmer walked down a long dusty road to get to the market where he would sell whatever produce he could. About a mile from his dwelling stood a dilapidated stone temple, sadly neglected for many years. Inside the temple was an elegant iron statue, that of Kuan Yin (Guanyin) the Goddess of Mercy to whom Buddhists pray for enlightenment. Although dusty, the woman portrayed in the statue was a Bodhisattva and wore a high tiara and had rich necklaces around her neck. Her smile portrayed a sense of calm and kindness. The farmer often stopped at this abandoned temple to briefly give honor to the mysterious goddess and to enjoy her kind smile.
One day, on the way back from the market, returning with little in his pockets, the farmer ducked inside the shade of temple and gazed at the gentle face of the Iron goddess. Then he swept the floor of the temple, ridding it of wayward leaves, dust and small twigs and made a small offering of a joss stick, or incense. Joss is a slender stick of a dried, fragrant paste that is often burned in Chinese temples.
As he lit the joss stick, he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Looking up, he realized that the formerly dusty statue was now vibrant with color. Her arms were no longer metal, but flesh. The farmer fell to his knees. The goddess whispered "The key for your future is just outside this temple. Nourish it with tenderness and it will support you and your family for generations to come."
Then the farmer looked again and the statue was again inanimate and rigid. Still beautiful and elegant, her face remained etched with kindness and mercy. He knelt on the packed earth floor, contemplating what she had said and trying to determine if it was a dream or if she had really spoken to him. Should he mention this to anyone else?
Once he had composed himself, he went outside the temple and looked around. He didn't see anything special, just the same scraggly plants and the dusty road that had been there when he came in. It didn't seem to him that the road would benefit from being nourished with tenderness, but the plants sure could use some attention. Were they the key of which Guanyin had spoken?
The farmer began hauling water to the temple to nourish the plants. He brought rich soil to fertilize and mulch to protect their roots. He continued to clean the temple, and routinely lit joss sticks, hoping for more guidance. After a few months of this treatment, the plants were lush and had glossy green thick leaves. The farmer brought some of the leaves home and began to experiment with them to determine what qualities this plant possessed. When mixed with hot water, he found that they made a refreshing beverage that he and his family enjoyed. When he dried the leaves in a stone wok, they soon turned a smooth charcoal black, just like the lovely Guanyin statue. The nectar produced from the leaves fired in this way were ambrosial, fragrant like the finest blossoms, delicious like no other drink that ever touched his lips. The farmer called his drink Ti Kuan Yin, Tea of the Iron Goddess of Mercy.
As the bushes grew, and the farmer brewed this tea for his neighbors to try, he cut away branches for them to plant and nourish also. Soon the whole area of Fujian was full of these magical bushes.
Today, the province of Fujian in Mainland China, as well as throughout Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa), people grow and process the finest oolongs, of which Ti Kuan Yin remains the most beloved and well known.
This particular tea takes about 7 minutes to brew. That's a long time, when compared to the 2 minute Hao Ya A Jasmine that we also drank on Sunday. It has a ruddy yellowish brown liquer and a body that completely coats the mouth. Hints of smokiness remind the tongue of the fire that is used to wither the leaves. There is also a sweetness, a roundness, that reminds me of the smell of a hay loft.
Just now, as I left the kitchen with a small pot of this Goddess Elixir, there was this lingering metallic burning smell, like I had left a burner on. It was so strong that it caused me to go back into the kitchen to make sure nothing was on fire. I double checked the burners, even the oven. Nothing was on. The tea kettle was still hot, but why would it be making that smell? It was the only hot metal object in the room. Satisfied that my house wasn't going to burn down, I took my tea and returned to my computer. As I set the pot down, it occurred to me that it was interesting that I should be visited by such a strong metallic smell, just as I was sitting down to finish writing the story of the Iron Goddess of Mercy, while drinking her tea.