"Weaving" scent into tea

Saturday, 2020-09-26 13:19:01
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Ms. Nguyen Thi Dan’s family members gather to flavour morning lotus tea. (Photo: NDO)
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NDO – Vietnamese people have long maintained the tradition of enjoying flower-scented tea and the pastime has been elevated in the way Hanoians prepare the typical drink.

Nobody knows exactly when Vietnamese begun drinking scented tea. Raising their tea cup and taking a sip, drinkers can taste the unique flavour of tea combined with the four-season floral scent. Hanoians are picky about their ways to enjoy dishes and drinks, so they have invented some of the top scented teas, such as Tay Ho lotus tea or narcissus tea. Life goes by, customs fade with the years but there are old folds that return and remain forever, and among them is the habit of enjoying scented tea combined with the method of “weaving" the scent into the tea buds.

It was just 5 am in the early morning; Ms. Dan (97) woke up. After the morning personal hygiene work, she was waiting for her family members to bring home lotus for making scented tea. Like a young girl, lotus is at its best when it is just starting to bloom. Usually, lotus for tea making must be collected when the flower is just about to blossom, that is when the lotus is most fragrant. The harvest starts from just after 3 am in the morning and finishes at about 5 am, before the sun begins to shine, to keep the flower at its best in terms of fragrance. If just a few petals spread out, the lotus will be less aromatic, causing the typical lotus scent to be less pervasive in the tea.

The sound of motorbikes could be heard from the gate of Dan’s home, marking the arrival of the lotus. In her house on To Ngoc Van Street (Tay Ho District, Hanoi), her daughters, granddaughters and nieces-in-law join together in each stage of lotus tea making. Dan was not well these days but keeping her away from the lotus would make her even more tired. Dan asked her family members to arrange a folding bed for her in the living room so she may rest if she is was tired during the lotus tea making.

Each layer of lotus petals is separated, leaving only the seed pod and the pistil. Dan is 97 this year, yet she is still wise, making lotus tea for three months from mid-summer to early autumn. Dan spread a large lotus leaf into the basket. Her hands were shaking but remain very skilful. She did not need to look at the lotus pod but still separated the anthers precisely.

"This is exactly the Tay Ho lotus [lotus cultivated in Hanoi’s Tay Ho (West) Lake]. After peeling off the outside petals, it will come to the inner layer. Tay Ho lotus has big petals with a more aromatic fragrance. It is often called the Bach Diep lotus because it is likely to have hundreds of petals in each flower. When the lotus is peeled in the very early stages of blooming, the inner petals still hold the pistil like this. Opening the inner lotus petals, you will see the lotus filaments. Lotus “rice” (the anther) is the small seeds at the top of these golden threads. We only collect the lotus “rice”, which is the "fragrant bag" of the lotus," Dan told a story about making lotus tea.

For Dan, at the age of 97, she has spent over seven decades making scented tea. When she was only nine years old, the little girl Nguyen Thi Dan usually travelled from her house near the West Lake to the Old Quarter to sell flowers to the wealthy in the streets of Hang Ngang and Hang Dao. Many Hanoians buy lotus to make their own scented tea. Dan also carried flowers to sell to many tea makers around Hanoi. When she was young, there were several dozen families making lotus scented tea in Quang An and Quang Ba around the West Lake. She learned how to scent lotus tea from her parents and from traditional families in the Old Quarter. As a result, many traders bought her flowers and asked her to make tea from them.

"At the age of 25, there were some people asking me why I didn’t make scented tea for sale. This job is very elaborate, so I also hesitated. But from that year until now, I have not missed any lotus season," said Dan.

Dan's family make scented tea year round. Spring comes, marking the pomelo flower season, and her whole family will make pomelo flower tea. The pomelo flower season quickly passes, just in ten days, and they switch to jasmine tea, with the jasmine season lasts longer. But in mid-May, they stop making jasmine tea and switching completely to lotus. Jasmine tea is stronger than lotus regarding the floral flavour. Where jasmine tea needs only two to three "circles", lotus tea needs at least seven to make it fully scented.

The separated lotus “rice” will be mixed with tea to make lotus scented tea. After 18 to 24 hours, the “rice” will be sifted out, dried and then mixed again with tea. This process is repeated exactly seven times. To make 1 kg of lotus tea, about 1 kg of lotus “rice” is needed. To produce 1 kg of lotus “rice”, at least 1,000 flowers are needed. When the "weaving" is finished, the tea is no longer green, but turns red. That is the real "quality" of lotus tea. Soaking such tea up to six or seven times in water, it is still fragrant despite the tea’s flavour becoming much lighter. If you ever see a worker making lotus tea in a brilliant pink light, you can't help but fall in love with this tea. That’s why there are still artisans who have been attached to the tea making career for long like Ms. Dan.

Lotus is popular across the country and thus lotus scented tea can be found in many places nationwide, but Hanoi’s Tay Ho lotus takes the top. The method used by Hanoians in preparing this typical tea is also more elaborate, causing Tay Ho lotus tea to become the typical drink for the elegance and delicacy of the Trang An (old name of Hanoi) people.

Tea artisan Hoang Anh Suong, the owner of the famous Truong Xuan tea lounge in Hanoi, said that Vietnam is one of the countries with the earliest tea cultures in the world. Vietnamese people have many different ways of enjoying tea. Floral scented tea is a separate "line" of tea. Vietnamese people have made many kinds of flower-scented teas from various flowers, such as sweet osmanthus, Aglaia duperreana, orchid, pomelo, Chloranthaceae, and jasmine. Although each has its own beauty, lotus scented tea is still treasured.

"The predecessors were so sophisticated that they took the morning dew drops from the lotus leaves to mash lotus tea. Now it is impossible to do so, but mashing tea with rain water is also very good. Each flower scented tea gives a different flavour, so the specialised pots for mashing tea are also different for each. In that way, we can fully enjoy the flavours of the flower scented tea,” Suong said.

Although there are no specialised books about tea to become "tea scripture", tea appears in many ancient literature. In the collection “Vu Trung Tuy But” (Collection Written on Rainy Days) by famous scholar Pham Dinh Ho (1768-1839), a part of the collection was devoted to describing how to drink tea, showing that the way to enjoy tea at that time was very sophisticated. The talented writers of Hanoi such as Vu Bang and Nguyen Tuan also spend their best writing about tea. In “Thuong Nho Muoi Hai” (Missing Twelve), about the typical features of Hanoi during the full 12 months of the year, Vu Bang also mentioned a variety of tea scented with a flower that is not well known today – paperwhite narcissus tea.

The paperwhite flower is elegant with a slight regal fragrance, but is difficult to cultivate, causing it to be compared to a young sentimental woman. Beginning of the 12th lunar month is the time to start cultivating paperwhite. Having to "coddle" the flowers like a princess, the flower buds will grow up twenty days later. Tea makers must wait for some new flower buds to start blooming to start the tea making process. Tea in making paperwhite scented tea must be preserved for several years for its scent to recede such that it is suitable for being scented with paperwhite flowers. Each layer of tea will be covered by a layer of paperwhite flowers, making the process look like a "golden cup on a white jade dish". Again and again, the process is repeated until the makers feel it is enough, then all the tea batch will be sealed, waiting for the tea to “suck” enough fragrance. After repeating the process a few times, there will be a sweet tea with clear water and a gentle but discreet fragrance like a young woman's secret charm. It's so sophisticated that even among Hanoians in traditional wealthy families in the Old Quarter, not many can afford to make paperwhite tea. In the past several years, Hanoi’s traditional pastime of paperwhite farming and enjoying has returned, and such tea has found its way back from the past.

In Hanoi, there is now a tea artisan, Nguyen Viet Bac, the owner of Thuong Tra tea room on Tong Dan Street, who is a connoisseur in cultivating narcissus and has also exerted efforts in making typical teapots for this precious flower. However, he does not hesitate to warn customers that if they are not good at scented tea making and connoisseur cultivation, they should not take the flowers to make paperwhite scented tea. Without proper treatment, the tea making process can allow the resin to contaminate the tea, causing allergies. Despite its unique taste, tea artisans must handle it very skilfully, like walking on a rope, if they don't want the enjoyers to have side effects when enjoying paperwhite scented tea.

Learning about Tay Ho lotus tea has been precious. Learning about narcissus tea is more surprising. That’s why many people call it enjoying tea, definitely not drinking tea, when talking about these scented teas.

In the past, Tay Ho (West Lake) had many lotus lagoons. Hanoians have been proud of their famous Tay Ho lotus. Locals in Quang An, a small area near the lake, have held the profession of making lotus scented tea for a long time. Now, the lotus cultivation areas have receded along with the pace of life. Quang An people have brought their traditional lotus seeds to cultivate in Thuy Phuong in Bac Tu Liem District then bought them to make lotus tea. Lotus in other places are hard to compare with the original Tay Ho lotus, but thanks to the extension of lotus cultivating areas, now more and more people are offered with a chance to enjoy lotus tea.

There was a time lotus tea enjoying seemed to disappear amid food was the top priority, but now, the lotus output from Quang An – the largest lotus tea centre in Hanoi – is measured in tonnes per year, even though just only several local families are cultivating this lotus variety. Many Hanoians now buy lotus to make scented tea by themselves. Just opening the lotus flower and put the dried tea in, then wrapping the petal up to "weave" the fragrance, that’s all to make lotus tea. Enjoyers only need to wait until the following day to harvest their finished product. A small flower is enough to make tea for a single teapot, while the bigger ones can afford two pots. There are also sophisticated people who make lotus “rice” to add more flavour to their lotus tea. Not to mention the many others that have been enjoying making jasmine, Aglaia duperreana and Chloranthaceae scented teas. For enjoying narcissus tea, as this pastime of old has returned, many people have also rewarded themselves with elegant narcissus teapots. Life goes on. Selection goes on. Things that have been left in such processes belong to culture ...

GIANG NAM - NGOC TRAM