Japanning

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Nanjing isn’t an English verb. It probably never will be.

Like Darjeeling or Wyoming, our brains probably have to work hard to stop thinking of these proper nouns as verbs. That “ing” ending is a red herring we all know better than to actually hear.

Shanghai, of course, is a verb. It’s a bit like “press-ganged”. If you’ve forgotten the meaning, go and check out the Charlie Chaplin film ‘Shanghaied’.

Japan is an English verb as well. If an object is japanned, it has been finished with a thick shiny lacquer; often, not always, black.

You may have guessed already that anything called ‘japanned’ is probably not from Japan, unless it’s called urushi-nuri (漆塗), of course. The European lacquer used on tin and ironware from the 18th Century used a local tree sap, not that (highly toxic before drying) of the Chinese Lacquer Tree (干漆).

Anyway, how is this relevant to tea?

Well, I always think of this verb; japanning, whenever I see that most expensive (and delicious) of Japanese green teas; Gyokuro (玉露).

Close up, Gyokuro’s spindly tea leaves look like a Japanese armoury. There are swords (刀), jutte (十手) and bo (棒) in polished sheaths… but these leaves are all finished in a deep, dark green, like an E-Type Jag (or a Special Edition MX-5).

The epithets are endless. You could mention coral, specifically the green “sea bamboo” found off the north coast of Japan. You could also hold these leaves up to a sheet of nori (海苔) seaweed. Actually, that comparison would also help you understand the satisfying mouth-filling umami taste of those Gyokuro leaves. Or you could go back to jade, as the name instructed you to do. Yes, there are indeed varieties of Jade with just as deep a green.

The point is that those posh Japanese teas are beautiful. They’re impossibly glossy. They look japanned.

So, how do they get that lustrous finish? Surely they’re not manually polished by tiny yama-biko (山彦) creatures, not even at that staggering price!?

No. The gloss is the result of a “steaming” process (蒸茶) which is favoured in Japan over the “pan firing” (炒茶) used most commonly in China (for halting the enzymatic function of green leaves). Actually, I suspect that “baking” may be a better term, with an especially dry heat for finishing, but this is just speculation until I actually visit a factory.

The effect is actually just as pronounced in a small number of Chinese steamed green teas, particularly one from Sichuan; “Bamboo Leaf” green tea (竹叶青茶) has that same high-gloss finish, but in a much lighter shade of green. And those Sichuan leaves are plump, like elongated jelly beans or sugar snap peas. Bamboo Leaf truly deserves to be a pin up green tea.

Zhejiang also has a rare, attractive-looking Long Ding Tea (开化龙顶) steamed tea, which I am yet to try (a future trip, perhaps). I was also recently shown some polished-looking Maojian (信阳毛尖) quite unlike the hairy Maojian in my freezer. I’m calling this gloss an increasing trend. But it may just be that I haven’t noticed until recently.

I have even seen pictures of some of our local Yuhua Tea (南京雨花茶) looking more steamed than fried.

What, are you Nanjing me?

Okay. Okay. That attempt at anthimeria didn’t quite work.