Sichuan Greens

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sichuan greens

I wrote last month about glossy teas; teas with a polished appearance, mostly from Japan. I also mentioned a pea-green variety from Sichuan’s Emei mountain range [峨眉山] called Bamboo Leaf Tea [竹叶青茶].

Now, let’s be honest. Sichuan is less famous for growing tea than it is for pandas, bamboo and spicy snacks. Were Sichuan and tea are ever connected in people’s minds, it is the tea houses and the tea-drinking culture that stand out rather than native varieties of leaf.

Possibly that is just how Sichuan people like it. Local tea is often the first choice for people drinking in Chengdu tea houses. No Long Jing. And there isn’t one pan-Sichuan green tea favourite like Snow Beer (don’t ask me why that’s a 79 percent favourite in the southwest). Local here means city-by-city local.

Yet, Bamboo Leaf tea is still as famous as Sichuan tea gets. And, with some branding behind it, it may yet earn that “pin-up” status.

Did I mention how photogenic this tea is? Like the crispy carapace of an M&M.

Yes. I mentioned it. And I have actually come to know this luxurious tea pretty well. It was my main drinker right through the hot summer of 2016. Almost every day, I opened a flat green sachet, spilling those beads into my glass.

I enjoyed it, of course. But the sensation of drinking even those freshest of leaves somehow always paled against the expectation.

It all came back when tasting a sample again this summer. We were passing through Chongqing; my new favourite place; and I drank a cup in a (big chain) tea shop in the centre of the city. Same feelings of enjoyment and same (slight) disappointment.

Yet, there was another tea on the shelf, described by the seller as “famous in Chongqing”; a tea called Xiu Ya [秀芽茶]. Its leaves were matt and thin, like long thin pine needles, a complete contrast with the green lozenges beside them. This “elegant bud” tea is pan-fired rather than steamed.

This was the tea I bought, the one I’m drinking now.

It strongly reminds me of some I bought on Nanjing’s Yunjin Lu in 2013. On that day, the Fujianese seller told me that the cheap Sichuan green tea from his freezer lacked in fragrance but made up for it with “pretty good mouth-taste”. It was very similar to this Xiu Ya Tea. It’s often struck me since that ‘mouth taste’ [口感] is probably my biggest priority in a green.

This tea has a wonderful biscuity quality in the first cup, with loads of umami in the next few. Scolded or neglected, it never responds insolently. A perfect companion for summer. The better Sichuan green, in my subjective opinion.