Kenny Leong asks if Pinot and Pu’er can share a spot at the dining table, or would two be a crowd?
*This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct Tea Culture’ 2020 issue of Wine & Dine
Growing up in a home and country obsessed with food—my late grandfather came from Guangdong, the culinary haven of China, to Singapore where he once worked as a cook—I was brought up with the inclination that my family members and relatives knew a thing or two about eating and drinking.
It goes without saying my grandfather was also yi jia zi zhu (meaning ‘the cook of the household’); my fondest memories are of eating with him and hearing him rant to my uncles about global affairs while sipping pu’er brewed in a large porcelain teapot.
As the years passed, that inclination grew to become a profession as I joined a hospitality school and pursued my ambition of becoming a hotelier or restaurateur. I later joined a food magazine where I could be paid to put all things delicious (or not) in my mouth.
It was a major turning point in my life, not because I landed what I thought was a dream job, but because my superior instantly threw me into the deep end and made me write professionally about wine—a subject, which up until that point, I was not formally trained in.
But swim I did, in copious amounts of Merlots and Cabernets, until one day my blood ran red enough to be made the wine editor of another food magazine.
In one particular issue for Chinese New Year, I wanted to investigate the appeal of Chinese tea, so I put the proverbial kettle on and spoke to Chinese tea merchants and hobbyists, thinking I’d hear about quaint myths and lore surrounding Shennong’s, the Divine Farmer, discovery of tea and how tealeaves are processed.
I was not prepared for the stories of Chinese immigrants who sold tea here to fund the World War II efforts against Japanese aggression back in China, and of teapots literally worth their weight in gold. For the first time in my life, I saw the similarities between wine and tea, more so than coffee.
I started to see the bleak implications for tea farmers, producers, and merchants in a globalised world where dining habits and cultures seem to become irreversibly homogeneous.
Indeed, cultural globalisation cuts both ways. At one end of the spectrum, the West’s long-held fascination—and fetishisation—of the exotic East still sees them enamoured of our habits and customs, so much so that they incorporate Asian elements in their dining.
Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant in Manhattan that has been awarded three Michelin stars, offers guests a tea list featuring Japanese green teas to oolongs and aged pu’er, with rotating selections depending on season and availability. Not far in downtown Manhattan, two Michelin-starred Atera offers tea pairings with their menu items.
When I last corresponded with the restaurant’s wine director, Morten Magh, a few years ago, they were running a Tea Progression programme where teas were served cold or carbonated, prepared and designed to match the styles and flavours of the dishes.
And yet, in stark contrast to this, we have local critics and experts who tell you a wine’s varietal name, region, age, and probably even the producer by taste but cannot tell you the difference between Tieguanyin and Dahongpao.
On our tables Pinot triumphs Pu’er. There’s room for Shiraz but not Shuixian. We debate the merits of Francois’ wines, while grandpa’s tea doesn’t see the light of day.
Our proclaimed love for food often puts on a distasteful facade of Westward-gazing snobbery. To be sure, we give credit where it is due, and Singapore’s culinary landscape shows a considerable level of sophistication.
We are a bunch that appreciates the finest esoteric wines and obscure single-origin coffees. We even brew our own spirits, kefirs, kombucha (which is not a cha, by the way) and every drink imaginable… unless the Singapore Food Agency forbids it.
It is only at a Chinese restaurant that tea flows like the Yellow River, mindlessly gulped down in between bites of shrimp dumplings and roast pork.
It’s baffling that our culture, so attuned to the global trends of dining, seems largely ignorant or intolerant of a beverage many of us grew up with.
Tea should be taken as a complementary experience because, like wine, it scratches a specific itch. It embodies a connection to an ancient world; to an age and culture that runs counter to our modern sensibilities of wanting everything in an instant.
For a population so dedicated to the provenance of artisanal produce, there is still a possibility that we may realise, hopefully sooner than later, that tea is as much a social lubricant as wine or coffee.
Tea-drinking is not going to be for everyone. But there is lots to gain by taking a peek into our grandfathers’ teapots—in that dark impenetrable brew, we might discover a bit more about ourselves, even beyond the parameters of a dining table.