Blooming Teas

If foodies have food porn, can tea geeks have tea porn?

I got a bunch of these display teas at Beijing's Maliandao, the street that has so many tea shops even the air outside smells like tea. These tiny bundles of flowers and green or black leaves are hand-packed and hand-sewn into various shapes. They unfurl into impressive little displays when steeped in hot water for about 3 minutes. It's like watching those little compact towels and sponges from theme park gift shops expand to "full size" when soaked, except less disappointing in the end.

(You can also find these online at sites like Adagio Teas or Silk Road Teas, but for heftier prices.)

The bloomed teas can be displayed in the center of a table and drunken at the same time. Tea shops will usually present these in big glass teapots, which I don't own. I did have fun watching these bloom in my mini glass tea set, beer mug, and other random see-through containers from my cabinet. Tonight also marks the first time I have ever sipped hot tea from a wine glass.

Dragon Well Shrimp - Longjing Xiaren

Since my trip to Hangzhou's Dragon Well tea fields, I have made use of the famous leaves less often than I should have. See, I went on a tea-buying binge after coming back to Beijing. In my cabinet right now there is an ample supply of not only Dragon Well (longjing), but also sheng and shou Pu'er, rose buds, chrysanthemum, barley, hibiscus, a fruit tea mix, and regular green and black tea. I'm sure some native Chinese would scoff at my puny tea collection (just like I would scoff at their wine collections of Great Wall and Dynasty bottles from Carrefour), but for me that is quite a lot of tea for the months ahead.

My right-brain demeanor also leaves me unfulfilled when I just drink the tea. (Purists, you may not want to read ahead.) I also must do something with it. Things like making rice pudding with rose tea and alcoholic granita with hibiscus. But before getting too experimental with my longjing, I thought I should whip up the classic Hangzhou shrimp dish that uses the tea.

I first tried a recipe from a popular food blog that I have long admired. The recipe called for marinating the shrimp in a mixture of egg white and cornstarch. I must have missed a step on avoiding egg mixture in your stir-fry, because once the shrimp hit the wok it looked the the beginnings of a seafood egg white omelet. The food blog's photos show no sign of egg, so I am still perplexed at my mishap.

I then turned to Kylie Kwong's My China and Ken Hom's A Taste of China for help. Kylie calls for marinating in Shaoxing and cornstarch, whereas Ken doesn't mention marinating at all. Ken also goes for the minimalist approach of no other aromatics, while Kylie adds garlic and ginger (though the amount seems like it would overwhelm the subtlety of longjing. What to do, what to do, I pondered as my stomach grumblings grew louder. What I finally made follows bits of the cookbook authors' advice and my recollections of restaurant versions.

And if you don't happen to have Dragon Well tea, making this dish with regular Chinese green tea would also work if you're craving tea-infused shrimp.

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Dragon Well Shrimp - Longjing Xiaren

Serves 2 to 4

1 pound fresh shrimp (peeled, deveined, and rinsed) or frozen shrimp (rinsed) 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine for marinating, + extra splash for cooking

1 tablespoon cornstarch for marinating, + 1 teaspoon cornstartch dissolved in 1 teaspoon of water 2 cup Longjing tea, leaves strained out 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 clove garlic, minced 2 teaspoons minced ginger Salt to taste (optional) Longjing leaves for garnish (optional)

In a medium sized bowl, combine the shrimp, Shaoxing, and cornstarch. Marinate in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes.

(Now is a good time to steep the tea, if you haven't already done so. You can always brew extra tea to drink with dinner.)

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or large skillet. Quickly stir-fry the shrimp until half-done, about 1 to 2 minutes, then remove and set aside.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Stir-fry the garlic and ginger until just fragrant. Return shrimp to the wok, give a quick toss, and then a light splash of Shaoxing. Pour in tea and cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Stir in the cornflour mixture to thicken the sauce. (I personally don't think this dish needs any salt, but you can add a pinch if you deem necessary.) Transfer to a plate, garnish with optional dry leaves, and serve immediately.