Rose Tea Rice Pudding, a Persian-Chinese Concoction

A few months ago I wrote about my obsession with rose tea, also called rosebud tea. Not to be confused with rose hip, or the those things your boyfriend is supposed to give you for Valentine's Day, rose tea uses the buds from a rose bush. 玫瑰茶 (meigui cha) is usually blended with black tea or other herbal teas, but I think it's great on its own.

Since I moved to Beijing, I would drink rose bud tea in cafés but never bought any to steep at home. Maybe it was a subconscious move to associate it with the pleasant dim cafés of Beijing's university district - the clatter of Mandarin-English exchanges, the walls of books and French New Wave posters - rather than my bleak florescent-lit apartment. Or maybe it was just pure laziness.

Earlier this week Jacob and I went to Maliandau, also known as Beijing's "Tea Street." This is where restaurants and shops come to source their tea wholesale, and where tea obsessives buy their leaves and gadgets in bulk. We went around and bought a bunch of gifts for his family and, of course, ourselves. I couldn't resist the rose tea, sitting in a big bin and whispering my name. Now that I have it at home, I can't stop thinking of desserts I can make with it.

Persian rice pudding is usually made with rose water. But since rose water seems to be nonexistent in Beijing, tea seems like a good substitute. (You can also get rose bud tea outside of China; yay globalization.)* The rice pudding I made today is a more pared down version, the Middle East by way of China. No clarified butter, jasmine rice instead of basmati. I also used soy milk instead of regular milk, for personal and practical reasons: I don't really like the taste of bovine milk, and soy milk actually gives you more room for error. If you accidentally overheat the liquid, there's no nasty film on top.

Go sparingly on sugar, so the fragrance of the rose tea comes through. New Yorkers may know Rice to Riches down in Soho, that ultra-mod shop specializing in rice pudding. I went there once and couldn't finish half a portion of the small size; the sugar and cream were overwhelming. This is meant to be the exact opposite of a Rice to Riches pudding.

*If you don't live in China, here are two online tea specialty shops that sell rose bud tea.

Silk Road Tea Imperial Tea Court


Rose Tea Rice Pudding

Serves 2

1/2 cup jasmine rice 1 1/2 cups water for rice, plus extra 1/3 cup rose tea 1 cup hot water for the rose tea 1 1/2 cups soy milk 3/4 cup sugar (to start. Add more if necessary) 6 saffron threads 1/4 teaspoon cardamom 1 tablespoon golden raisins, chopped

Rinse rice in a fine mesh sieve under cold water. Transfer to a small to medium sized pot filled with water, and bring to boil. Lower the heat to very low and simmer, stirring regularly, for 30 minutes. Add more water if necessary, if rice begins to look too lumpy.

Meanwhile, in a small dish or cup, soak saffron in a tablespoon of water. Set aside.

Steep 2 tablespoons of rose tea (flowerets?) in 2/3 cup hot water. Set side.

After the rice as been simmering for 30 minutes, at soy milk and sugar. Stir to dissolve. Add more sugar if needed, but keep in mind that too much sugar may overwhelm the subtleness of the rose tea. Simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Strain rose tea and add about 3/4 to the rice (reserve some for drizzling over pudding). Stir in saffron liquid and cardamom. Cook for another 2 minutes, then remove from heat.

The rice pudding can be served warm or at room temperature. (The longer it stands, the thicker it gets; to thin, add more soy milk.) Top with golden raisins, drizzle a bit more rose tea over the top, and serve.



A Tea Geek's Journey: Dragon Well Tea Fields in Hangzhou

As much as I love writing about cooking and restaurants, the food geek in me gets the most pleasure from going straight to the source of any food product. I had already been to a number of wineries, breweries, organic farms and Big Ag farms. But tea fields had always been on my list of unfulfilled dream destinations. Some people fantasize about sunbathing on tropical beaches, I fantasized about hiking up terraced hillsides in muggy climates to see tea farmers in action.

Two weekends ago, when I was in Hangzhou, I was surprised to find out just how accessible the nearby tea fields were. I knew that Hangzhou was well-known for producing Dragon Well, or Longjing tea, one of the most prized teas in China. But for some reason I had imagined the tea plantations to be far outside the city, and that visiting required either booking an overpriced tour or days of advanced planning.

Then I found out that 香山 (xiangshan, aka Fragrant Mountain) was actually just south of West Lake, and that getting to the top from the city center was just a 15 or 20 kuai cab ride. After reaching the top, we went inside the Tea Park (posted admission was 3 kuai, but the ticket lady just waved us in.) We passed by some enormous metal tea kettles and cups, and hiked up some steps to an observation deck. We could make out the outlines of the rows and rows of tea plants on the terraced hillside, but the view was hazy thanks to that famous Chinese smog.

Then somehow, upon descending, we wandered off-course. Now, it could very well be that we were trespassing and hiking where we shouldn't have been, except on the way up the mountain from the cab I saw several other small groups of tourists, without guides, wandering through the tea fields. (Tea sellers we met later on also asked whether we had a chance to hike through the fields yet.) And of course, we made sure to stay on the walking paths and not damage any plants.

Fresh tea leaves, for anyone who has only seen dried leaves (or god forbid, tea bags), are actually about the length of an adult palm and probably half the width. After leaving the park we wandered furthur up the mountain to a small village, where practically every single family operated a tea businesses. One family was outside drying leaves, and invited us in to see photograph the process.

Longjing, like all green teas, are pan-fried after picking to stop the fermentation process (fully fermented teas are black teas, partially fermented are called oolong.)

The woman-of-the-house had a large pile of fresh leaves that she said were just picked the day before. She put about 10 fistfuls of leaves into a metal thresher, that spun them around until they were semi-dry. That was the first drying process.

Then her husband would take the leaves and dry them a second time, spinning them by hand around a lightly oiled and heated metal drum. This is to create a nice sheen on the leaves, the woman told me. The very flat shape of the leaves is a result of this laborious drying process.

The tea that her family was making that day was the more inexpensive kind, because it was picked late in the season. Dragon's Well harvesting season goes from mid-March to early May; the earlier the picking, the more expensive. For easier classification, vendors refer to their tea as pre-Qingming or post-QingMing, refering to the Chinese Tomb Sweeping holiday in early April. Some of the earliest go for thousands of RMB per jin (500 grams).

Jake and I went into another tea shop and tasted some tea that were picked late March, and some that were picked in mid April. The earlier picked was definitely more fragrant, but also twice as expensive.

It was a hot day, and we were already sweaty from the hike, but it would have been sacriledge to not sip Dragon's Well tea just steps away from where it's grown. The taste upon first steeping was sharp and slightly bitter due to the large amount of leaves, but became nice and mellow after several cups.

Tea fields in China definitely draw tourists the same way vineyards in Europe and the US do. And weddings. We stopped in the park again after sipping and buying tea, and bumped into not 1, not 2, but 14 separate wedding parties. (Yes, apparently China is so populous that you even get married with tons of other people.) Each bride and groom took turns walking down the lawn and posing for photos with the costumed eunuchs. Each groom pulled his respective wife around in a rickshaw for half a minute. Bored wedding guests sat around marble tables, playing cards and of course, sipping Dragons Well tea.

Dragon Well Tea Fields (龙井文茶 Longjing Wencha)

Take Bus 3 or 27 (accessible from the south side of West Lake) or ask any taxi driver worth his tea leaves to bring you to Longjing Wencha.

Yangmei, and Making Berry Iced Teas

'Tis the season for blueberries and raspberries in the US, and 'tis the season for yangmei in China. These little purplish red berries with a knobbly surface are all over the indoor and outdoor markets here in southern China, and I'm sure I'll find them in Beijing when I get back. They are also known as yamamomo in Japanese and red bayberry or waxberry in English. A new juice company has rechristened them as "yumberries", since cute names tend to sell previously unknown or odd-sounding foods (calamari, anyone?)

The poor berry has so many personalities that I'll henceforth refer to it as yangmei, as the Chinese has known it for ages. The taste is more tart than raspberries and blackberries, more like pomegranate juice. There's a pit inside the size of a cherry's. They are loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants and make a perfect snack for anyone under the weather, like I am right now.

After reading about the new Yumberry juice that aims to be the new Pom, I decided that the tart and slightly sweet yangmei would be ideal in an iced tea. Besides, little shops around southern China that sell medicinal teas offer yangmei juice as a "cooling" thirst-quencher.

If you can't get your hands on yangmei, you can also adapt the recipe for raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries; just use less sugar. Blueberries would need less cooking time, 10 minutes instead of 15. For yangmei, start with 1 cup sugar to 4 cups fruit while cooking the fruit, and add more later to suit your palate.


Yangmei Orange Iced Tea (see above on using other berries)

Makes 4 to 5 servings

4 cups fresh yang mei berries (also called bayberries, waxberries, yumberries), rinsed and drained 4 cups water 1 cup sugar, more as needed 3 to 4 bags green tea 1 cup orange juice Ice cubes

Bring water to boil in a large saucepan. Add berries and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Once they start to cook and soften, crush them against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon or heatproof rubber spatula. Towards the end of the 15 minutes, add sugar and stir slowly to dissolve. Remove pan from heat and let stand to cool, about 15 to 30 minutes.

Strain the juice through a fine sieve into a small sauce pot, pressing on the solids. Discard the solids. Bring juice to a simmer. Remove from heat, add tea bags, and let steep for 5 to 7 minutes. Discard the teabags and let cool to room temperature.

In a pitcher, mix together berry tea with orange juice. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Chill in fridge for up to 2 days. Serve tea over ice.

Pu'er Tea (Pu-erh), and Vegetarian Dining at Pure Lotus

Pu'er (sometimes spelled Pu-erh) is a complex tea with a huge following. It is the caipirinha of teas...drunken for centuries in its native land, and just now become ultra-popular to the outside world. The NYTimes recently had a good story on how farmers in Yunnan province are benefitting from the the rest of China and other countries discovering their native tea.

Pu'er originated in Yunnan but is also grown in neighboring Burma, Vietnam, and Laos. You may know it as the tea that's compressed into disks, bricks, or little dumpling-shaped cakes. Sheng Pu'er, also called green or raw Pu'er, is the kind most sought after by tea connosieurs. Like a good Bordeaux, it is aged for years, sometimes decades, and has a rich earthy taste that is particular to the land it grew on. Shou Pu'er is darker, oxidized after harvest to resemble the aging process Sheng Pu'er naturally undergoes. It can be drunken immediately, is much less expensive, but has a less complex flavor.

Yesterday Mark from The Hutong, a local cooking school/community space, invited me over for some tea. (He regularly holds tea appreciation classes at the school, and goes to tea regions in Yunnan and Anhui to source leaves for his own label.) Although I'm not the best at picking out the sublest flavors in tea, or even wine for that matter, I love the Sheng Pu'er he had me try. It was somewhat mellow but with a clean herbal taste that lingers in your mouth after swallowing. I could sip it all day.

Earlier this week Jacob and I went to Pure Lotus with two new friends, a vegetarian and a vegan, visiting from London. Pure Lotus, is consistently voted as one of the best vegetarian spots in Beijing, so we were excited to try it. The restaurant is spectacular in its design, with fountains, Buddhist art, and private rooms like fancy grottos. The four of us somehow got a private room with a long banquet table for ten.

The food, while good, was less impressive than the surroundings. Pure Lotus, like most vegetarian restaurants in China, prides itself on mock meat. Some dishes were delicious, like the juicy claypot "chicken" that tasted close to the real thing. Others we could have passed over, like stinky tofu with stir-fried greens and the bland pan-fried dumplings. The braised "ribs" (mock beef on wooden skewers) were pretty good. And I couldn't stop eating the litchis stuffed with tang yuan (glutinous rice balls), although the jumbo serving bowl filled with ice was a bit much for the 10 little litchies that came in it.

The most impressive part of the meal came at the end, when we got melon served in an enormous rustic dish filled with misting dry ice. I guess the whole dish was supposed to be very Zen-like, but we just had fun blowing on the mist, scooping and releasing the mist with our teacups, and snapping photos of our enlightened fruit.

Throughout dinner we drank a 90 rmb pot of Pu'er. It was nice, earthier than your average black tea, but probably not worth the hefty price. I much prefered the Shou Pu'er I had at The Hutong later. But one thing I did really liked about tea at Pure Lotus were the tiny tea cups. The double layers of glass did a decent job of insulating the tea, and they just look so good against the Zen-like tableware. And since I'm a sucker for aesthetics and fruit served on dry ice, I wouldn't hestitate to revisit Pure Lotus.

Pure Lotus

12 Nongzhan Nanlu, near west gate of Chaoyang Park Chaoyang District, Beijing 6592-3627