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