Pu erh tea if your more typical one, like mine, is ripping open a flavor sealed tea bag. The tuocha or tea cake, a dense ball of clearly organic matter wrapped in brown paper transports you somewhere a little closer, if not quite to the Yunnan tea plantations that it hails from, then certainly somewhere more rustic.
I came across this tea in Singapore in a department store that had a huge assortment of tea including these strange paper wrapped parcels. They were the size of the one above as well as large pancakes and oblong brick shapes. I researched them initially because I loved the graphics on the wrapper but then discovered the contents to be intriguing.
This particular one is Xia Fa Crane label from 2006. The identical brick from 2004 is almost twice the price. I've no idea whether this is the ripe or raw version - I'll have to go back to the tea shop to find that out. All the text on the wrapper is in chinese and there are quite a few variables in play in terms of classification shape, processing, method, region, cultivation, grade, and season. All this of course makes for a product that generates connoisseurs and enthusiasts and a market for rare,vintage and high priced versions.
The connoisseur thing is not my cup of tea, however the prospect of a really good brew at an affordable albeit premium price is in the same do- able territory as splurging on a heirloom tomato at the farmer's market. I quizzed the guy in the tea shop about the difference between the 2004 and the 2006, was it twice as good in flavor? He wasn't convincing enough so I got the 2004 and told him I would be back to try the other if I liked it.
I learnt that you need to prise the brick apart to get a better retention of leaf shape when it hydrates and they really do which makes for almost a built in strainer. The brewing process involves a preliminary step of rinsing the tea before allowing it to steep to rinse off any extraneous stuff and to loosen and expand the leaves. It's recommended to store the tea not in an airtight container but wrapped in paper or in a non air tight ceramic jar- as it is still ageing. Before you even drink it, you have a far better sense that what you are drinking comes from a leaf and that it is somehow still alive.
So what does it taste like? It doesn't taste 'fermented' which was my big expectation. My first thought was that it tasted like a really good cup of chinese tea, maybe even something that I had tasted before at a good chinese restaurant but didn't know it. Full flavored with no bitterness and leftover tea iced the next day, although a little cloudy, was exceptional combined with honey and local grown lemons. Looks like I will be back for that brick from 2006.
This explains its ubiquitous presence in the tropical garden - or used to. Back in the day, everyone had a few Papaya trees growing in their backyard. I don't remember us ever buying this staple fruit usually served daily at breakfast. I still remember my parents, on vacation, ordering room service at the Railway Station Hotel in Kuala Lumpur (now well past it's prime), bringing the classic post colonial breakfast of eggs, kippers and a slice of Papaya served with a wedge of lime, white napkins and heavy silverware.
Perhaps of all the fruit trees, Papayas because of their quick maturation, easy care and continous fruit production are the most likely to be grown in neighborhood gardens although by and large it is a practise that has been abandoned in favor of purchasing them from the supermarkets or day or night markets as properties shrink and the little land they are on, concreted over.
When I first returned, we got our papayas from the day market following my Dad's method of fruit and vegetable shopping- immutable loyalty. He only frequented one vegetable and one fruit stall in the market - the same ones he has patronized for years. If the fruit lady did not have papayas, we went home without any despite the fact that the next stall would have a mound of them. Invariably, on the way home he would also remark how he could depend on her to select the best ones, which as I was to discover when I started buying them myself, her choices weren't that reliable. Often they might be ripe but not sweet and without much flavor.
I have since become the designated fruit and vegetable shopper, with a diametrically opposite approach- zero loyalty spreading my fickle patronage across the supermarket, various day and night markets and the occasional stall on the roadside - picking and choosing things that seem more seasonal, selecting vendors that seem more successful or more specialized, which is how I came to find the couple at the night market who only sold Papayas and always only had a few left by the time I arrived. After three purchases, it became clear that their Papayas were significantly better than any other and I searched for them everytime I went - they weren't always there probably because they had sold out and gone home.
They are a quiet pair, weighing up your selection, hardly looking up. When I asked where the fruit was from, he told me he buys them from farms close to the city but he only selects ripe fruit because he does not use chemicals to ripen them. In contrast, the other fruit vendors are laden with boxes of apples from New Zealand, pears from China, out of season mangoes from Thailand and dubiously ripened papayas, while their immigrant staff from Indonesia or Myanmar hustle and call out to the passing trade.
Therein lies the global story of produce that's happening here too with the local twist that - even though we don't have weather limits to our growing season, we are still importing fruits to enjoy them year round outside their typical annual fruiting cycle and we manipulate their ripening process to make for easier transport and storage. We also import tasteless homogenized cool temperate fruits like apples and pears because many locals think they are 'better'. It's a leftover psychology from colonial days- if it's imported it must be better. This, in a land where fruit is so plentiful, cheap, so unique, and so diverse. Thankfully our Papaya tree and the couple at the night market helps to circumvent this madnesss with the added payoff of having fruit that has significantly better color and flavor.