I’ll be the first to admit that sitting down and having tea at the Old Shanghai Teahouse may not qualify as a true “afternoon tea.” You won’t find scones, clotted cream or finger sandwiches on the menu here. However, there’s an old adage that says, “When in Rome…” If you use a little imagination and think “outside the box,” you just might come up with something very similar at a small teahouse in old Shanghai. After all, when in Shanghai, do as the Shanghainese do.
With that said, I had a very interesting tea experience at the Old Shanghai Teahouse located on the 2nd floor of a building in the Old Town section of Shanghai on Fangbang Road. Some might call this place a little touristy or maybe kitschy, but I can tell you that I saw more than a handful of locals having their tea and spending some time relaxing here. The teahouse is open to the air, but there were some electrical space heaters in use on this early February day in Shanghai.
My first impression of the teahouse was that they brew a pot of tea here about as easily as you or I can take a breath of air. It’s totally second nature and on autopilot. After all, here (China) is where it all began, and Shanghai is not too far away from the current tea capital of the world, Hangzhou, China. At the Old Shanghai Teahouse, they prepare your tea right in front of you – in what must seem like a simple procedure to them, but was anything but to me.
I started out by choosing a pot of Long Jing tea, one of the most famous green teas in China. The proprietress tried to talk me out of it at first, as she thought I wouldn’t enjoy a mild green tea. However, tasting this most famous of all Chinese green teas was one of the reasons I came here in the first place. It’s a slightly sweet, slightly nutty pale green tea that was perfect for this event – my first cup of tea in China. Here’s how they prepared it at my table – first the dry tea is placed in a cup, then hot water is poured over it, and then the lid is placed on the cup for steeping. The proprietress takes the lid and with a deft back and forth motion scrapes the top of the water, causing the tea leaves to churn around and around in a smooth circular motion.
She suggested that I try it, and even with my best effort, I couldn’t even come close to getting the tea leaves rolling in the smooth motion that she did. After the tea is done steeping – there are no tea strainers here – you simply slide the lid off the cup just a bit, creating a small opening, and then sip the tea through the slit, thus keeping the leaves in the cup and only permitting the liquid to pass through. Again, this takes some skill but if a westerner senses a few tea leaves in his teeth, who really cares?
After enjoying the Long Jin, I decided to get creative and make this into an afternoon tea, Shanghai style. Looking over the food menu, I placed an order for two items – the Shanghai crisp biscuits (my substitute for scones) and the Dim Sum boiled dumpling with fresh pork (finger sandwiches). And to wash it all down, I ordered a new pot of tea, this time the Guang Yin KongFu. This involved a more elaborate tea preparation ceremony. (See how they did it in the video at the end of this post.) If you watch the video of the Guang Yin Kongfu tea preparation, you might notice that she quickly brews the tea once and then discards it. This is to “wake” the tea and wash away any residue on the leaves before drinking.
The sweet crisp biscuits were a nice complement to the tea and the pork dumplings were served hot and steaming directly from the nearby kitchen. The dipping sauce also added to the enjoyment of the Dim Sum.
This informal and relaxed version of afternoon tea in Shanghai was an adventure and a thrill. It was eye opening to see how easily the locals can prepare a high quality tea without even giving it a second thought. Compared to how a lot of westerners brew a cup of tea (by pouring water over a teabag in a cup), this was an exciting departure, albeit in humble Shanghai surroundings. They (the Shanghainese) don’t even know how good they’ve got it.
See the video here…