Tag Archives: tea

Drop it gently onto the tongue.

It’s always nice to have a piece of toast, or some tasty thing to go with tea. At least, that’s how many of us think. In Kusamakura, the narrator takes tea with the host of the inn where he is staying, and there is a tea-sweets plate on the table, but it is bare. It’s there to be itself, a blue stone artifact that the owner wants to show off, and the narrator muses without speaking:

“It is nothing short of astonishing to consider the fine dexterity of the master craftsman who has carved such a large piece of stone to such thinness, and with such delicate precision! Spring sunlight shines through the translucent stone, seemingly captured and held there within its depths. It is right that such a plate remains empty.”

At a tea time earlier in the story, the guest does mention a tea-sweet, “…the firm bean jelly known as yōkan…. Yōkan happens to be my very favorite tea sweet. Not that I particularly want to eat it, but that velvety, dense texture, with its semitranslucent glow, makes it a work of art by any standards. I especially enjoy the sight of yōkan that has a slightly blue-green sheen, like a mixture of gemstones and alabaster — and this bluish yōkan piled on the plate glistens….” Sorry, I can’t go on. In a later post I hope to have more to say about this character who, while his mind overflows with voluptuous details pertaining to what he likes, dismisses more and more other things and behaviors as “vulgar.”

Because of him, I am feeling more welcoming of Lent. But before that shift toward better feasts, I want to show you my own edible works of art from blogger friend Orientikate in Japan; she wanted to contribute to my research on the land where she dwells. 🙂 In my case, I was so vulgar that I did want to eat them all! The dorayaki below is made with the same red beans that our artist praises above. Made into a sweetened paste and wrapped in a soft pancake, they make a lovely treat to eat with tea.

A packet of crispy snacks was in the package, and several types of green tea, and all of those gifts have been much enjoyed; sometimes I drank the tea from one of the ornate teacup twins that were given to our family more than 20 years ago, by a shy Japanese exchange student who was with us for only a week.

I try to drink tea only in the morning, because I seem to be more sensitive to caffeine the older I get. I know that green tea contains substances that have a calming effect as well, and there was a time when I could drink it all day, as I know many people do. But I laughed out loud at the end of this passage from the same book, when after admiring the plates and the kettle and the calligraphy on the wall, the guests take some nourishment:

“A connoisseur with time on his hands will elegantly taste this rich, delicately sweet liquid, ripened in the precise temperature of the hot water, by letting it run one drop at a time on to the tip of the tongue. Most people believe that tea is to be drunk, but that is a mistake. If you drop it gently onto the tongue and let the pure liquid dissipate in your mouth, almost none of it remains for you to swallow.

“Rather, the exquisite fragrance travels down to permeate the regions of the stomach. Using the teeth on solid food is vulgar, while mere water is insipid. The best green tea, on the other hand, surpasses fresh water in its delicate, rich warmth, yet lacks the firmness of more solid substances that tire the jaw. Tea is, in fact, a marvelous drink. To those who spurn it on the grounds of insomnia, I say that it’s better to be deprived of sleep than of tea.”

Green tea, and stories from Japan.

I have begun reading a few Japanese novels, in translation of course, and maybe I will add a nonfiction book, because Bellezza has drawn me into her Japanese Literature Challenge 12 — Yes, it’s the twelfth time she has hosted this project! I’ve never had any thought of joining in before, until this month I read a review of one novel linked from her site. It sounded intriguing, so I checked to see how many pages were in the book  — I am lately tired of slogging through 500 or 800 pages in order to complete a story — and it was barely over 200 pages, whee!

Nosing around the body of relatively modern Japanese literature with an eye to length, I soon came up with a plan. The first three books are short, and then things get more difficult, so I might not do all five before the end of March. But I did already complete The Great Passage, and am definitely having fun. It was the coziest thing on a rainy day, to sit by the fire with a book, and green tea from a Japanese-inspired pot. My list:

The Great Passage by Shion Miura

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo

 

If the tea in the photo doesn’t look green to you, it’s because, unfortunately, the day with green tea prevented me from sleeping that night, so I switched to a more thoroughly soothing blend for the next rainy reading session. I read while waiting at the dentist, and at the doctor, and after I crawled under the blankets at night.

Now I’m in the middle of Sweet Bean Paste, which refers to a confection that I’ve never been drawn to. The idea of mixing beans and sugar puts me off, but I should probably at least try to sample it before I write a review. If I could learn to appreciate it, it sounds like a proper accompaniment for my Japanese reading — and cup of tea.

What I need to know is, if a Japanese reader can’t drink tea with caffeine, what does she drink?

A gathering of godmothers.

As I was scrubbing and shining the windows on a brisk afternoon, I made peace with myself over the tea party. Housemate Susan and I had planned one since the middle of Advent, but as the date grew closer the argument played in my mind, about whether it was ridiculous to take on another project right now, or perfectly sensible.

Now I knew it was worth it, because otherwise I don’t know when I’d have gotten around to the windows. And cleaning around the lower reaches of the kitchen, etc. The day before, I remembered that I like to use my vintage white napkins at tea parties, and I actually located them upstairs, where every room but Susan’s is dreadfully chaotic for reasons I’ll go into later. I ironed about ten soft cloths with help from a spray bottle of water infused with lemongrass oil. Happiness.

What about a centerpiece for the table? I was using my birds-and-forest table runner, which made me think to check by the creek for some berries and conifer branches, of which I brought home a bagful. All of that had been washed by rain, but was still fresh enough that not one berry fell off.

In the early stages of our idea, the party had been named a Godmother Party. I wanted very much to have the female members of Susan’s goddaughter Gigi’s family, and then it followed naturally to invite my three goddaughters who live in the area, and my godmother, and the godmother of my goddaughter’s sister… and so it went. Not everyone could come in the end, but it was a beautiful time. The little girls got to play outside in the playhouse a bit; the grownup ladies enjoyed a relaxing cup of Christmas tea, near the cheery fire of oak logs that Susan carefully tended. No rush.

Of tea, we had three pots full. “Joyous Jasmine” green tea came from Brewlette, a hipster sort of Indian source you can find on Facebook, in a gift pack from Kate. That was the most flowery, aromatic tea I have ever experienced.

We had a strong black tea from Russia, which came in this churchly tin, and another delicious and festive blend named “Nutcracker Rooibos” — The children drank that as it is caffeine-free.

Cookies, peanut brittle, mini-quiches, chocolates, fancy nuts, and thick slices of my dense Swedish sourdough rye, with plenty of butter. I haven’t mentioned yet the lemony Greek butter cookie twists that Susan made, but you can see below how cute they are.

‘Twas a Fifth Day of Christmas feast!

The risk of dancing with Little Bee.

Little Bee is among a rare set of books in my personal Modern Era, in that I found it in “hard copy” right in front of me, and picked it up with my own hands, and read it through to the end without consulting Goodreads or Amazon in making a guess as to its worth or suitability. That day last week, when I visited the used bookstore in Colorado Springs, it was the four double-sided book racks on the sidewalk that drew me closer, and that’s where I found Little Bee carrying a $1 sticker like all its shelfmates. A cheap risk.

The book appealed to me first because of its short and sweet title that reminded me of the friends in my garden, and secondly because of its appearance: small (unintimidating), paperback, and mostly a pleasing orange color. I did read a few lines of blurbs on the back and inside cover, and noted words like “dark” and “hope.” I probably also read a bit in the middle somewhere, to see if anything tacky jumped out.

I bought it and read it in a couple of days. It helped that I had at least three solid hours coming home Tuesday, on the plane and bus and at the bus stops, and I reached the last page in bed, just before turning out the light. — Forgive me, that was a long intro that would annoy me if I read it somewhere.

Little Bee is a page-turner of a novel. It tells the story of a young refugee from Nigeria first of all: “Everything was happiness and singing when I was a little girl. There was plenty of time for it. We did not have hurry. We did not have electricity or fresh water or sadness either, because none of these had been connected to our village yet….that village we did not yet know was built on an oil field and would soon be fought over by men in a crazy hurry to drill down into the oil.”

Though she never drank tea in her country, because it was mostly exported, she did get a cup on arrival at the detention center: “And when I tasted it, all I wanted to do was to get back into the boat and go home again, to my country. Tea is the taste of my land: it is bitter  and warm, strong, and sharp with memory. It tastes of longing. It tastes of the distance between where you are and where you come from. Also it vanishes — the taste of it vanishes from your tongue while your lips are still hot from the cup. It disappears, like plantations stretching up into the mist.”

I likely read those lines before I got on the airplane, and when the attendant asked what I would drink, hot tea seemed the best choice. I resolved to drink more real tea in the future. I always knew it was rich in historical associations, but Little Bee’s words reveal it as rich in art and philosophy as well.

After Little Bee, this is the story of the British family with whose lives hers is indissolubly linked by one of those events called “dark.” Given the subject matter, the novel might have been highly politicized, but instead it is an account of how the various characters cope with the traumas from outside, and with the troubling revelations of their own souls’ poverty.

“Isn’t it sad, growing up? You start off like my Charlie. You start off thinking you can kill all the baddies and save the world. Then you get a little older, maybe Little Bee’s age, and you realize that some of the world’s badness is inside you, that maybe you’re a part of it. And then you get a little bit older still, and a bit more comfortable, and you start wondering whether that badness you’ve seen in yourself is really all that bad at all….”

“Maybe that’s just developing as a person, Sarah.”

“Well,” I said, “Maybe this is a developing world.”

Because of the grace of God, the way He made us humans with the strength of spirit to survive all the darkness threatening to kill us, there is much beauty and joy in the book. Like Little Bee’s description of this breakfast table scene: “The sun was lighting up the kitchen. It was thick yellow — a warm light, but not a show-off light. It did not want the glory for the illumination of the room. It made each object look as if it was glowing with a light from deep inside itself. Lawrence, the table with its clean blue cotton tablecloth, his orange tea mug and my yellow one — all of it glowing from within. The light made me feel very cheerful. I thought to myself, that is a good trick.”

The two women in the story alternate telling the tale in the first person, sometimes describing the same event from their vastly different perspectives. And those two characters especially spend a good bit of time filling each other in on their past. This is Little Bee talking again, typically philosophical:

“Everyone in my village liked U2. Everyone in my country, maybe. Wouldn’t that be funny, if the oil rebels were playing U2 in their jungle camps, and the government soldiers were playing U2 in their trucks. I think everyone was killing everyone else and listening to the same music. Do you know what? The first week I was in the detention center, U2 were number one here, too. That is a good trick about this world, Sarah. No one likes each other, but everyone likes U2.”

The girl tells how U2 was playing in her Nigerian home, the radio on which they were supposed to be listening to the BBC having been tuned by her sister to the music station instead, because “Nkiruka loved music and now I saw that she was right because life is extremely short and you cannot dance to current affairs.”

The motivations that drive these characters’ actions, their rationalizations, their good deeds, are not pure or simple. Survival, anger, boredom, revenge, guilt… and sometimes, the heart knowledge that we are fellow humans on our way to the grave, and we have nothing to lose from loving.

I very much enjoyed the character of Little Bee, whose child self is haunted by horrific memories even as she is growing into a wise young woman. The less sympathetic characters are shown to be not all that different from us average lost sheep who wander bleating here and there looking for food, and they all get at least a little more light and understanding as the novel progresses. Even one of the “baddies” is shown in remarkably few words to be irreducible to a caricature.

Picking up a book that I know nothing about, and then reading the whole thing privately, with not one iota of input digital or otherwise from another reader — that is a refreshing experience. It feels almost wild and irresponsible to my recent self. But this experiment with Little Bee was satisfying at all levels, and I can see myself taking similar risks in the future. Here’s to more reading adventure!