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Chinese Tea
Chinese Tea
Bellmann, Rita
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Green Leaf Tea
Green Leaf Tea
Gerrard, Jill
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Kung Fu Tea

by Gale Barlow

Next time you go to San Francisco, imagine carrying along your songbird in a bamboo cage. Board the Powell Street cable car and get off where the line jogs at Jackson. Walk north a couple of blocks on Powell Street; cross Broadway and find the Imperial Tea Court on your left at 1411 Powell. Enter the high-ceilinged rosewood-appointed room and hang your cage from the rafters. As your canary swings and sings with other visiting birds of a feather, set your mind to enjoy Kung Fu tea.

My grandmother introduced me to the comfort of tea in a glass with cubed sugar. As a college student, I traveled in Turkey and exchanged small gourd-shaped glasses of strong sweet tea with friends and merchants several times a day. After college, I learned to whisk large bowls of powdered green tea and still practice the Japanese tea ceremony with my 101-year-old teacher. Fifteen years ago, I saw a film about the formal serving of Chinese tea at the tea museum in Hong Kong. In Hangzhou, China, I drank excellent tea in a hill-top teahouse frequented by old men with their caged songbirds. Recently, at the Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco, the many leaves of a lifelong enjoyment of tea rolled into a new experience, that of my first Kung Fu tea.

Green Tea
Green Tea
Jokelson, Susan
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Kung Fu Tea at the Imperial Tea Court presents tea to the palate without art or ceremony. Yet art and ceremony are inherent in the experience, since the clay, porcelain, bamboo, and metal objects used in the tea service are beautifully designed, and the preparation etiquette is precise.

Like the Japanese tea ceremony, the Chinese tradition of preparing and serving tea for thoughtful tasting requires pure water, appropriate vessels, and a commitment to the time it takes to serve and be served.

By the way, neither culture uses the word ceremony in its own language. It is only the American penchant to call anything that takes longer than 5 minutes a ceremony that has made this the common translation.

The Imperial Tea Court's Kung Fu Tea service offers the tea of your choice in its most delicious aspect. After I chose a tea from the extensive menu of greens, reds (blacks), whites, oolongs, pu-ehrs, and herbals, the server gathered vessels to enhance the color and to yield the aroma of my tea selection. She placed an array of specialized utensils of metal, clay, and bamboo on my table.

Beside my table, on an electric stand, a metal teakettle brought filtered water to just the right temperature. Boiling water is overkill for the fine teas offered in this establishment. The object is to release flavor without bitterness from the imported leaves. The server knew the proper temperature for each type of tea and kept the filtered water below the boiling point throughout the Kung Fu Tea service.

In the formal Chinese tea service, these are some of the traditional utensils:

  1. Kettle
  2. Tea pot (Yixing clay tea pots, in classical or whimsical design are very popular)
  3. Serving pitcher (for decanting from the tea pot and pouring into tea cups)
  4. Presentation vessel (for measuring and displaying dry tea leaves)
  5. Tea boat (for holding the tea pot)
  6. Tea towel (have it handy just in case)
  7. Drainer tray (for holding tea cups and catching the overflow hot water)
  8. Tongs, spoon, scoop, and holder (bamboo)

Each utensil is a visual delight, even before it serves its purpose.

In the formal Chinese tea service, these are some of the steps:

  1. Boil water in a kettle. Lower the temperature to the level appropriate for the selection of tea to be served.
  2. Prepare the serving vessels. Heat the porcelain or Yixing tea pot by rinsing it with water from the kettle. Show your guests the tea leaves measured into a porcelain vessel.
  3. Slide tea leaves from the holding vessel into the heated tea pot.
  4. Pour water from the kettle over the tea leaves.
  5. Wait an interval appropriate for the selected tea and pour from the tea pot into each tea cup without stopping when the cup is full. Let the water overflow into the basin holding the tea cups.
  6. Dispose of this first tea into a handy receptacle. Now the tea leaves are primed to release their best flavor in the second pouring. Note the saying:   It is a poor person who must drink first-brewed tea.
  7. Pour water from the kettle over the tea leaves in the tea pot.
  8. Decant the tea into a small pitcher.
  9. Pour tea from the pitcher into each tea cup.

The cups are tiny and the sips are smaller. When the decanter is empty, refill the tea pot with water from the kettle, decant, and pour another cup. Good quality Chinese tea leaves can be reused to make several delicious cups of tea. Using the decanter, instead of leaving the extra brew in the tea pot, keeps the tea leaves fresh and reusable.

At the Imperial Tea Court, if you like, the server stands by to explain every aspect of the preparation: the timing, the temperature, the water, the tea, the vessels, the utensils. The server will pour the second, third, and fourth, fifth cups of tea. But since you were authentic enough to bring your own bird, you might want to try serving yourself.

Large windows invite your awareness of the street scene, yet cushion you from the hurried ryhthm of shoppers carrying groceries from the nearby Chinese markets. Outside, it's Chinatown; inside, it's China. Steeped in elegant furnishings, wafts of roasted teas, imagined songs of pet canaries, I was reluctant to leave the ambiance of the Imperial Tea Court and rejoin the sidewalk bustle.

Green Tea II
Green Tea II
Jokelson, Susan

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With or without your songbird, come for the tea at Imperial Tea Court, 1411 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA 94133, (415) 788-6080. The hours of operation are 11:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. Kung Fu Tea costs $5. You can order just a cup of tea, instead, from an extensive menu. Dry sweets are available for $1 an order.

The Imperial Tea Court is also open in the Seattle area in The Great Wall Shopping Mall, 18230 E. Valley Hwy #135, Kent, WA 98032, (425) 251-8191. The hours of operation are 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. daily.

To live vicariously, or to learn something about the formal preparation of Chinese tea before you visit the Imperial Tea Court, go to their virtual classroom at:

or visit the World Consortium of Companies tea page at:

– Gale Barlow

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Discover the fascinating history of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Not Your Ordinary Cup of Tea by Gale Barlow.

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