After our 40+ hour journey across the globe from the unmarked ‘hidden’ international terminal of LAX to the spacious lounges and futuristic amenities of Incheon airport, it was a wonderful thing to be met in Qingdao by our friend Weiwei. We dropped our bags at the QIngdao Art and Culture Hotel and went straight out to our favorite local spot for lighter fares, Yi Cha Yi Zuo. This restaurant is akin to a tapas bar, but full of red bean dessert concoctions, scallion pancakes, dumplings, and other little goodies. The waitress really wanted us to order the peach oolong, but we convinced her to let us share a pot of Dong Ding since the restaurant is Taiwanese-owned.
Highlights of the meal included seasonal mushrooms stir-fried with about a pound of garlic, fresh-caught calamari, flash-fried tofu topped with a tangy tamarind-based Chinese barbecue sauce, cilantro and hot peppers, and of course the restaurant’s signature sweet red bean porridge served warm with tapioca balls and sweetened condensed milk.
After lunch we strolled the seaside and marveled at all the new buildings that just went up. The whole seaside walk is beautifully landscaped because Qingdao hosted the 2008 sailing olympics and wanted to make a good impression. It may have been a bit annoying to have sections of the city closed off for security during the olympic games living in Qingdao back then, but it is great for the city to have all this well-planned seaside development now.
After about forty minutes, Weiwei, Lily and I stopped and asked each other what to do next. We looked shifty-eyed and remembered that we really only have one thing we do for fun: tea. To the tea market we went! Since Verdant Tea started working with Wang Yanxin, she has been able to expand her shop, selling all the incredible pu’ers that she tracks down in Xishuangbanna here in Qingdao. The tea market she calls home to is one of our favorite places in China. Because it is so hidden away, you don’t find many average entrepreneurs there. This small tea market is more of a special club that attracts the most unique people around. You have to respect any market that is shared by both Wang Yanxin’s incredible pu’er collection and the One Word Tea Clubs better-than-a-museum yixing gallery and Big Red Robe tasting room.
Wang Yanxin took one look at me and said, “Du Xuan, what do they feed you back in America, you look even skinnier than before.” Nice to see you too Wang Yanxin! We brought her lots of fine American chocolates, agates from Lake Superior, jewelry for her young daughter, and a monotype print from my mother, and then got straight to drinking tea. We started with three fresh autumn Tieguanyins. Absolutely incredible. As a thought to take away from the day, I have to tell everyone to drink tieguanyin and green tea as fresh as possible. Don’t save it for later. Buy the latest harvest and drink it like every day is your last. Fresh autumn tieguanyin is a beautiful thing to enjoy in excess while it is available.
After Tieguanyin we moved strait away into shu pu’er. Wang Yanxin wanted us to hurry up and get hungry so that she could take us out for mushroom hot pot, so we drank five or six very potent pu’ers. It was so great to be back in a world where everyone else steeps tea ininfusions just as short as my own. I told Wang Yanxin that many of my friends back home steeped tea for four or five minutes. She agreed on the spot to do a video explaining how to get the most out of your pu’er. That will be a great resource to have. Pu’er just tastes so much better when it is steeped with lots of leaf over many short infusions. Drinking such fine pu’er we talked a bit about brand names, and the bigger pu’er companies getting celebrity endorsements for their product. Wang Yanxin couldn’t be more dismissive of such things. “when they have to produce enough pu’er to supply every teahouse in China and the west, how do expect them to use good leaves and press each cake with care. Why would anyone seek out the boring brands when so many little companies are producing such fine tea for less money?” We realized it would be like Wang Yanxin having the opportunity to go to America and only eating at McDonalds and drinking Starbucks coffee. Yes, they are famous brands, but you can get them in China, and at the scale they operate at, it is just impossible for them to represent the pinnacle of what America has to offer in terms of food and coffee. I am hoping I can get an interview with Wang Yanxin on her strong pu’er opinions.
After admiring the small-brand pu’er and chatting about life, we finally made our last stop of the day at the almost legendary Mushroom Hot Pot restaurant. Despite my strong arguments, Wang Yanxin proved the most stubborn and ended up treating us. We started with a spicy simmering mushroom stock and then a platter big enough for Thanksgiving turkey was brought out with every kind of mushroom imaginable. All are wild-picked in Yunnan and flown in fresh daily, just like fish is flown in daily to the finest sushi restaurants. There were mushrooms that tasted like avocado, some like cheese, some like candy, some like fruit. Eating so many kinds of mushrooms, simmered in spicy mushroom stock is almost humbling. You realize that tea isn’t the only thing out there that can achieve such diversity of flavors, and you realize that there are probably thousands of mushrooms out there that you haven’t tried and probably never will try. Glory to the mushrooms! After we had our fill, and the stock was simmered to a potent brew, thin-sliced beef, fish balls, and dozens of vegetable and noodles were brought out for our enjoyment. We didn’t come close to finishing everything, but we enjoyed every bite we ate. A perfect end to a long, long day. We are looking forward to all the tea adventures before us.