Tag Archives: exotic

Tea Lovers Go to China

Young tea leaves

The most widely consumed beverage in the world comes from leaves such as these.

Tea variants

Chinese tea variants differ in fermentation, or lack thereof. Image from lalongtea.com

The Chinese are romantic about tea—not that tea is used as a means to create romance, but that tea is the end in itself. China’s love affair with tea spans nearly 5000 years, from the time the first tea leaf serendipitously landed in Emperor Shennong’s cup of hot water in 2737 BC. Since then, their stories and their histories have been inextricably linked. Tea was medicine, imperial potable, mode of currency, object of trade, national drink—it has become become a soothing, comforting presence in Chinese life.

In the simplicity of Chinese tea-drinking ritual, an intimacy between the drinker and the beverage is forged, so that tea seems to become the object of romance, devotion, and commitment.

Attention is lavished on the tea. For it really is all about the tea, its tastes and smells. It is the the center around which the ritual revolves. There are no scones and cucumber sandwiches to distract from the drink, no milk nor honey to hide its true essence. There is no arbitrary prop, process or flourish to steal the show. Every single step and utensil is meant to bring more focus and enjoyment to the drinking experience.

The tea is gently wooed and coaxed to surrender its flavors. Before the actual brewing, the pot and the cups are heated by filling them with hot water, then emptying them. Tea leaves are then slowly swept into the teapot. The tea is then roused from its slumber when the pot is filled with hot water and almost immediately emptied out, thereby cleansing and priming the leaves for the first of many infusions. And with each successive steep, the tea leaves expand and unfurl, giving up its secrets, revealing ever new nuances, enriching and deepening the enjoyment.

Chinese yixing teapots

Yixing teapots are made of a special clay that keeps the heat and the flavors in. Image by Nathalie Mariano.

Pouring tea out of a yixing teapot

The Chinese way of tea is punctuated by quite a bit of pouring and emptying, hence the slatted tray. Image by Nathalie Mariano.

Rinsing a yixing teapot

Image by Nathalie Mariano.


The brewing and consumption of tea make a spiritual experience. The tea drinker’s eagerness is tempered by the slowness and deliberate-ness of the brewing process and the smallness of the vessels. The cyclic filling and emptying becomes a metaphor for the soul’s periodic gorging and purging, and one just lives and breathes the tea. Patience and discipline are learned; gong fu—excellence in the art—is earned; intimate knowledge of the tea is reached.

More about Chinese tea culture::

Durian: Despicable or Delectable?

The spiky durian

King of Fruits or Evil Deception? Image by Jayson delos Santos

The notorious and much-maligned durian—although passionately consumed and celebrated by some as an exotic delicacy—is the big bad fruit from Southeast Asia. Infamous for being dreadfully and colossally malodorous, it has also become a constantly debated topic with two distinct camps: Love it or loathe it.

The durian is a big, heavy, green-brown fruit that has a woody husk covered in sharp spikes that aren’t just for show. This baby can inflict serious pain, and not just the olfactory kind (people have been struck in the head and killed by this beast while standing under its tree).

Lyrics to a durian ditty

Since tourists love posing under trees, and many countries depend on tourism, this seemed quite necessary.

Inside are pod-like sections that contain the pulp-encased seeds. This pulp is the prize—the sweet, creamy, custardy pulp that smells like… well… It’s called stinkfrucht in Germany, but many people tend skip the poetry and go for the graphic:

  • backed up sewer
  • onion that’s been buried for a month then marinated in acetone
  • baby poo
  • cat’s piss with a hint of dog breath
  • rotting roadkill
  • and my personal description—smelly armpit
A red fleshed species of durian

The inside of a rare and stunningly beautiful Red Durian. Image by National Geographic.

This fruit just does not want to be loved! Perhaps in the past it was made fun of by the prettier, more accessible fruits and had thus evolved with these formidable defenses. For the most part it works. You cannot ride the subway in Singapore without seeing the “No Durians” signs.

Sign: No durian allowed

Among the many things one cannot do in Singapore. Image from travelblog.org

The brave few who refuse to be daunted by the durian’s prickly exterior and offensive odor, refer to it lovingly:

  • king of fruits
  • an acquired taste
  • like almond-flavored custard
  • heavenly aroma, divine taste
  • Durian’s not food. It’s durian.
A Singapore cultural center with a durian-inspired design

The Esplanade. Perhaps feeling guilty about the subway ban, Singapore built this shrine to the Holy Durian. Image by instantshift.com

I wonder about the first durian eater. Who was this daring and determined prehistoric fellow that, armed with but his crude stone tool and steely stomach, decided to grapple with the thorny durian to get to the yet-unknown insides? I imagine him wrestling with the husk, grunting through the pain of his mangled hands, and fighting to stay conscious through the first whiffs of stench so he could take his first glorious taste… Bravo! Well done, bro!

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Strange Finds: Feng Shui Compasses

antique compass for good chi

Antique feng shui compass made of bone

When I brought back my first feng shui compass, I noticed that my customers would invariably pick it up, turn it back and forth slowly, and look for which way was North (just as I had done, until the seller in Seoul laughed and took it back before explaining how it actually worked).

At first glance this disc is overwhelming due to the sheer mass of information on it – over 40 concentric circles of writing and detail. Called Lo-Pan in Chinese (Lo meaning “everything” and Pan meaning “bowl”) this instrument is used to define the Bagua of your home. Bagua – literally translated as “8 areas” – refers to the energy map of your home. Still following?

Chinese compass

The purpose of all this is simply to figure out where the energy flows, which areas have good or bad energy, and finally to fix the problem areas so yours is a happy home. Example: You take a reading of the East area of your home. The East is represented by the Element of Wood, the Colors Brown and Green, and the Life Area of Health & Family. The reading indicates that since you have a black metal door at your entrance, this is weakening energies needed to improve your health and family harmony. For this reason, people serious about the art often choose to get an analysis before their home or office is built (therefore avoiding “costly” mistakes).

Feng shui compass

Originally, compasses were actually made of Tiger bones and hand-painted. Thankfully, that practice is long gone and now they are mostly wooden. The bottom is often red, since red color symbolizes auspiciousness in Chinese culture.

Caution: Before you use this tool to access the mysteries of the universe, know that once you enter through the portal of enlightenment, you can never go back ;-)