This past Sunday afternoon Wendy and I went out to do some things both of us had been looking forward to doing for some time.
I love tea and tea cultures, so I had been really wanting to visit a teahouse to watch the Chinese tea ceremony. While we were in Hangzhou the day before (home of the famous Longjian cha or Dragon Well tea), we were unfortunately unable to stop by a teahouse due to scheduling constraints…Sunday daybreak brought Wendy to my door with bags of baozi (steamed buns) in hand and a plan already formed to visit a teahouse here in Suzhou later in the day…needless to say, I was very excited by the prospect.
Wendy specializes in classical literature and poetry (to say nothing of the fact that she’s a bit of a traditional opera and music buff), and had been wanting to visit the famous Maple Bridge about which the Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Ji wrote his famous work, “Night Mooring at Maple Bridge.” (This poem is still widely read in Asia and is even part of primary school curriculums in China and Japan.)
Fortunately for both of us, we were able to do both things in the same day, as well as take in some delicious 火锅 (huo guo – hot pot)!
In addition to huo guo, we ordered some mochi (pounded rice cake) flavored with cassia flowers and some delicious hot, sweet dumplings filled with sesame paste that were so soft they almost had no shape outside of the sweet water. Our huo guo was actually the restaurant’s specialty and was a Xichuan-style dish, meaning it was incredibly hot and contained many dried red chili peppers…it was composed of roasted foodstuffs in a spicy, savory, oily sauce…there was lotus root, leeks, garlic cloves, squash, and FROG!
Yes…we ate frog hot pot…and it was very delicious! 很好吃! (Hen hao chi – very good food). Frog actually tastes something like a cross between scallops and chicken, which makes me very happy because I love scallops and the chicken aspect was interesting…this hotpot was different in a way than what I’d had before, in that they brought out the pot with the food I described above inside it, and then when we had eaten our fill another menu was brought out (containing the various ingredients you can use in hotpot), which we then chose from…they filled our pot with broth and brought out the ingredients for us to add, then turned on the pot and left…I’ve always eaten hot pot before without that entire first course/step of the fried, spicy foods in the oily base. I really liked it this way and will probably drag unsuspecting others here in the next few weeks…this was actually one of my favorite things to eat.
... Huo guo …
After the yummy hotpot, we went to visit Hanshan Temple. Hanshan is a very famous Buddhist temple known for its active ritual life…which we were fortunate enough to catch a bit of during our visit. Apparently a family had donated a large amount to the temple and had asked for a ritual to be performed to remember their dead, which was just commencing when Wendy and I arrived at Hanshan.
(Hanshan is also know as Cold Mountain Temple, as it’s mentioned in the Zhang Ji poem.)
... Hanshan Temple …
After checking out the temple we went to Maple Bridge. It was beautiful, as I hope the photos show. Before I show those, however, here’s the famous poem I’ve been mentioning:
And in English:
Night Mooring at Maple Bridge
While I watch the moon go down a crow caws through the frost
Under the shadows of maple trees a fisherman moves with his torch
Spending the night on a boat I feel lonely and homesick
I hear from beyond Suzhou the Temple on Cold Mountain
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.
... Maple Bridge …
After we visited Maple Bridge, we went to a nearby teahouse to view the tea ceremony. I had been studying the Chinese tea ceremony in texts and videos for the past few months, but I was still surprised by the gracefulness of the tea hostess’ guestures and by the experience itself. Wendy and I decided to splurge and go all the way out in paying for the longest and most complete ceremony the had to offer, with the most expensive tea. I won’t mention how much it was, but I think it was definitely worth it. The ceremony was incredibly graceful and the hostess was excellent, in addition to the excellent tea. Although I can’t remember the name (I’ll have to see if Wendy does), it was a green tea that had a bit of white moss/mold on the leaves, a result of being grown in an orchard of ancient fruit trees. Almost every step of the curing process has to be completed by hand in order to correctly preserve the flavor. The water that was used in brewing the tea was collected from a spring high up in the mountains around Suzhou before the spring festivals. Additionally, the tea itself is so delicate that it has to heated only to 80 degrees or else the taste is spoiled, in addition to being brewed and handled carefully. It was amazing to watch the sure, graceful motions of the tea hostess as she prepared our tea for us in the zen fashion. The taste was very, very good, as was the color – good green tea is supposed to be slightly yellowish. This tea retained its color and flavor through 5 consecutive brewings.
Included in the ceremony was a singer/musician who sang us two very beautiful songs (one about Suzhou itself, another a very old poem about a young girl’s reluctant political marriage to a Mongol ruler), in addition to singing us the musical form of Zhang Ji’s poem. A tea girl stood beside the tea hostess and explained the ceremony to Wendy in Chinese who explained it to me in English. I couldn’t catch much of what she was saying as she was speaking at a higher caliber than I was used to hearing (my Chinese still largely composed of sentences like, “where is the store?” and “do you want to watch a movie tonight?”)...eventually Wendy discovered that the hostess spoke a bit of Japanese from serving so many Japanese visitors, so thus began our tri-lingual tea experience where the tea hostess and I were making small talk and talking tea in Japanese, everyone was talking about everything in Chinese, and Wendy and I were speaking English as she translated the more esoteric concepts for me. That was an interesting experience. I actually completely blanked for a minute at the beginning after Wendy invited me to speak Japanese. I realized that in studying Chinese this past year I had been trying to completely push Japanese out of my mind, which is not something I like the idea of. I have to find a way to balance the two in the future.
... Tea Ceremony …
At this point I stopped taking photos and just tried to experience things. I think sometimes as a photographer you have to do that, otherwise you end up living entirely through your lens.
Okay…knocking off now to get some sleep…more to come soon!