A tea ceremony in the making

TN News

Email Print

The mother and daughter rowed a boat to a small pond near her house late in the afternoon every day.

And then they did something unusual.

They placed the tea leaves that they'd carried with them inside lotus blossoms that had not yet bloomed. Early next morning they went back and collected the tea and used it for the whole day.

Le Thi Hien, famous lotus tea maker, used to tell this anecdote about her grandmother and mother to her own daughter and others, explaining how their family tradition of making the lotus tea began.

It is a tradition that is now confined to about thirty families around the West Lake in the capital city, and the special tea is highly unlikely to become a mass produced product, not only because of the patience and the painstaking work involved, but because of trade secrets passed on through generations within a family.

Tea scented with flowers like the lotus, jasmine and grapefruit blossoms have for long been a favored drink in Vietnam, but among the many varieties, connoisseurs say the one that stands out is the traditional lotus tea made with flowers from the West Lake.

Taking your pick

As the lotus season in Hanoi arrives in May, the quiet lagoon called Dam Bay in the West Lake area buzzes with the activity of human bees very early in the morning.

Thousands of fresh lotus flowers are picked every morning and collected immediately by the tea makers waiting on the bank. The blossoms are quickly separated into different parts. After peeling off the petals, skillful hands will take the stamen with many bright yellow filaments at the ends of which are little white anthers that provide the special alluring fragrance


Early morning is the best time for picking the flowers needed to make the tea

"To "catch" the lotus fragrance, the blossoms must be picked very early in the morning (around 4-6 a.m.) when they have just blossomed with cool dew around," said a young girl named Ngan who is taking the stamens for a woman named Le Thi Ngoc.

"The earlier they are picked the sweeter the fragrance. To get one kilo of lotus stamen, I must separate between 1,300 and 1,500 flowers," Ngan said.

One of the most famous artisans among the few lotus-tea makers, Ngoc, now over 60, has "special secrets" passed down through three generations. Ngoc is the daughter of Le Thi Hien.

Some of the secrets are open, though.

"Together with the stamen taken from the West Lake lotus, I must have good tea. I only use tea from Thai Nguyen Province or Ha Giang Province. The tea must be cleaned and dried before being aromatized with the lotus stamen. To get one kilo of lotus tea, I need between 1- 1.4 kilograms of lotus stamen.

"Each kilo of tea must be treated five-seven times, each time with 200 grams of pollen, for over two weeks to get it infused with the desired aroma."

Though it is a long-standing family tradition, Ngoc has been doing this only for the last 10 years.

"My mother, who is the famous lotus tea maker Le Thi Hien, used to do the job right up until the end of her life before passing on her secrets to me," Ngoc recalled.

"But even before learning the secrets, I had been absorbed in her stories about our long tradition and was deeply influenced by her love for the work."

Again and again

Another famous name in the trade is Ngo Thi Trinh, who owns the well-known Ninh Huong Tea Shop on Hanoi's Hang Dieu Street.

A brief explanation she gives about the process of making the lotus tea reveals its painstaking nature.

Tea and lotus stamen are arranged in alternate layers in a tightly covered terracotta jar, kept for two days and then set out to dry for one day. Then a sieve is used to separate the dried lotus stamen and the whole process is repeated using fresh lotus stamen five to seven times.

The mixture of the tea and lotus stamen is then placed in small tracing paper bags. A tightly covered jar of hot water is placed between two bags. The jar and bags are wrapped in a thick paper bag which is covered with blankets to maintain the heat. The tea is dried by the heat within the jar.

Using this process, each batch of tea takes Trinh almost one month to make.

No haste

Living in a small apartment down Ba Trieu Street, an old woman named Ngo Kim Thanh produces one of the best lotus teas in town but few people know of her product.

With more than 40 years of experience, she has won the confidence of almost all tea lovers who have tried her tea. She never advertises because she believes that the tea's fragrance itself will spread far and wide.

"It requires time, patience and a great love," she said. "If you are just a little bit hasty in any step, the fragrance will be affected."

This explains why many people know the recipe but not everyone can produce good tea.

"I only make enough for my family and sell to my devoted customers," Thanh said.

Like Thanh, Ngoc can only make a few kilos of lotus tea each season for regular customers, who often send it abroad as a gift.

"Although a kilo of lotus tea costs around VND3 million to VND3.5 million, we cannot run after profit without paying attention to quality," Ngoc said. "I have to keep the fragrance of the West Lake Lotus Tea."

Development threat

The beautiful environs of the West Lake, like other spots in Vietnam, have been divested of much of their beauty by uncontrolled, rapacious urbanization, but another less-mentioned and less-noticed impact has been the loss of traditional vocations.

INTERNATIONAL RENOWN

Lotus tea was consumed in large amounts by the royalty in Vietnam to help them stay young and healthy.

There are medical experts who've said lotus tea can ease stress levels, lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels.

That is one of the reasons why Vietnam's lotus tea has attracted worldwide attention, and it has been the subject of programs carried by the BBC, NHK, TBSand other media networks.

In two documentaries made in 2004, filmmakers from Japan have featured the special work of lotus tea makers Le Thi Hien and Le Thi Ngoc. After the film was screened in Japan, the two families received many Japanese visitors wanting to taste the tea and take some back to Japan.

The making of the special lotus tea and the cultivation of lotuses for the purpose are now under threat, despite the high praise that locals and foreigners have lavished on the product.

Chu Duc Trong, who has grown lotus in the West Lake area for nearly 30 years, says the whole area used to be covered with the flowers until a couple a decades ago, with hundreds of households engaged in cultivating it.

Now there are very few families left doing it, and "their livelihood is also under threat as more and more development projects are being planned around the lake."

The special lotus tea makers are hit by the lack of flowers and have to get them from other places. "We don't have enough to meet their demand now," Trong said. "They know that the lotus in the West Lake offers the best fragrance, but they have no choice."

Toan has also been planting lotus on West Lake for around ten years. He says he knows the flower so well that he can tell at a glance if a lotus is from the West Lake or not.

"Lotuses grown in other areas such as Dong Anh District, Bac Ninh or Hung Yen provinces are larger, a darker shade of pink and less fragrant," he said.

Growing lotus is hard work and does not bring in much money, but Toan says "the work brings me pleasure."

"I am sure that I am one of the happiest people in the world. Every day I can breathe in the sweet fragrance of the flowers while sitting and sipping the lotus-scented tea."

More Arts & Culture News