Monday, October 17, 2016


Phyllis Louise Harris
Fall 2016

Four thousand years ago when Chinese Emperor Shen Nung stopped by the side of the road to rest one afternoon he sat near a Carmellia Sinensis plant to sip a cup of hot water. A leaf from the plant fell into his cup turning the water into a soothing drink that was so relaxing he gathered more leaves to enjoy on his journey. Thus, tea drinking was born or so the legend goes.

Today, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world next to water even though that’s hard to fathom in this land of coffee houses. Fortunately we have tea connoisseurs and suppliers here to provide us with hundreds of varieties of those magical leaves.

Tea drinking in China became so important that teahouses were established so that men could gather and sip and socialize. Soon dim sum was created by the teahouse owners to keep their patrons sipping and spending for longer periods of time. When tea drinking arrived in Japan the brewing process evolved into an ethereal ritual. By the time the English took to drinking tea it became so important that teatime was often the most elaborate meal of the day. Some of my fondest culinary memories are tea at Claridges and the Ritz in London, the Plaza in New York and the Garden Court in San Francisco. All were elegant, soothing, sumptuous and delicious.

For my birthday this year I thought it would be fun to try tea at the St. Paul Hotel, one of the few places in the Twin Cities offering formal teas. After reading the information on the web I called the number provided to get details and make a reservation. While my birthday was sold out I was told I could go on a waiting list in case someone had not made their $40 advance payment by the cut-off date a week earlier. Or on the following Saturday I could sit in the hallway on a wooden chair at a wooden table outside the area where tea is served. The site also said tea was from 2 – 4 pm on the Saturdays listed and I was told that was the actual length of the tea. When I asked why it took so long for a cup of tea the response was “well, it is five courses and the wait staff does not bring out the food all at once.” Silly me. I guess the great tearooms of the world got it wrong when they served beautifully laden tiered trays filled with a variety of goodies . . . all at the same time. When I responded with the opinion that two hours was too long I was told it gave one time to “socialize.” So I would be socializing on a wooden chair in the hallway while the wait staff found time to serve food that is already prepared. Thanks, I’ll socialize somewhere else and call on my memories of teas gone by filled with watercress finger sandwiches, chocolate drizzled crème puffs, flaky warm scones with clotted cream and decadent strawberry jam, and light as air custard tarts.

Since everything is made ahead of time, tea is a great way to entertain friends. You can find a wide variety of small sweet treats at local bakeries including Cossetta’s at 211 Seventh Street West in St. Paul. Or some Chinese treats like steamed buns, moon cake and almond cookies at Keefer Court Food at 328 Cedar Avenue South in Minneapolis. They can even make fortune cookies with you’re your own message inside.  

But the most important part is the tea itself. To start with, DO NOT USE TEA BAGS AND DO NOT USE BOILING WATER. One of the first things I learned from tea guru and award-winning tea blender Bill Waddington was that proper water temperature brings out the best flavor in the tealeaves no matter what they are. And most teas are best with water heated to just below the boiling point from 160° to 212°. He recommends first heating the teapot with boiling water, pour out the water and add the tea leaves then the properly heated water. Steep it for the few minutes it takes to create the desired taste and color, then pour. Fortunately Bill has written a number of tea guides available free at his TeaSource stores in St. Anthony Village, Highland Park and Eden Prairie. Or go to Waddington’s company website for a wide variety of tea information. Also plan to attend his tea tastings and special tea events listed on the website calendar.

Happy teatime!



Read more about Asian food in Minnesota and try more than 160 recipes in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, in bookstores and on
Watch the EMMY® award winning “Asian Flavors” television show based on the book on tpt MN. Check local TV listings for broadcast times or view the show streaming online at: