Tanya Baros, now 30, first learned to pour tea as a 7-year-old in Guilin, China. Her grandfather, a doctor, taught her. She and her brother would serve to visiting relatives, in part for her parents to show off "that we were growing up and knew how to respect adults."
In China today, she says, people still tend to drink tea firstly after lunch, as somewhat of a siesta, to rest while the heat of the day is at its most extreme. Then, laborers will return to fields and business will resume until the evening, when supper is taken, followed by baijiu (rice or sorghum wine), then tea again.
To own a proper tea set as a middle- or upper-class person is the norm, much like an American's drip machine and/or grinder and French-press setup for coffee. "Even the poor people put tea leaves in their mouth and chew them, then drink water for the same effect," she says. "I saw them all the time chewing, instead of tobacco."
By stark contrast to that rudimentary form, a tea ceremony, like the one Baros hosts for guests at 2-year-old Yellow Mountain, highlights a meticulous and patient process to savor tea. But just as importantly, friendships. "You build up relationships, and you have something to do together during your talking," she says. "You don't feel awkward because there's something in your hand."
As guests sit in front of ornately carved tea trays topped in glass and ceramic pots and small teacups, Baros makes an initial pour of hot water over the serving ware to warm it, then over the tea leaves as a momentary flush to clean and moisturize. By this point, she's likely shared a little history on the particular tea, plus purported health benefits and ideal steeping temperatures, times and sipping methods. Then comes a series of steepings that could easily last beyond an hour, and half a dozen pours through the pot. (Tastings are $5 per person and retail tea-by-the-ounce averages around $6, depending on variety — she stocks 205 teas currently).
Her problem lately is guests are treating her more like a restaurant, since she began serving homemade beef, chicken or veggie dumplings, soup dumplings, Pearl Meatballs (sticky rice coated pork) and xiaolongbao (steamed buns).
"This is a tea house, I want to keep that straight," she says. "People call me and ask if they can bring my food home. I say no. I don't want people coming in drinking water and eating dumplings — you must drink tea. I'm very stubborn."
Not that she doesn't appreciate enthusiastic feedback on her food — laced with alluring Chinese 7 Spice, and optionally kicked up by Chao Tian Jiao hot peppers — but she's trying to convey a cultural experience beyond just serving a drink or meal. Unlike empty corporate slogans about entering an establishment and feeling as if you're at home, or like family, or supremely relaxed, Baros truly aims to make her patrons unwind and understand this ancient tea culture. Instead of ordering from a menu, visitors are told to walk around and open jars and smell them, allowing the olfactory sense drive the decision. Often she'll create custom blends on the spot with a selected variety, usually incorporating a popular stevia-like sweet leaf called Rubus suavissimus.
As much as all this may sound scientific and stiff, her good humor and perky personality buffers the traditional tone. The little girl from Guilin did grow up to respect adults — now she's asking the same in return: "This is a nice, quiet place to enjoy a nice cup of tea with friends, not to rush," she says. "Take the time."
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