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Tea time in China: of exotic leaves and incredible ingredients

Around Asia Effie-Michelle Metallidis's love of exotic teas meets its match in Jiangsu province.
A worker operates a mechanical loom that turns silkworm cocoons into thread at a factory in Wuxi, China.
A worker operates a mechanical loom that turns silkworm cocoons into thread at a factory in Wuxi, China.

China bills itself as the land of cha. Green, white, black, red - whatever the colour, the Chinese possess the relentless ability to make it drinkable.

So it should have been no surprise that as I was sniffing pellets of silkworm droppings at a factory that stuffs them into "health pillows", our tour guide Jeffrey said: "You know, there is a tea."

I raised my head. Jeff knew of my obsession. He had seen my friend Patty pry me off of teapot sculptures throughout the week.

"A tea?" I asked.

He cleared his throat. "Yes, actually, " he said, sliding his eyes to the pillow. "You know. They are in a tea."

The Balinese force-feed civets to produce the world's most expensive fecal coffee. So it was only natural, I reasoned, that the Chinese had managed to do it with tea.

While originally used in Chinese medicine, excrementum bombycis mori, or can cha, is reportedly an ingredient in one of China's most popular canned drinks, Wong Lo Kat. "They maybe don't say it in the ingredients because some people get offended," Jeff said. "But everybody knows it is there."

I couldn't confirm that the popular tea brand, which overtook Coca-Cola sales in 2006, contains worm excrement. But the tea is billed as an herbal remedy and silkworm droppings are said to possess curative properties that range from clearing up eczema to "harmonising stomach and transforming turbidity", according to the literature.

Devoid of turbidity but possessed of morbid curiosity, I bought an ice-cold can in the silk factory to give it a try. The tea, by the way, was the least of the oddities piled in the cafe's vitrines: silkworm cocoons, which women can plop onto their fingers to smooth away wrinkle lines, ranked first.

I popped open the can and sipped. The taste was saccharine, mildly herbal and devoid of any fetid aftertaste. Utterly disappointing. I wondered how many pellets it took to get a tea just right. Can one silkworm produce an adequate cup or two, or does it need a chain-gang of larvae bingeing on mulberry like cops at a Krispy Kreme?

To that point, how many artificially cultured pearls does it take to produce "pearl powder tea"? This was another curious liquid I had tried earlier that week - a bit of nacre scraped into some black tea for "beneficial face treatment of age and wrinkles", said the salesman.

"De silkvorms are not unionised," said Patrick, a German tourist in our group, observing the discarded bodies of worms at the looms in the silk factory. Scanning the endless counters of lustrous pearls, I reckoned the oysters weren't, either.

But even when the workers were organised and the tea was of high quality, I still wasn't quite sold.

"Behold!" said the salesman (or something equally dramatic in Mandarin) at the famous Lingshan green tea house in Lanxiang a few days later. "This is what our stomachs look like," he said, holding a cup filled with rice and brown iodine. "And here ..." - he poured a glass of the famed green tea into the mixture - "is what happens when we add Lingshan." The muddy brown water instantly cleared. It was a clever parlour trick that uses the pH scale to make the water seem as though it has been cleared of impurities, and it worked.

Hordes of onlookers waved stacks of yuan at the salesman after the demonstration, demanding packs of the loose tea. ("Buy three, get fourth free!" he shouted). But even I, the self-proclaimed tea fanatic, couldn't stomach an US$80 (Dh294) price tag for a pile of leaves, no matter how beneficial they were purported to be.

Our tea explorations did prove useful in picking up some important words, however. I learned "bukaei" ("not possible") - when I walked into a cafe my first day in Shanghai and asked if they could make me an iced tea - one menu item - and add tapioca "boba" pearls to it - a separate menu item.

The barista blinked, then looked at Patty, as if her Asianness could right my errant white-woman ways.

"Bukaei!" she said frantically, and was soon joined by three other workers baffled by the concept of wanting to combine two completely separate menu items together - a testament to the havoc a rote education system can wreak.

"Bukaei! Bukaei!" they continued. Eventually, after much hand-gesturing and the addition of a few yuan, we were able to get it done. "High-five for American innovation!" I said to Patty, holding my hand up.

"You almost caused a diplomatic incident," she replied.

Learning about cha did not, however, help when I needed to replenish my deodorant supply after a particularly energetic day in the tea fields and boba cafes of humid China. "Nihao!" I said to the saleswomen at Watson's. "I'm looking for ... " and stuck my arm up, mimicking the roll-on motion of an anti-perspirant.

"Hao, hao," mumbled the saleslady, looking left and right in embarrassment as she quickly shuttled me to the correct aisle. "Oh Effie," Patty guffawed, nearly collapsing on the ground from laughter. "You did not!"

"What?" I said. "Desperate times call for desperate measures. Speaking of which ..."

There's a CoCo's tea shop within a one-kilometre radius. I can sense it. Be still, my little Chinese heart.

"Wow," Patty said as I latched onto the wall-size menu like a silkworm to a mulberry tree. "I think you're more Asian than I am."

Next week: Effie looks back on her travels around Asia.?? Catch up on her adventures at Around Asia.

Updated: September 2, 2011 04:00 AM



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