I was walking down a desolate street in the middle of a hot afternoon and. Closed signs and shuttered doors of bars and theatres stared back blankly at me as if to say, “Don’t you know what time it is? Come back later.”
Then I reached the intersection I was looking for at northwest Everett street in central Portland, Oregon. Kitty corner across from me there was a big pair of stone gates with Chinese characters. Beyond them, an oasis and a tea house.
Lán Sū Chinese Gardens in Portland, Oregon is the result of a collaboration between Portland and their sister city, Suzhou, in Jiangsu province in China. Suzhou is known for its beautiful Ming Dynasty gardens. Although I’m no expert, Lan Su staff say the Lan Su garden in Portland is one of the most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China. A wealthy 16th century family home is recreated inside the garden.
The tea house inside at the back of the garden is run by The Tao of Tea and set inside a building known as The Tower of Cosmic Reflection. It’s the coolest place name I’ve ever heard.
I recommend doing the garden and house tour first and then stopping for tea and snacks at the end.
This was my first time having someone present “gong fu cha” to me and the Lán Sū Chinese Gardens were the perfect backdrop.
Sitting by the open window of the second floor of the tea house, I felt more like I was in Suzhou than Portland.
My server was extremely knowledgeable and quick to recommend the Frozen Summit Oolong when I asked him to suggest a favourite. Healso had a great flare for showmanship, pouring my tea with grace and flourishing the wet leaves under my nose to sniff. As he performed the gong fu ceremony he explained every step.
This was the start of my west coast oolong kick.
Frozen Summit is a single origin tea from Lugu in Central Taiwan. I should mention that The Tao of Tea is a local Portland company. They provide all the tea in the Lán Sū Tea house and are a 100% pure leaf tea company, meaning they use no artificial flavours, colours, or preservatives.
Gongu fu cha
Gong fu cha is what you call the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and it literally means, “making tea with effort/skill“.
While not as rigorous or formal as Japanese tea ceremony, gong fu still has specific rituals surrounding it. The idea is for you to be conscious/present when you pour the tea. Basically, put some effort into it.
Gong Fu paraphernalia includes an unglazed clay tea pot, a serving pitcher, several small clay tea cups, a set of bamboo tongs for moving tea leaves, a ceramic bowl for holding the tea leaves, and a slotted tray to capture overflowing water.
I asked my host to treat me like an absolute novice when it comes to Chinese tea.
We begin the ceremony by having me smell the dry tea leaves in the white porcelain bowl.
THen he takes the tea from the bowl using his bamboo tongs and drops them into the clay tea pot. He adds hot water (around 85˚C), and swirls it around in the teapot, before dumping it into the serving vessel (as seen in the photo above).
This first infusion is just to ‘awaken’ the leaves. It gets poured out and the hot water is added again for the first drinking infusion.
A trademark of gong fu cha is the multiple steeps. The first steep is quite short – about 15 seconds for this oolong.
Subsequent steeps become longer and longer – adding about 10 seconds each time.
Once the tea is sufficiently steeped, it’s poured into the serving pitcher (the thing that looks like a gravy boat). This is so that all the tea you drink from this steep has a consistent flavour. My host tells me this oolong will be good for about seven steeps, and has me smell the wet, steeped tea leaves to appreciate their aroma.
From there, it’s poured into the tall “aroma” cup. Then, the shorter drinking cup gets placed over it and flipped upside down to empty the aroma cup contents into the drinking cup.
I’m then given the aroma cup to smell – once again, appreciating the tea. After that, I continue to sip from the small drinking cup.
You repeat the process over and over for each steep until the serving pitcher is empty.
My host said I didn’t have to flip the aroma cup over every time – that I could just pour the tea straight into the drinking cup from the serving pitcher if I liked, but it was too much fun flipping over the cup. Did you hear the ‘bloop’ noise in the video above?
There are a few different types of light snack on offer. I tried steamed dumplings, bao-zi (steamed buns), and a marbled tea egg.
All were good, although I wish there had been meat-filled steamed buns available. I recommend the marbled tea egg for the more adventurous. It has a unique taste; a combination of soy sauce, star anise, and pine-smoked tea. The smokey flavour really comes through. You’re served the egg at room temperature or slightly warm.
There is a lot on offer for tea drinkers here. If I were a Portlander, you would probably find me sleeping under the tables.
In terms of atmosphere, clay pots line every spare inch of the shelving. Chatty patrons are sitting in bamboo chairs and at wood tables. The smell of dumplings snakes through the air from the kitchen entrance. Students from the local Wisdom Arts Academy play soft, traditional Chinese music on their liuyeqin and yangqin instruments.
Altogether a wonderful experience. Even if you’re not a hardcore tea drinker, I think anyone would enjoy this combination of delicious snacks, tea and heritage under one roof.
Entering the the Lán Sū Gardens costs $9.50 for adults, $7 for students.