Tea is a major part of Chinese culture. In order to fully grasp its importance I made my way down to Anhui’s Huangshan City. You might have heard of the famous Yellow Mountains in China, Huangshan 黄山. The main city at the bottom of the mountain is called simply Huangsahn City 黄山市.
Huangshan City is located in southeastern China, at the southern part of Anhui Province, with Zhejiang Province to its east, so it takes a 12 hour train ride from the northern part of Anhui, Bozhou, where I live, to the southern part, Huangshan City. Huangshan’s history dates back to the time of the First Emperor. The city’s current jurisdiction covers much of the historical and cultural region of Huizhou 徽州, which together with Anqing 安庆 formed the name of Anhui Province.
We stayed for three days, and worked together with Anhui International TV to produce a small documentary.
Racing through Huangshan’s old streets
I was surprised when the director told me that I won’t simply have people show me around and tell me everything I want to know about Huangshan’s tea culture. I had to work to get the information. To my shock, my first task was a some kind of treasure hunt!
They gave me a red envelope with a letter on it which listed three times I had to find on my own. Actually it was seven items: 3 famous Huangshan teas, 3 famous sweets to eat with your tea, and 1 item called Xiekehuang. I was pretty confident to find the teas and sweets, but what the hell was Xiekehuang?
I had 30 minutes to find all the items and bring to them. No one of the film crew or my husband was allowed to help me! And my husband enjoyed the fact that he knew all items and where to find them, but he would give me any clue! Luckily, I speak Chinese, otherwise I would be at a loss.
The old streets of Huangshan City are beautiful, rich of culture and history. Unfortunately, I had no time to really enjoy them, because the clock was ticking and so far I hadn’t found any of the items on the list.
Huangshan’s most famous teas
Finding the teas in a city where 80% of the shops are selling tea wasn’t a big challenge. I wasn’t really allowed to ask the shop clerks directly “which are the three most famous teas?”, but I had to guess.
If you go into three shops and all of them are selling three tea brands, finding the answer is really easy. Without help I made an educated guess and decided the Huangshan’s three most famous teas are: Maofeng Green Tea 毛峰绿茶, Qimen Black Tea 祁门红茶, and Taiping Houkui 太平猴魁.
Huangshan Maofeng Green Tea 黄山毛峰, is one of ten top teas in the history of China. It is a typical green tea mainly produced in the scenic area of Huangshan Mountain. The high mountains and dense forest with a short sunshine but much cloud and fog are the perfect area to grow this tea. The completed Maofeng Green Tea has an appearance of fine, flat and bent, and looks like the bird’s tongue with a fragrance similar to Yulan. Different from other types of green tea, Huangshan Maofeng has a vivid fine hair with a color of silver and a little bit yellow discoloration in green.
Taiping Houkui Green Tea 太平猴魁 shares the same production area with Huangshan Maofeng. It was created in 1900, and belongs to a historic brand of green tea. In 1915, it was awarded the golden medal in Panama World’s Fair. After the foundation of new China, it was ranked one of ten top brand teas in China. In 2007, it was selected as the national gift to present Russian President Putin. It is produced in the northern side of Huangshan Mountain. Huangshan Mountain has a low temperature and is full of moisture, and longtime covered by the dense clouds and fog and the fertile soil texture, so it has a unique quality.
Qimen Black Tea 祁门红茶 a world famous black tea brand made in China, is also produced in Huangshan City, southern Anhui province. Qimen black tea was first made in 1875, in Qimen County near Mount Huang. The tea has a long-lasting refreshing aroma, reminiscent of honey and orchids. Its brew appears bright red. Qimen black tea’s rich aroma and flavor are best appreciated by drinking it without any condiments, but addition of milk will not diminish its flavor at all. If you are drinking black tea in the spring, Qimen black tea is your best choice. It is also very suitable for drinking in the afternoon and before sleep.
During my three day stay in Huangshan City, I have gotten an overload of these teas. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese tea. My favorite is the Qimen black tea. I really like black tea, but the two green teas are not bad as well. But I have to admit, I had a cup of coffee when I cam back to Bozhou.
I am not going into detail about the sweets that are served with tea. Those three sweets were very easy to find and also very easy to get some samples as a proof. Actually, there are hundreds of different kinds of little pastry or sweets to have with your tea. Here in Huangshan the most famous ones though are a form of paste made out of either peanuts or sesame. Extremely sweet, and really nothing I have to eat regularly.
Xiekehuang? A what? A Crab? No way…
There was still one item missing from my list: The mystery item called Xiekehuang 蟹壳黄. If I were allowed to use my phone I would have simply googled it. But here I was in the middle of Huangshan City’s old city center, tourists and shop clerks staring at me in disbelief and I had to find that Xiekehuang.
I am sure the TV people told the shop clerks not to tell me what it is, because every single one I asked told me 我不知道 wo bu zhidao “I don’t know”! My husband was nearly collapsing of laughter in the background. Apparently he didn’t just know what it is, but also where to find it!
Looking at the characters of Xiekehuang 蟹壳黄 I thought it might have something to do with a crab 螃蟹, as it has the xie from pangxie in it. 壳 ke, the second character means shell, so thinking of a shell crab? 黄 huang simply mean ‘yellow’, so obviously, every normal person would think they are looking for a yellow shell crab!
Have you ever tried to find a yellow crab in a city with tea shops only? Just asking the question out loud made me realize how ridiculous it was. Of course, people though I was making a weird foreigner joke. But I wouldn’t give up that easily! I even found a crab like thing. An old dead crab covered in glass… It wasn’t what they were looking for. I could see it in the victorious face expression of the film director.
Finding the tea and the sweets together took me only 15 minutes. This yellow crab was going to kill my time! After ten minutes and nearly reaching the end of the street, I got lucky I think. While passing another one of the one million tea shops, I heard a clerk assistant talking to a customer, and I heard her mentioning Xiekehuang! Hiding my excitement wasn’t easy. The lady smiled and said: “Yes, we do have Xiekehuang here. Come in.”
It looked just like another one of those tea shops. Was she leading me into a trap and trying to sell me more tea?!
She went to one of the display stands and pulled out a brown paper box. It said Xiekehunag 蟹壳黄 in big letters on it, so it must have been the right thing. Looking at my watch I really got anxious. Only five more minutes and that lady was slowly making her way back to me with that brown box in her hand.
When I saw what Xiekehuang actually was, I really could have hit myself. Face palm. I should have thought of that before! I turned around to my husband who was lying on the floor laughing, and giggling. It was so easy, and I think I have been running past Xiekehuang from the start!
Yes, Xiekehuang literally means “yellow crab shell”, but it has nothing to do with a real crab, nor did it come from the ocean or anything. Xiekehuang is in fact a kind of baked pastry with either sweet or salty stuffing. It gets the name because its round shape and yellowish color look exactly like the steamed shell of a crab. It was that easy!
Xiekehuang taste really good. This baked cake is sprinkled with sesames sprinkled and stuffing can taste salty or sweet. The salty stuffing is made of shallot oil, fresh pork, minced crab meat or peeled prawns. The sweet stuffing is made of white sugar, roses, sweet bean paste or red dates.
I haven’t got to try the sweet stuffing, only the salty one. But I like salty in general, and after looking so stressed out the shop clerk even gave me two samples, one for the road and one to show my film crew.
A successful scavenger hunt and new learned knowledge
I made it back to the meeting point within the last minute. The rest of the film crew, our new friends, and a huge crowd of interested tourists were already waiting for me. By now the story of a crazy foreigner racing through the old city streets asking weird questions, had spread like a fire. We were surrounded by a crowd of people holding their iPhone 6 pointing into my direction.
I really couldn’t care less. I had successfully finished my given tasks. Of course, the teas and sweets I found were all correct and the yellow crab shell, I mean Xiekehuang, the baked cake I brought back, was evenly split between my husband and his friends.
This concluded the first part of the shoot. There was so much more to come. We went into the mountains to pick tea leaves ourselves (which ended up to be a competition between us and our Chinese friend couple). We went to see what happens after the hard workers have harvested the leaves. We even prepared the tea leaves ourselves in the old traditional way. We dressed in worker clothes and checked out a tea leave fabric. I will cover more stories in the next few posts.
Have you been to Huangshan and seen the tea leave plantations? Are you a tea or coffee drinker?
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