Monday, October 26, 2015

Honeyed chrysanthemum tea

Autumn is in full swing around here, with pumpkins, late harvest tomatoes, and persimmons filling the markets. In China, this is the time of year when chrysanthemums are also appreciated to their fullest, both as visual delights and also in simple, fragrant teas. The most beloved of all is the delicate tisane brewed from the small mums of Hangzhou, which make up for their subtle beauty with an arresting fragrance that really does smell of honey.

Old-fashioned packaging
Hangzhou is famous for these dried chrysanthemums that seem to have captured the last rays of an autumn sun. Shaped like slightly flattened powderpuffs, the blossoms bloom a final time in your teacup when they are doused with very hot water. The flowers are snipped off right below their heads, so that there are no stems, just green cupped calyxes that hold all of those tiny petals in place. 

And as the blossoms swell and unfurl, their distinctive perfume begins to tantalize the nose. This is a cold-weather smell - fresh and clean, and it goes well with autumnal treats, like Hakka Nine Layer Cake. It is traditionally drunk hot in small cups so that you get to bury your face in those aromas with each sip, but it is also delicious chilled or combined with other aromatic ingredients, such as wolfberries, or in fanciful jumbles that hail from the western regions of China, as we will look at in an upcoming post.

Lots of people slap the name "Hangzhou" on the package when they wrap up these golden flowers, so look around for a reputable Chinese dry-goods or herb shop that sells the real deal. The blossoms should be compressed into a little brick enclosed in a sheet of old-timey brown paper stamped with a lovely red design (see that beautiful example in the second photo - I always reuse these to wrap up special presents), and when you hold it up to your nose, it ought to smell intensely of fresh chrysanthemums. 

Seep until the petals wake up

Keep the blossoms in a dark cupboard and use them up within a couple of months so that their flavor doesn't fade away.

Chrysanthemum tea

Hángzhōu júhuāchá 杭州菊花茶
Serves 4

1 handful dried chrysanthemum blossoms

Freshly boiled water
Rock sugar, honey, or agave syrup, if desired

1. Place the blossoms in a sieve set in the sink, and douse them with some the very hot water to dislodge any dust or flotsam. 

2. Transfer the flowers to a teapot or individual covered cups (glass is ideal here so that you can enjoy their beauty), and then immediately cover the mums with about 4 cups total of slightly-less-than-boiling water. Having the heat below the boiling point helps preserve the fragrance of the flowers, so let the water come to a full boil and then allow it to sit for a few minutes. Steep the flowers covered for about 5 minutes, or until the petals open up and many of the blossoms sink. They can usually be brewed one more time before their flavor is exhausted.

One of my all-time faves

3. Chrysanthemums like these are naturally honey-flavored, but they certainly go well with whatever you like. You can chill the tisane (herbal tea) and serve it cold, but I wouldn't add any ice to the glass, as this would dilute the aromas. 

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