The art of tea drinking is one of the deepest and most ancient aspects of Chinese high culture. The development of regional tea making techniques has spanned dynasties, and now there are thousands of tea varieties to choose from. These variations can occur in the tea making process, the flavours that are added or even the way that the tea is steeped. The only trouble with tea shopping is knowing where to start.
Most people shy away from the large, business-oriented tea markets, instead choosing to sample new teas in the comfort of tea houses with menus. In fact, the owners of tea shops, even in the more professional markets, are more than happy to sit down with a tea set and educate a newcomer on the world of tea. Few shop owners speak English, but all are more than happy to introduce their product. One tea tasting might cover ten different kinds of tea. The best part is that samples are free.
The Xiongda Tea Market in northern Kunming is the best place for exploring the world of tea. There are hundreds of little shops to choose from and the owners are willing to sell in amounts as small as 100 grams. They supply teas from around the country, but the highest qualities will be local.
Yunnan is home to China's greatest variety of teas, ranging from black to flower to herbal, or from a few RMB a kilo to thousands for a single cup. It's easy enough to find old favourites here, like Jasmine, Crysanthemum, and classic green teas, but it is the specialty teas of Yunnan that are most worth trying.
1) Pu'er 普洱
Yunnan's specialty, Pu'er is descended from the most ancient of teas, ones that were pressed into cakes and carried over the dangerous mountain roads of Imperial China. Native to Pu'er, in the south of Yunnan, it undergoes one of the longest and most complex drying methods of all teas. It is fermented for a few days or weeks until the leaves turn dark brown and become crisp. Most Pu'er is packed into Frisbee-sized discs that will keep indefinitely, as long as they are dry and cool. The length of time the tea is processed means it's either light in flavour (sheng生) or has a deeper, earthy flavour (shou熟).
While those used to loose leaf tea might find the cake shape of most Pu'er teas off putting, it's actually a convenient way to store tea without much hassle. You simply break off a piece and add it to your teapot as you would a normal tea. It doesn't even need to be sealed.
The real advantage of the Pu'er cake is its longevity. The locals often compare it to red wine, in that its flavour and therefore value improve over time. A Pu'er cake only 20 years old can auction for tens of thousands of RMB at markets in Hong Kong. In 2006, there was a major rush on Pu'er tea as the government began to allow only farms in the area of Pu'er to make official Pu'er tea. Investors and entrepreneurs from all over China came to buy up the rare commodity before it got even rarer. Today, the government has stabilized prices allowing Pu'er to be enjoyed by all.
You can find Pu'er cakes for as low as 50 RMB, but expect to spend between 100-150 RMB for a good one.
2) Dian Hong 滇红
Literally translating as "Yunnanese black tea," this prosaic name hides a solid black tea that is often compared to Darjeeling. Considered a lesser, or restaurant quality tea by many locals, Dian Hong is a favourite with foreigners as a somewhat nutty variation on a classic black tea. It's also good iced, which is not true of a lot of Chinese black teas. Expect to pay 70-120 RMB for 500 grams.
Jasmine is one of the most famous teas in the world and is certainly not restricted to Yunnan. However, a large number of Chinese Jasmines use flowers grown in the south of the province, which is especially suited for the water-loving plant. As a result, the discerning tea shopper knows that although Kunming won't offer anything special in terms of flavour or quality, the low cost of shipping the sensitive flower means a decent Jasmine will be much cheaper than anywhere else. Almost every store has one- it's up to you to sort through and find one that you like. Jasmine can be as much as 300 RMB for 500 grams, but you can find a decent one for around 150 RMB.
4) Nuomi Xiang 糯米香
A light black tea mixed with the leaves of a Yunnanese Nuomi tea, this tea bears a striking resemblance to Genmaicha, despite the distance from Japan. Both have a rich toasted rice flavour, but Nuomi Xiang also has a light herbal flavour that hints at eucalyptus. This is one of the more unique teas of the region and is a little hard to find. Due to its rarity, this tea can fetch 200 RMB for a 500 gram bag.
5) Song Zhen 松针
This tea has the longest fermentation time, which gives it a rich, malty flavour. The leaves can range from yellow to brown, but the colour variation makes little difference. What really matters is the depth of the aroma that rises from the first cup. It's especially popular in winter. 150 RMB can get you 500 grams, but the quality really starts to rise after 200 RMB.
Xiongda Tea Market (雄达茶城)View In Map
Add: Beijing Lu, Kunming North District, Kunming
Getting there: Take bus no. 61 or 79.
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Keywords: buying tea in Kunming Xiongda tea market Kunming Pu’er tea in Kunming Kunming tea markets
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