What Would the Chinese Do?



BRATISLAVA – After a second sampling of Chinese culture, I’ve returned to Slovakia with a fancy for drinking tea. Straight. No honey or sugar. No lemon or milk. Just the tea, thanks.


In fact, that’s the way I order it from Slovak waiters and waitresses: “Len a čaj.” Only the tea. Most nod and bring me two packets of sugar anyway.


Pure tea is the Chinese away, the original way. For five millennia. Savor the taste of the leaves. The medicinal benefits. Even the spiritual benefits. To Chinese, it ranks among the “seven necessities of life.”


Now, I’m not a spiritual kinda guy. Back in Budapest when I gave yoga a whirl, I was less interested in the chakra than the lycra – worn by the limber woman beside me. For me, tea is about flavor and authenticity. It's like sipping nature.


Similarly, earlier this year, I drastically altered my drinking of espresso. No milk, no sugar. Cold turkey. Len a kava. I figure I ingest enough fats and sugars every day. (As we speak, a half-devoured bar of dark chocolate beckons from my coat pocket.)


In related news, I’m not getting any younger. So why not eliminate one tiny vice from my life?


While patting myself on the back, though, I concede an unseemly side-effect: without that milky filter, espresso has stained my teeth the color of ripe sunflower fields in Hungary. Say chee-ee-eese!


Wait a sec. I’ve been victimized by something called “Hong Kong Foot,” due to carelessness in the tropical clamminess. Why then, in the heart of café culture, can we not anoint another geographic-specific affliction: “Central European Teeth”? From what I see around here, I’m not the only sufferer.


I even have the makings of a definition: The unfortunate consequence of a daily addiction to espresso, consumed without the amelioration of dairy – or lactose-free dairy – products. (Note to self: first copyright “Central European Teeth,” then start a support group.)


Drinking tea, on the other hand, is pleasure without penalty. That is, if you disregard the added pressure on my weak bladder. Oy!


That’s why I’m particularly excited about the new čajovňa under construction on the ground floor of our apartment building, the latest addition to the post-Communist boom in teahouses in beer-guzzling but open-minded Prague and Bratislava.


I have three standard tea preferences: black, green and jasmine. Never a fruit or flavored tea. None of those absurd boutique teas like “Blood Orange and Vitamin C” or “Cherry and Yoghurt.”


Western innovation? No. Western bastardization!


A few nights ago, I brewed up some rich Yunnan pu’er tea that I recently brought back from southern China. That woody taste fills the mouth. It took some getting used to, but I grew to appreciate it. It also reminds me of Hong Kong, and all its gustatory sensations.


On this night, I introduce pu-er in a hot mug to my Hungarian mother-in-law, who's visiting us from Budapest, two hours away. When it comes to gastronomy, the Hungarians have one of Europe’s tastiest cuisines. Collectively, though, Hungarians tend to be creatures of comfort. Not always welcoming of alien senses to the palate. I'm curious to hear what my mother-in-law thinks.


“It’s not your typical tea flavor,” she says, diplomatically. “But it’s OK.”


The reason I bring this up is that I’m sitting in a Bratislava café, and just ordered green tea from a waitress. Len a čaj. Yet she's brought a packet of green tea stamped with a sun-kissed peach. Peach-flavored green tea?


I recoil. Like a vegetarian fed lasagna with sneaky Bolognese whose ground-beef clusters are hidden like landmines.


Peach-flavored tea is not the Chinese way. It’s not my way.


I search my tea-loyalist soul. But it's now dueling with my mounting thirst. A deep dilemma. Become a pain in the waitress' ass, send it back like a tea-snob prima donna? Or compromise my principles, but remind myself why I became a tea-snob in the first place? What would the Chinese do?


If you know any Chinese around here, please put me in touch. Immediately.