“The inside has to be white,” said my beloved grandmother, when choosing a cup to serve me sencha — everyday green tea. Most of my fondest childhood memories involve my grandmother, whom I grew up with and loved dearly. Although she is no longer with us, I continue wanting to become like her.
The other day, I suddenly remembered how she used to routinely soak all the teacups in bleach to remove tea stains. In my youth, I used to wonder why she bothered. I had never really thought her effort had any meaning, other than expressing her habitually clean, hardworking nature. I don’t know how this vivid image of tea cups soaking in my grandmother’s sink arose. Maybe I was looking for a way to improve my surroundings, making them more conducive to creativity, especially now that I am spending all my time at home, spreading clutter everywhere. It’s interesting how our minds work.
Anyhow, that flashback started me thinking about tea, my grandmother, and her virtuous habits. The reasons why she was so particular about the whiteness of the inside of a teacup are deeper and more complex than I first imagined.
Sencha, if brewed correctly, is light in colour, transparent yellow or yellow green. It must be gently steeped. Thus it is distinct from thick, frothy, bright green matcha, which is made by whipping finely ground tea powder. Delicate, young tea like sencha is judged by its colour, to determine its level of “freshness”. I believe that my grandmother, who prepared and consumed so much green tea in her life, could discern ten distinct shades of green and sense the taste corresponding to each shade, even before tasting.
Grandmother used to drink at least 10~15 small cups a day on average and serve tea in-between and during meals for her large family. You can imagine how frequently she changed tea leaves in her small, reddish-brown teapot. I am not a tea connoisseur, but I know my favorite colour for sencha, which comes in the 1st and 2nd round servings. By the 3rd round, tea loses its green-ish colour, soothing aromas, and sweet flavors. By the 4th round, it’s no longer my cup of tea, although others might like it.
Color is often the first element noticed. Humans begin to associate specific colors with various foods soon after birth. According to the trichromatic theory of color vision, there are three different types of receptors in the retina that mediate perception of color, described as trichromats (tri = 3, chroma = color). Researchers suggest that humans are capable of distinguishing between as many as a million different colors. So it is not so wild to think that my grandmother could easily see 10 shades of green tea.
Color effects on taste and flavor identification have long been studied by cognitive neuroscientists, including not just the influence of hue (e.g., red, green, yellow) but also intensity/saturation and turbidity/opacity. As I mentioned earlier, sencha is versatile and transient when it comes to appearance and taste/flavor, depending on many factors, as if it were alive, from murky dark brown, to green, to cloudy, pale yellow.
Because we look into the cup before drinking, however, our eyes send signals to our brain well before our taste buds engage. This can influence how we perceive the taste and flavour. No wonder grandmother never served green tea in a stained cup or a cup whose interior was any colour other than white. For her, the pure white of the inside of a tea cup was essential for sensing the whole life course of green tea. Imagine how our taste buds might get confused if green tea were served in a red teacup.
But I wonder what these visual cues meant to my grandmother, beyond matching her ‘expectations’ of taste. At the first sip, every time, she would declare [ああ、お茶が美味しい！], (“Aww, so good, this tea!”), expressing her deep appreciation with her beautiful voice and smile, as if she had never tasted such good tea before. She was really expressing gratitude for being alive, for being able to wake up every morning, spend a simple day, and enjoy an ordinary cup of sencha. For her, the stain free teacup was like a clear window, open to the real colours of nature!
I am fortunate that I was exposed to this true spirit of tea. In my culture, there are many proverbs and superstitions about tea. We say, it is good luck if a tea stalk floats upright or stands up in the tea. I fondly remember how my grandmother and I cherished tea together by gazing into our cups to find stalks, then exclaiming when we found a “blessing”. How mesmerizing and heavenly it was to watch a tiny brown tea stalk miraculously balancing upright in a freshly brewed cup! It was truly a blessing to have that emotionally resonant, slow time, fully present with something so simple — the sublime in the ordinary.
Sadly, today’s society pursues convenience at the expense of culture and environment. Instead of tea leaves, Japanese companies are now making green tea powder (not matcha) to meet the demand. Tea pots and cups are quickly disappearing from our lives, along with floating tea stalks. In fact, household spending on bottled green tea has surpassed home-brewed green tea since 2007 in Japan, accounting for around 60% of spending today and contributing to plastic dependency.
The other day I was making tea, mixing hot water and green powder in a coffee mug, and a surge of self-awareness came over me. What has happened to me, to my old sensibilities? We say, “Life’s like a cup of tea. It’s all in how you make it.” How true. I now understand the meaning of my grandmother’s ritual devotion. I will not lose this.