Last week I finished off the last of a tin of jasmine pearls and was reminded, after an unintentionally long period of neglect, how much I enjoy this exquisite tea.
It is not at all reminiscent of the brightly colored exuberance of Chinese opera, nor the strident red imagery of Maoist propaganda, but of the back rooms of Chinese antique stores in the United States – dust and breakage and history – the detritus of 19th century opium dens during the California Gold Rush. It brings forth images of antique medicine cabinets, the scrolled detailing on Qing Dynasty tables, piles of decaying silks in faded colors. Clearly not of jade, but of the soft absorbency of wood and textiles. And unlike oolongs and other teas prepared using the Gongfu method, for me jasmine pearls unfold in an entirely secular milieu. It is a tea of the home and of the retail shop, not of the monastery or the teahouse.
I do not expect my associations with jasmine tea to be universal, but I would not be surprised to find other people with their own unique reminiscences and connections to this tea. Its delicate and precise aroma seems particularly well suited to attaching its source to memory. I attribute my relationship to it, at least in part, to memories of the actual aromas hovering about old wooden articles from China, which do often have a lingering and very distinctive scent that hints of jasmine.
The references to San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 19th century lead me down a path of research regarding the socio-political implications of the Chinese experience in the West during the Gold Rush and in the building of the railroads. Those are much more serious matters and not to be addressed here or with a lovely cup of jasmine tea in my hand.