Serious Eats: Drinks

Where We Steep: Yun Xiang Tea Shop, Queens

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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

The cheek-to-jowl streets of Flushing, Queens may not seem like the place to find a serene idyll, but slipping into a cup of tea—especially with the right guide—can be just that.

Stumble into the two-month-old Yun Xiang Tea Shop in the New World Mall, and—if you can divert yourself from the browsing the gorgeous goldfish-painted gaiwans and other teaware—sit down for a taste of some of their superior oolong teas.

Herself raised in the Anxi region of China where Tieguanyin (or "Iron Goddess of Mercy") oolong tea originates, storekeeper Sue is excited to guide visitors through the process of gong-fu oolong preparation, offering as much depth in her knowledge as exists in the flavors of the tea itself.

Her lesson is equal parts confident lore—that you should drink lightly oxidized oolongs in summer, and that it is good for hair, skin and "slimming"—and practical application. For the Tieguanyin she's preparing, a lightly oxidized and high grade, she's using water just off the boil—around 205°F. But before we start infusions, there is a ten second rinse to "warm and clean" the tea. Cups are also washed with hot water and are soon ready to receive.

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Sue then begins a series of infusions and tastings, each one marked by taking in the aroma fully—both before and after emptying your teacup—and noting the soft, buttery, almost milklike notes that she says are the hallmarks of a quality Tieguanyin. The gong-fu process focuses on awakening the tea through a series of short, then shorter, then longer infusions, so Sue steeps the first cup at 10 seconds, the second and third at 5 seconds each, and extends the fourth and fifth to 20 seconds each, removing the lid for the tea to breathe after each infusion, which theoretically prevents "sourness".

At the second infusion you're instructed to wash the tea around your mouth with your tongue, tasting the full and savory characteristics she calls "tea soup". It's not too romantic a description—but it's accurate. Having a guide not only through preparation and tasting, but through the full experience, is of course a completely bigger journey than simply heating leaves in water. By being directed to take in the whole —focusing on the natural fragrance left in the empty cup, the mouthfeel of the tea itself, and the abstract concept of water flowing in nature—tasting becomes the broader, synaesthetic experience that a truly good tea can provide.

Yun Xiang Tea Shop

136-20 Roosevelt Avenue #245, Flushing, NY 11354 (map)
718-353-8768.

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