I had the best milk tea of my life last week, and it didn't have any milk.
It was a Hakka Chinese specialty that grinds tea, nuts, and seeds together into a nutty and aromatic paste, which is then combined with freshly brewed tea for a drink that's just as creamy as anything made with dairy. Imagine standing at the intersection of a peanut butter factory, an oven roasting pumpkin seeds, and a Middle Eastern tahini grinder, all while drinking a cup of hot tea. This is better.
You don't see pestle tea too often. To start, the best ones are ground by hand in a mortar, and turning a handful of nuts and seeds into a smooth paste takes a good twenty minutes of studious grinding—by hand.
But the result is well worth it: the kind of drink that nourishes you like the best breakfast, and a ritualistic experience that, if I had an extra half hour every day, would become a required part of my morning routine.
The drink was developed as an easy way for hardworking laborers to get a nutritional boost in their morning cup of tea, even if they didn't have time or means to eat a proper breakfast. Chances are you don't have a job as physically demanding as a Hakka worker, but given the icy weather of late, the notion of a warm, stomach-settling drink to sate your hunger has obvious appeal.
Through January 28th, you can get a taste of this unique tea at Fang Gourmet in Flushing, Queens, the best source for Taiwanese and Chinese tea in New York City. (The shop is currently hosting its annual tea expo in the basement of the Sheraton hotel nearby.)
It's made the old fashioned way, with a special ceramic mortar and a guava wood pestle, by hand, by you. A serving costs $10 and takes a good twenty minutes to do right, but as I've written before, the tea samples at this high end shop are amazingly cheap considering their quality.
There's no set recipe for pestle tea, either for the nut/seed components or the tea itself. At Fang Gourmet, the paste is made with sesame and pumpkin seeds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts, and tea leaves. It's crushed until the paste turns oily and relatively free of grit—a fine grind better emulsifies the oils into the tea—then gets an addition of pre-ground powdered pestle tea mix. A green or light oolong tea, brewed by one of the tea masters, is stirred in, and the drink is poured into cups.
Take it slow and appreciate the layers in this drink. You'll taste each component of the paste in turns, fortified by a gentle tea base that adds sweet grassy flavors to all the rich nutty ones.
You can make pestle tea for yourself at home using whatever nuts, seeds, and teas you like—I'm looking forward to trying a pistachio-enriched Assam. A stone or ceramic mortar and pestle remain the best tools to do so. A blender or food processor will work in a pinch, but the high-speed machines burn off some of the nuts' aromatic oils. You can also do what some Hakka Chinese do, and use a pre-ground mix straight with got tea.
But the real thing is really worth it, a fine beverage from the past that deserves some modern appreciation.
See how the tea gets made in the slideshow above. Or visit Fang Gourmet for a taste of it during their tea expo this month in the basement of the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel, down the block on Roosevelt.