You may have noticed, either or in our shop or online, small, odd-looking dishes, always with lids, and sometimes on saucers. While these dishes can range from primitive and earthy to ornately decorated, they all seem to have one thing in common-- they intimidate tea novices. Something about the traditional Chinese gai wan feels foreign, like you’re going to use it incorrectly, offend someone, and probably burn yourself in the process. In this post, I’d like to ease those fears, and explain exactly how simple and not-at-all scary gai wans are.
Gaiwans can be used to both brew and drink tea. They are all composed of either two or three parts. All gai wans have a cup, into which you place the tea and hot water. Some gai wans are made of a thin, decorative porcelain or other pottery, and should therefore be sitting on a saucer, to keep them insulated away from tables and hands. All gai wans should also have a lid, which has a small handle.
To brew with a gai wan, place the cup on the saucer, if there is one, and your tea and hot water into the cup. Then, add the lid over top of it all. To pour, tilt the lid back a little. It is generally traditional to hold your gai wan by grasping the edges with your thumb and middle finger, and to hold the lid in place with your middle finger. However, if you are brewing a black tea, and therefore using hotter water, or, if you are working with a heavier gai wan, it may be easier to scoop the whole thing up with your hand, and hold the lid in place with your thumb.
It is traditional to add hot water to your leaves, and then immediately
pour that hot water out, before making your actual first steep. This washes the leaves, and opens them up, however, it is not at all necessary. Tea brewed in the gai wan can be poured out into another cup, or consumed directly from the gai wan, by using the lid to hold back the leaves. If you’re pouring into another cup, you’ll want the inside of that cup to be white, so that you can see the color of your tea. The insides of some gai wans are already white, indicating that they are meant to be used to both drink and brew your tea.
Gai wans are a traditional Chinese method of brewing tea. They tend to work best with Chinese green teas, such as Dragonwell,
and with large-leafed oolongs, such as Wuji Rock. This is because they brew at a lower temperature, which can prevent you from burning your hands, and because it is easier to hold back the large leaves with the lid than it is to hold back smaller leaves. Other green, black, and herbal teas can also be brewed in gai wans, but rooibos in particular does not do well in them, because the leaves are so small.
The other thing that may drive Americans away from gai wans is how small they are. 4 ounces is large for a gai wan, while a small American mug is 8 ounces. This is even more astonishing when one thinks about the fact that gai wans can be used like tea pots, pouring into minuscule personal cups for guests. Gai wans are about brewing tea in small batches, rather than efficiently. It is about getting a single, but optimal taste of a tea, rather than making it in bulk. This is definitely not a mug that you carry back to your desk. Rather, it represents a firm, albeit break from your everyday life. Gai wans invite you to stop doing what you’re doing, to take a break, and to fully direct your attention to enjoying a lovely cup of tea. It’s a somewhat un-American idea, but it may, perhaps, be one that we can learn from.