March 22, 2021
by Diana Rosen
No matter which teas or tea-brewing utensils you love, or how little storage space you have, there’s always room for one more tea accessory: The Scenting Cup. Relatively new in the history of tea accessories, the scenting cup was developed as part of a country-wide program to enhance tea-drinking in Taiwan* during the 1970s.
SCENTING CUPS ADD SENSORY PLEASURE
The scenting cup, wen xiang bet in Chinese, is cylindrical and generally about 2.5 to 3 inches high. Often made of Yixing clay, they’re also made of fine porcelain in pale colors or with charming patterns with matching tasting cups.
The choice of tea is oolong which grows abundantly on Taiwan and is well known for its distinctively floral fragrance and taste redolent of orchids. The leaves are quite large and brewed in a small Yixing teapot (about 3 inches in diameter) that holds 3 to 6 ounces of liquid. This means that the ratio of leaves to the amount of water is quite high and the delicious result is tea with both an intense flavor and fragrance.
The technique for this brewing begins with “waking up” the leaves by pouring hot water onto the leaves in the little teapot, then discarding the water to eliminate any dust or fannings surrounding the leaves and prepare (or waken) the large leaves to be fully infused.
HOW TO USE A SCENTING CUP
Your host will warm up the fragrance cups, and the accompanying tasting cups, by pouring in hot water then discarding the water. This prepares them to receive the hot tea. After brewing, the tea is poured into the cylindrical cup about ½ to ¾ full.
The tea drinker can do one of several things: Savor the fragrance, then pour it into her tasting cup to enjoy the taste. Or, she can place an empty tasting cup upside down over the fragrance cup for a minute or so. This concentrates both fragrance and taste in the scenting cup and, at the same time, scents the tasting cup. Slowly, the two are upended and the tea is poured into the cup. Caution! Measure the quantity the scenting cup can hold and adjust accordingly. Otherwise, overfilling the fragrance cup and upending it will mean spilling it on hands or table!
A third way to enjoy these accoutrements is for the hostess to fill one scenting cup to be passed around the table so that everyone can enjoy the fragrance and make comments. Then, the hostess can either fill the scenting cups directly so each guest has her own or fill the tasting cups directly.
As each subsequent brewing is served, usually two or three, the fragrance and the taste of the tea will change slightly, yet the oolong essence is always there and guests are invited to comment again on the changes they experience. It is part of the experience to contribute your responses to the flavor and scent of the tea. It not only helps educate your palate, it also helps you determine if you’d choose this particular oolong for at-home tea drinking.
This focus on the marriage of aroma and flavor has a scientific explanation. According to the Journal of American Medicine Association (JAMA,) we experience the perception of odors both from the mouth while eating and drinking (retronasal olfaction) and from the perception of odors during sniffing (orthonasal olfaction.. Thus, our sense of taste is accented by the perfume of tea prior to drinking it.
You certainly don’t need to be a medical scientist to understand that tea drinking involves all our senses. Aroma and taste are paramount, of course, holding beautifully-made cups or brewing vessels is a tactile pleasure; the sound of the boiling water elevates our anticipation; the sight of both the tea’s preparation and the color of the brewed liquor enhances the excitement, and our tea-drinking companions add to the pleasures of tea whether we are in Taipei or Toledo.
CHAYI: Tea as Art
The conviviality of sharing is, as always, part of the pleasures of tea drinking. The Chinese word, chayi or art of tea, refers to the tea leaves themselves which traditionalists believe require art, and craft, from careful plucking to processing, and finally to skillful yet gracious brewing. Chayi has evolved into a dedicated pursuit -- of art -- that can be emphasized and enhanced in an appropriate environment. The ideal tea-serving area has a view of the outdoors to enjoy the changing of the seasons or can be a window-less room graciously appointed so that seating, serving, and drinking are all as relaxed and as comfortable as possible. In this way, one can participate in the Buddhist principle of “forgetting oneself” to focus on the multiple sensory delights of the tea.
NOTE: While oolongs are most typical in the brewing of tea with fragrance cups, puerhs are an excellent alternative.
*This island country has had many names over the including Formosa, the name Portuguese traders gave it; ROC (Republic of China;) Taiwan, and Chinese Taipei. For this article, we opted for Taiwan.