A gaiwan (“lidded bowl”) is a traditional piece of Chinese teaware, consisting of a saucer, bowl, and lid, which some believe represents the earth, one’s body, and heaven.
Along with the Yixing clay teapot, the gaiwan is used in what is referred to as Asian style infusion.
This method of tea preparation is popular with tea enthusiasts for 2 very important reasons.
Firstly, it results in what many consider to be a better cup of tea.
Secondly, the time and effort involved forces the tea drinker to find an oasis of calm in their busy day, which in turn makes the occasion special, and gives one a chance to relax and enjoy the experience as a whole.
Asian style infusion describes the technique of steeping relatively large amounts of tea leaf in a smaller steeping vessel for shorter periods of time, often only a few seconds. For example, a typical infusion might be 5-6 grams of Oolong tea leaf in a 150ml capacity gaiwan with an infusion time of about 10 seconds.
Asian infusion is also characterised by multiple steepings, many more so than Western style infusion using a larger teapot. For good quality tea upwards of 10 infusions is not uncommon, and for Pu-erh tea this may be as many as 20 infusions.
As flavour is extracted from the tea leaf, subsequent infusions should be a little longer in duration.
This technique has several advantages. Firstly, shorter steeping times prevent the leaf being overexposed to heat, which can damage the leaf and spoil its flavour.
This also prevents over steeping, which can result in excessively bitter tea.
Using a gaiwan also allows one to watch as the dry tea leaves unfurl and “awaken” as they absorb moisture, something that isn’t easy to do when they are hidden away inside a pot.
Part of the fun in using a gaiwan is appreciating the different tastes, colours, and aromas in each individual steeping. Some teas, for example only really hit their “sweet spot” on the second or third steeping.
Where to buy your gaiwan
A Chinese / Asian supermarket may well have gaiwans in stock. Failing that, your next port of call should be your local tea-shops. If they let you down, then Amazon.com is your friend, if you are prepared to wait a while.
A few other pieces of kit will make your tea making experience with your new gaiwan much more enjoyable, as well as result in better tea. I’d say the real essentials are a tea serving pitcher and a tea strainer.
Even though the gaiwan is typically only around 100-150ml in volume, the first tea decanted off will have a noticeably different strength of taste compared to the last few drops. For this reason a tea pitcher (also known as a fairness or justice cup) is a good idea. As tea is decanted into the pitcher from the gaiwan, the strength of taste of the finished tea will even out. A cream jug makes an excellent substitute, as long as it has adequate capacity and can withstand the hotter teas without breaking.
It is almost inevitable that the first few steepings in a gaiwan will result in some tea dust being transferred to the tea pitcher, and there is also a chance that no matter how skilled you are a few leaves will sneak through. A Chinese tea strainer is the best bet here, as it has a very fine mesh and is made to fit precisely inside most tea pitchers, but any relatively deep, fine meshed tea strainer will suffice.
Other items that will help enhance your tea making are small porcelain Chinese tea cups, as well as a wooden tea tray / table, but they can come afterwards.
The technique of making tea in a gaiwan can be summarised as follows…
1) Measure your tea leaf. Ascertain the capacity of your gaiwan, and then calculate the amount of tea leaf accordingly. An excellent starting point is this table over at the China Life web site, that gives weights of tea leaf as well as water temperatures for all types of tea, for both Asian style infusion in a gaiwan, or Western style infusion in a larger pot.
2) Bring your tea water up to the correct temperature – see above table.
3) Rinse your teaware with the hot water. This is important as it ensures that the tea water will not lose heat to the teaware, which could affect the quality of the finished tea.
4) Place the tea leaves into the gaiwan. Gently shake the gaiwan (with the lid on!) a few times, and then remove the lid so that you can fully appreciate the aroma of the dried leaf.
5) It is common if you are making black, Oolong, or Pu-erh tea to wash or rinse the leaves at least once. This removes the greater part of any dust on the leaves, as well as starting the process of “waking up” the leaf. This is done by pouring water over the leaf, waiting for approximately five seconds, and then decanting off this first infusion. See below for how to do this. Some people will rinse / wash twice, and some not at all. Similarly some will wash / rinse yellow / green / white teas, while others will not. Eventually, as with most things, it comes down to a matter of personal preference and taste.
6) Pour the tea water over the leaves, but do not completely fill the gaiwan, as this may make it harder to decant the tea without burning / scalding yourself, especially if you are making Oolong, black, or Pu-erh tea that makes use of very hot water. Aim for a circular motion in the pouring, to ensure that as much of the leaf comes into contact with the water as possible. Replace the lid and steep for the appropriate time. Note – some people steep green / yellow / white tea with the lid off, to avoid overheating the tea.
7) When the tea is ready, slide the lid of the gaiwan back slightly, to create a small aperture. You should then decant the tea into the warmed up tea pitcher through the tea strainer. There are 2 basic techniques for holding the gaiwan, what I call the pincer grip and the wrap around grip.
The pincer grip uses the index finger on the gaiwan’s lid button, and the thumb and middle finger on the rim of the gaiwan bowl. The gaiwan saucer is left on the table. The advantage here is a more stable grip, but a greater risk of burning / scalding your fingers if you overfill the gaiwan.
The wrap around grip uses the thumb on the gaiwan lid button, and the rest of the hand cupped under the saucer. The advantage here is better heat insulation, with the disadvantage of being more fiddly and less stable if your grip is either too tight or too slack.
When decanting the tea, keep the gaiwan as close to the pitcher as possible, so as to minimise the tea’s exposure to the air, which will diminish the tea’s aroma and temperature.
8) Remove the tea strainer from the pitcher, and serve the tea into the warmed tea cups, again keeping the pitcher as close to the cups as possible.
9) Between steepings, remove the lid of the gaiwan. This will allow the leaves to cool down, and so ensure that they are not damaged by overheating.
If it all sounds terribly complicated, don’t worry. Practice really does make perfect.
You can now see why the process is often referred to as Gongfu, meaning with great skill, or great care.
This, remember, is just enough to get you started with Asian style infusion with a gaiwan, the bare bones if you will.