First I should say, do you know what a Gaiwan (蓋碗) is? Literally, it means “lidded bowl”, so there’s not a lot of confusion. Sometimes it’s also called a “Gaibei” (lidded cup) or “zhong” (Cantonese, if I’m not mistaken). They are made in different sizes and materials, but generally are between 100-200ml and made from white porcelain consisting of a saucer, a bowl and a lid. The porcelain means that heat will dissipate quickly, making it ideal for teas that are best infused with cooler water, such as greens.
In ancient China, tea was sipped directly from the bowl while the lid was used as a strainer. While it’s possible to find teahouses that still serve this way (I’ve seen it still done in Sichuan), most use of the gaiwan now is as a sort of teapot, allowing the leaves to infuse before straining into a cup (or pitcher) with the lid.
As I’ve often told people learning to use a gaiwan for the first time, straining the tea is similar to straining pasta or vegetables from a saucepan by tipping the lid slightly to allow water to leave and retaining what’s inside. And just like with a saucepan, the water inside is quite hot, so you need to take certain precautions.
To that end there are several ways to pour a gaiwan. Probably the easiest is the two-handed method: one hand holds the cup by its rim and pours while the other hand holds the lid by its top nub at a slight angle to keep the leaves in. I want to emphasize holding the cup by the rim and the lid by the nub to protect your hands from the heat.
A more common technique is to hold the gaiwan edges with one hand, using the thumb and middle finger on the rim and the index finger or knuckle on the lid.
The third method that I use is more advanced in that you are much more at risk of dropping things. I find it most useful when infusing tea gongfu style in a gaiwan, meaning that the water is very hot and isn’t given time to cool before straining. In the other methods, sometimes even the rim is too hot to touch, so it’s possible to hold the entire gaiwan by gripping its saucer and lid between the thumb and the middle finger. Since the lid must still be tipped, this requires just enough pressure to avoid dropping anything, but not so much that the lid will go shooting away from the cup! In this method it’s also best to make sure the palm of your hand is on the side of the gaiwan while pouring, or else the steam escaping from the back of the lid can be very unpleasant.
While all this may seem like much more work than simply using a teapot, a gaiwan has two significant advantages that no teapot can claim. Firstly, the opening of the bowl is so large that it’s easy to see the leaves and the color of the liquor as they infuse. Especially when first infusing a new tea, this gives you a good way to judge the time of the infusion. Because of this, I would never suggest purchasing a gaiwan without a white interior. Secondly, a gaiwan can pour out its contents within a few seconds, much faster than any teapot, meaning that when you have decided that the infusion time is up, your tea will be poured and ready without any additional steeping that might occur during a long pour.
I highly recommend the humble gaiwan as a tool for beautifully making a cup of tea, especially for those new to judging infusion time. The methods listed above are just suggestions based on my own experience, so feel free to find your own way to pour.
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I’ve been served tea like this in northern China as well, and it was a bit surprising at first. Now using gaiwan just seems easier than fussing with a strainer or fancy tea pot when I’m working with loose leaf tea!
Nice instructional post :) I’ve never used the saucer technique before, but I might with my smaller Gaiwans to prevent burning!
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