This is a qualitatively different post from most. It’s about the veracity of folk traditions, truths that continue to deeply impress me in my practice. I thought that I’d relay a conversation that came up with me and my Uighur buddy Azigul, in Mandarin just Guli, once while eating in Xingjiang Cun, a long-since-gone row of Uighur restaurants in Beijing’s Western District.
Xinjiang is a semi-autonomous province in the far Western regions of China, and as the name suggests “New Territories” holds a fairly distinctive place in the history of China as a bridge between East and West. Uighur are the largest ethnic tribe of Xinjiang. Most all of the “nationalities” or tribes or ethnicities are what could be best described as Central Asian, an assortment of different Mongol groups who tend to be desert, steppe, and mountain people who eat lots and lots of heavy meats, especially lamb. These are the people of the proverbial Silk Road, they formed the armies of the Manchus and the Mongols, most of them, with the exception of the Mongols themselves, converted to Buddhism and from Buddhism to Islam, people at the crossroads China, India, Persia and Russia.
Anyway, on this one occasion in Xinjiang Cun, we happened upon the topic of tea. In Beijing, the tea of choice is hands down “hua cha”, i.e. jasmine tea. All of the restaurants serve it. The grades, that is quality, can vary greatly but jasmine is the tea of Beijing. Chinese visitors to the capital city are apt to maintain their preference for their local tea. All of these teas are green and consumed, usually, quite casually, without ceremony, that is. I never encountered, let alone drank any of the oolong “red” tea most typically served up with teabags on a string in Chinese restaurants here in the States. This is because that particular tea isn’t actually oolong (Wu-long) but Keemun. It hasn’t a very long history and is drunk primarily by foreigners. There are many very fancy tea shops in Beijing, many more not so fancy, the grades and expense can boggle the mind, but all of this to do is over green tea and wulong, most certainly not black teas.
The Uighur, in some ways not dissimilar from Chinese from other regions, favor their local tea as well, the only thing is that it is neither local nor green but from the Southwestern part of the empire and black. The Uighur drink something called brick tea. It tastes like tobacco and resembles hefty plugs of Redman itself. Guli explained that for a very long time, relations with people on the periphery of empire, Muslims and Tibetans, were regulated through the trade of tea. These places didn’t grow their own, but tea was so basic to life that even today, black tea from China is money in Tibet. From afar, it seems perhaps like a case of misplaced priorities. Guli told me that it was understood among the meat tribes, all of the western steppe “barbarian” types, that brick tea was essential to digestion of the animal fats core to their diet. It didn’t make the tea taste any better, but I washed down cumin-roasted lamb kabobs with onion and sesame naan, hot from the tandori, perhaps with more earnest slurps.
Later on, I raised to a Western friend the prospects of brick tea actually imputing health benefits based upon what Guli told me. His perspective was satisfactorily “anthropological,” that is he was not apt to believe that knowledge of brick tea could actually be correct, but at the same time he would not be so coarse as to say so, preferring to think that “if they so believe, so it is.” This is the quaint necessity of the politically correct Westerner, who vests “knowledge” in Western institutions and Western experts, but is still bent on believing that non-Western knowledge, either by conviction or arrogance, is in the “native’s head.” Of course, the facts totally belie this, otherwise, there would be no disciplines such as ethnopharmacology and pharmacognosy, fields dedicated to the extraction of indigenous knowledge for pharmaceutical, proprietary, and market-driven purposes.
Safely removed from anthropology now, as one dedicated to making a difference in people’s health through natural means, I revisited my conversation with Guli to help my patients with a natural means of balancing the effects of cholesterol. It looks like modern research is proving that the understanding about the effects of brick tea for breaking down bad fats is more than just a subjective fancy. Here is just one study supporting what the barbarians have known all along.
CCCA provides a decent selection of pu’er teas for sampling before you purchase, just call: 323.936.5152.