Monday, August 25, 2008

Crab's Feet Pu'er

Drinking tea in a Guangzhou (Canton) teashop, one is bound to be shown many novelty teas by the shopkeeper. I was a newbie at Pu'er back in 2005 (still am today). It was in November of that year during a visit to the old city when I first got introduced to Crab's Feet Pu'er at a teashop on Yue Hwa Road.

I was a soft target: a tourist, even though I wear the skin of a Chinese man. Furthermore, my command of the Mandarin language was flaky, probably the level of a native 3rd grader at best. I got by, though barely. A conversation ensued, more or less, as such:

"This crab's feet tea is popular with the Taiwanese people," the lady shopkeeper said.

"Oh, how come?" I asked.

"They find the taste appealing, and the crab's feet supposedly have good medicinal properties for the stomach," she explained.

"What is it, actually?" I inquired curiously.

"It grows on Pu'er trees as a parasite. It gives a slight suān (酸 -- sour) taste to the tea. Here, let's try it, shall we?" I didn't have "parasite" in my Mandarin vocabulary at the time, so I went "huh?"

She then broke an ample amount from the beeng and brewed the curio with a gaiwan. I still remember her rather well to this day because, in addition to being young and pretty, she was very adept and gracious with the gaiwan. Watching her hands move about and pour tea out of the gaiwan was quite hypnotic in itself.

I was a very soft target.

By the time I left the shop, I owned 2 beeng's of this Crab's Feet Pu'er, which according to my records I paid RMB 150 per (~ USD $19 at that time). Back in Los Angeles, I chucked them, along with some other pu'er I obtained during the trip, in my off-site cellar cabinet. They have been sleeping in cool darkness ever since until their retrieval yesterday.

On the tea's wrapper and the inner ticket, the characters 螃蟹脚 (pángxiè jiǎo) are written, which literally translates as "crab's feet". I am not quite sure why some refer to it as crab's "claw", because as far as I know (and that's not much, mind you), the character jiǎo () literally means foot / feet. Toki of The Mandarin's Tea blog has pictures of this parasitic vines growing on an old Dancong tea tree.

The tea is a vintage 2002 made by Spring City Tea Factory in Menghai. As you see from the pictures below, the beeng was compressed with leaves of different colors. The orange-brown things, which are more like stems than leaves, are the crab's feet.

The tea itself was ordinary tasting. It had sour plum and dried wood notes. Overall its taste was rather boring, lacking any character or depth. Its brewing durability suffered, too, when its taste began to subside significantly after a mere 5 rounds or so. Had I been offered this tea today, I would never have bought it (except if the shopkeeper was Gong Li, perhaps).

Curious about the crab's feet, I separated the orange stem-like substances from the compressed tea and was able to obtain enough for a tasting experiment. I brewed the small amount of the crab's feet in just-boiled water (98-100' C) for about 2 minutes. The liquor was almost colorless with a light tinge of orange. It almost had no taste at all. What it had, however, was a creamy mouthfeel and aftertaste...almost milky (edit: umami is the word I've been looking for to describe the taste of the crab's feet liquor). It's quite interesting by itself, actually. However, it did not taste sour at all, as the shopkeeper had claimed. I should note again that this pu'er seems to be mixed only with the stem-y part of the crab's feet, and it does not contain any of the leafy parts. Maybe it's the leaf of this parasitic vine that is sour tasting?

Conclusion: For this particular Pu'er specimen, I think it serves the purpose of satisfying my curiosity, but largely a waste of time and money.


Salsero said...

There was quite a bit of discussion and even some scientific ID of the Crab's Feet parasite in a TeaChat tasting forum. The main post is this
by Towerofdabble, but there are comments and discussion all through rather a long thread.

Thanks for the story and the review. Nice job, as always.

Geri Atric said...

Amazing... how do people come up with these ideas? I mean, do they wake up one day and shout: "I know, I'll add crab's feet to my tea today! Yummy!" (?). What on earth for...?
I admire your curiosity and the experiment in seperating the crab's feet from the mix. That orange liquid doesn't look too bad. However, even though you say it tastes 'milky', I can't see The British substituting it for their dash of cow's milk (Yuk! I am proud to say I have long since weaned myself off that habit). Now I think about it though, whoever thought of putting milk in tea in the first place? I suspect it was to neutralise the tanin... but I don't really know.
There is obviously a lot to learn about tea and this seems just the place to do it.

I love this blog!

toki said...

Perhaps you should try this again after a nice 2 inches charcoal grill 10 weeks dry aged porthouse. See if it will cure any indigestion : P

btw. What kind of Yixing pot do you use for your DHP, 150ml, 200ml or smaller?

~ Phyll said...

For DHP, I use a round Xishi pot that I think is about 125 - 150ml.

~ Phyll said...

Salsero, thanks for the link to TeaChat! That is an interesting discussion. I should mention that TeaChat thread as an addendum for this tea.

Geri, I don't know how they came up with this idea, to be honest. I've never heard of it before 2005. It's even questionable what remedy effects the crab's feet possess, if any. I'd remain skeptical and limit my consumption to the extent of my own curiosity only, until I find out more. There are questionable herbs that people would add to "enhance" the flavor of teas. Though some of these herbs won't make you sick immediately, it's the long-term ill effects that should be worried about.

By the way, I think "umami" is the better descriptor than "milky" for how I felt about the crab's feet liquor. Very light umami.

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