|Noodles and tea eggs.|
Authentic Chinese tea in downtown Helsinki.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Aikatalo on Mikonkatu is the quiet and unpretentious Natural Flavor Tea House. The ever smiling and serene Mr. Wong bids myself and 6D photographer Kai welcome to Helsinki’s first and only Chinese tea house and invites us to take our places at a low table carved out of wood. “Would you like to try some special Red Tea – China Golden Monkey?” It seems like a rhetorical question. Of course! As we watch Mr. Wong set out the tiny teapot and almost thimble sized tea cups he tells us his story.
“The idea behind drinking tea in China, or the ceremony of tea drinking is called cha dow – and Chinese tea culture is all about drinking tea with friends while relaxing,” he explains as he pours an exact amount of hot water into the pot, adds the reddish tea leaves and after closing the pot and swirling it around, he pours out the tea into the three cups. But instead of offering it to us, he then pours the tea out over a metal frog set at the end of the table!
Mr. Wong smiles and explains, “The first step of the ceremony is the rinsing. It is done to awaken the flavour of the leaves and to help develop the tea’s aroma.” The metal frog, with a coin in its mouth is merely a Chinese symbol for good luck and prosperity. He then brews another pot of tea just as fluidly, and, presenting the cups to us, invites us to taste. The tea is soft to the palate and almost sweetish, and as the name suggests, has a reddish hue.
“This tea is particularly suited for drinking in the wintertime, as it is warming,” Mr. Wong explains. The Chinese believe that foods have qualities of either being warming or cooling and certain types of teas are believed to have warming properties – and are best drunk during winter to keep one in optimal health. As we sip on our tea, appreciating its lovely scent and mild fruitiness, Mr. Wong explains how Natural Flavor Tea House came to be. “My passion has always been tea – the Chinese tea culture and cha dow has not been introduced to Helsinki, which is how I got the idea to open this place two years ago.” Besides tea, there are also a range of Chinese dim sums, dumplings, won tons, noodles in broth, tea eggs and Chinese savory buns and sweets to choose from.
|Mr. Wong prepares the tea.|
Some tastes with tea
As we enjoy the serene atmosphere of the tea house with its traditional wooden carved shelves with tea pots in porcelain and glass the food starts to arrive. First are some beautiful shrimp har gow, wrapped in its translucent wrappers. Small enough to be eaten in one bite, these little beauties go down a treat dunked in a touch of soy sauce provided. The shrimp filling is juicy and tasty and the wrapper has just enough bite. The mixed four dumplings are also beautifully presented in a bamboo steamer lined with paper, and contains an assortment of four dumplings. Another bamboo steamer revealed a presentation of jiao je-style dumplings crimped beautifully, and yet another a set of kimchee, or Korean pickled cabbage dumplings. The rose vegetable dumplings though, neatly crimped in a “nurses cap” style was a clear winner, with its cabbage, corn, peas, water chestnut and carrot fillings.
Mr. Wong humbly smiles and accepts our praise at the delicious dumplings, and says “The dim sum is really only secondary to the teas. Those are my passion, the core of the business you could say – but I’m glad you enjoy the food!” He then presents us with a bowl of Shaan Xi style soup with pork dumplings and Chinese cabbage, a speciality he says, from his hometown. The broth is very tasty and redolent of ginger and black vinegar, lovely on this cold winter’s day and generously studded with dumplings and cabbage. We enjoy the soup as the next bowls of noodles and tea eggs start to arrive.
Light but hearty
The gluten free rice noodle soup with tea eggs and Chinese pak choy is fresh and slippery and the tea eggs are lovely, full of smoky flavor and delicate to the tooth. The other bowl of spinach “pasta” noodles are hearty and delicious, with fresh bean sprouts and greens and tea eggs as well. We heartily enjoy it all, sadly leaving Mr. Wong’s highly recommended ice tea to another time, as he had only began to brew it. The display cases start to fill up with tempting fluffy white Chinese buns called bao with roasted pork filling or chicken, and all manners of little snacks traditionally eaten with Chinese teas but we have to call it a day – being stuffed to the gills. While the food is light and refreshing in flavour as well as with lots of vegetables, it is surprisingly hearty.
Mr. Wong promises that in the summer there will be a variety of blooming teas in stock. Called so because the tea leaves and flowers are packed into a ball and unfurl in the hot water, they provide tea lovers with a sight and taste sensation. Meanwhiles, there are many tea treasures that line the walls in single sachet packets to ensure freshness to small pouches for several servings. Ranging from Jasmine teas to white teas, there are also tempting sounding cherry senchas and red teas.
Natural Tea House was a real treat, for all the senses.
Text Tania Nathan, Photos Kai Kuusisto.