Our top tip, if you have a five hour wait for a plane at Changi Airport, is to nip into town and get yourselves to the Tea Chapter, a beautiful Chinese tea room, where they’ll ply you with speciality teas, show you how to prepare them, and even rustle up a little snack of dumplings to go along with your cuppa.
And they’ll no doubt show you the grainy photos of The Queen’s visit to the tea room just days after it opened in 1989.
Sometimes, places you find via internet searches can disappoint when you actually get to them – a good website designer or social media presence does not guarantee a decent cuppa or friendly atmosphere. But we knew as soon as we saw the Tea Chapter from the outside, that this would be a special place.
Downstairs is the retail outlet, with tea for sale from an enormous range of canisters, some in those puer cakes worth over £1000 each, and all sorts of tea paraphernalia, including a gigantic tea pot that towered over me in the middle of the shop (and I’m well over 6’).
But if you want to try the teas, they send you upstairs to the tea room itself, and your first choice is where to sit: there are the Queen’s seats (which cost most by the way), with what we’d see as a normal height table and old wooden-backed chairs; there are the Korean tables, low down to ground but in a kind of shallow pit, meaning you can sit fairly comfortably as a tall westerner; and then the Japanese tables on the top floor, but I just didn’t fancy the contortions I’d have needed to sit there and enjoy my tea in comfort.
So, Korean it was.
And then the tea menus. Now, I didn’t note down all the types and sub-types on offer, but there were lots: from green teas to whites from Oolongs to Puers and of course the ‘normal’ black Chinese Jasmine tea, which was the cheapest on the menu.
We don’t normally discuss price on this blog, but you need to be aware if you’re going here that the Tea Chapter is not the kind of place to pop into for a two quid take away cuppa. The minimum charge for tea is S$8 (about £4) per person, and for that you’d just get a pot of basic jasmine. Some of the top teas here have a price tag nearer £12 a pot, but we went for two mid-range teas, the basic puer and a pot of chrysanthemum tea from the ‘floral range’.
And in fact, given the ceremony they take you through, and the number of refills you get per pot, you probably don’t need more than one type of tea between the two of you. But we were glad to try them both and to hear what our host had to say about them.
Our waiter – or host – Stelly actually recommended having the puer after our food, but since the chrysanthemum needed 15 minutes to brew, he did show us the puer preparation first and had us taste it before our dumplings arrived.
From my brief visit to China 25 years ago, I do know there are countless small gestures you must or mustn’t do at the dinner table there, and so it is too with tea tasting. I’m sure we’ll learn more of these when we return to the country later this year, but for this particular visit, the most significant one seemed to be to avoid turning the bottom of your sniffing cup towards your fellow tea drinker when pouring the tea into the tasting cup.
Huh? I can hear readers unversed in such things say; sniffing cup? Not show the base to others? But just bear in mind that dinner table etiquette can vary tremendously from culture to culture, and the Chinese probably think we’re terribly rude for discreetly placing some inedible piece of gristle or root into our hands from our mouth rather than spitting it onto the floor of the restaurant.
There’s a certain enchantment in immersing yourself into another culture like this. The setting helped at the Tea Chapter, with its Chinese decorations and Chinese music playing gently in the background, and there’s something entrancing about watching someone at work making what to us is a banal activity (pouring a cup of tea) into a ritual.
I rather liked the process of pouring the puer first into a taller, sniffing cup (probably not called that actually, but that’s what you had to do, to get a feel for what you were about to drink), before then taking that cup (NOT showing its base to your fellow drinkers) and pouring the tea into the little cup from which you’d finally have a sip.
Quantity wise, none of this is the builders’ brew mug size we’d know in the UK; it really is just a sip. But each sip is different, and each time you refresh the pot (adding 5 seconds brewing time for each new potful), there’s a subtle change of taste.
We were probably supposed to spend at least half an hour just on our puer pot, but with all this going on, our chrysanthemum tea had also brewed enough after 15 minutes, so we turned to that instead.
There’s less of a ceremony to this one, though it was beautifully presented with a flower on top of the tea pot lid. And Stelly was right that it went down extremely well as an accompaniment to our meat dumplings, which had also arrived by now.
The 45 minutes we spent at the Tea Chapter was clearly much shorter than most customers spend there, and the other groups on our floor showed no signs of leaving as we made our way out – even though they were all well into their tea by the time we had arrived.
So, this is the kind of place you really can spend a few hours in, but it is also possible to ‘rush’ through like us in between flights, and I’m sure Her Majesty didn’t linger here for much longer on whatever Royal Visit that was in 1989!
On the practical side, this place is just a few minutes’ walk from Outram Park on the MTR. If you are indeed visiting on a brief stopover, you’ll need at least three hours, with one hour either way from the Airport to the nearest MTR, those few minutes to walk there and back, and 45 minutes – like us – for your tea. Mind you, they will think you’re rushing things like modern-day ‘city folk’ who’d rather grab a quick cuppa at McDonald’s, according to Stelly.