One of our favorite things about getting off the beaten path in China is that no matter how well you think you may understand the country, there’s always a surprise waiting to prove you wrong.
This was illustrated when we visited the small village of Nongyang, several miles outside of Menghai, in southern Yunnan. We were in search of suancha, a fermented tea that is eaten rather than drunk.
Nongyang is primarily inhabited by the Bulang ethnic group, who along with the Hani and Dai are considered one of the main stewards of some of the region’s finest tea plantations.
Often referred to as ‘pickled tea’, suancha is probably better translated as ‘sour tea’. The ever-hospitable Bulang serve suancha at weddings and celebrations. As our hosts in Nongyang noted, if you don’t have suancha, you can’t get married.
The production of suancha is surprisingly complex. First the tea is cooked for around 10 minutes, after which it is drained, then packed into a section of bamboo, which is then sealed with red clay.
The bamboo tube is buried for six months to two years, and is frequently watered while underground to aid the fermentation process.
We were lucky enough to visit our hosts on a day when they were digging up a bamboo tube of suancha that had been buried for more than a year. The flavor was a sour but clean variation on the classic green tea experience.
When eating suancha, Bulang people either eat it straight or they may mix in salt, garlic and chili and serve with rice. We ate several pinches of suancha straight from the bowl and found it to stimulate our hunger. Taking our cue from our stomachs, we headed back to Menghai for a local feast.