Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it helped me discover a very unusual tea on our recent family holiday trip to Sanya.

You may know that in China in many local restaurants you are offered 茶水 (cháshuǐ), a boiled water with a pinch of tea leaves to add interest. Usually it is a complementary drink, so do not expect anything too exquisite. In Beijing, it is often some low grade green tea or jasmine tea that is used for tea water. So when we were served tea water in a local Hainan restaurant in Sanya, I was intrigued to discover a pleasant liquor that had a rounded sweet taste and a nice aroma of herbs, dried fruits and licorice, with a touch of "herbal medicine". The reflex was to take the lid off the pot and see what was inside.

What I discovered was a ball of big whole leaves carefully bundled together with a straw like a small parcel. A quick interrogation of the waitress to learn that it was 鹧鸪茶 (zhègūchá), a partridge tea, the local Hainanese specialty. The girl spent at least five minutes to give me a passionate lecture on various benefits of drinking the partridge tea, and when I asked for a sample, graciously offered one.

During these holidays we did not adventure much outside of the our nice hotel. But in any Chinese city you can be almost sure to have a tea shop within a walking distance from any given spot. So I found one and of course had not left empty-handed. Zhegu Cha is sold not by liang (两, liǎng, a Chinese unit of measure, equal to 50 g), but by strings. On each string, there are about 15-20 Zhegu Cha "beads", and one "necklace" costs 2-5 RMB. Not bad for a remedy that is supposed to cure all the illnesses.

Zhegu Tea or Zhegu Cha in Sanya, Hainan
The tea is made of the leaves of 鹧鸪茶树, zhegu cha tree, grown mainly on the slopes of the Dongshan mountain range. Apparently this species is not very demanding in terms of soil, humidity and sunlight. Below is the picture of the tree I’ve managed to found on the Internet. I have some doubts that it is a variety of camelia sinensis:
The main harvesting period is during the fourth lunar month, before the Dragon Boat Festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Unlike most of the Chinese teas, when picking leaves for zhegu cha, one looks for mature leaves of about 5-15 cm. The leaves undergo very little processing: they are sun-dried which is followed by steaming green and shaping. As a result, the tea preserves its vegetal aromas, and has a very pleasant naturally sweet taste and nice mouthfeel. The dried leaves are very fragrant, so I recommend to store them in an airtight container.

The tea has a slight smell of a herbal remedy, and, according to the locals, can also be used as one. The legend says, this tea became popular due to its healing properties. The slopes of Dongshan mountains were once home to many partridges. A birdcatcher once discovered a wounded baby partridge that could not fly and was about to die. Judging that there was no hope for the bird, he left. When our Chinese Papageno returns to the same place several days later, he is surprised to see that the baby bird has miraculously recovered. He also notices some fresh leaves nearby. Hidden in the bushes, he observes the baby bird’s mother feeding the wounded bird the same leaves. The son of the birdcatcher happens to be seriously ill, and the man decides to give those magical leaves a try. And several days later his son recovers as well! The good news quickly spreads through the village and the leaves which are now called partridge tea, become very popular.

The legend did not precise which illness the zhegu cha had cured. Still, the Hainanese people affirm that zhegu cha can dispel heat and prevent catching cold, detoxify the body, strengthen spleen and stomach. The old generations compared it to reishi mushroom (灵芝, língzhī), a magic mushroom believed to cure all the illnesses. Zhegu cha can also help digestion and metabolism. It is an ideal drink for a hot summer day or after a heavy meal.

Recommended preparation method: Keep it simple. Use a teapot or individual cups. Use water at the next to boiling point temperature (95°C). Do as many infusions as you like, as far as the flavour persists.

Recommended food pairing: zongzi (dumpling made from glutinous rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves; eaten for the Dragon Boat Festival), either savory or sweet; meat baozi (steamed buns), Xinjiang mutton pilaf.

Related article in WOX Sanya
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