Scent - Black tea brewing and other infusions

Scent - Black tea brewing and other infusions

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

I remember many afternoons sitting in the shaded verandah of a hotel in Kota Kinabalu that my parents liked to take us to (there were many such verandahs in that part of the world, such is the legacy of colonial architecture and the practicality of tropical living). For me, those outings always felt like very grand experiences because we would drink tea. Not only were we away from home and the normal routines of the domestic afternoon, but we were partaking in what I considered to be a very civilised adult custom.

Can the smell of something be thirst-quenching? I remember trying to work this out a long time ago, but without adequate powers of language and logic to draw any feasible conclusion. When I think about it now, perhaps smells can hint at fulfilling promises with such certainty that I wanted to believe them.

Was the scent of that tea brewing in the pot before us thirst-quenching? Imagine the heat of the late afternoon, the hot stillness barely relieved by any breeze. The pink and yellow flowers of the frangipani trees close to the verandah were sharp and intense but emphasised the heat rather than providing any relief. That particular black tea may have been in a bag, just a simple commercial blend, but it held all the potential in the world to make me feel less thirsty and so was the most tantalising smell. My recollection of that scent and the physical sensation it elicits, sets the benchmark for how I consider tea now.

And can a smell shake us from the torpor of ill health? For an age, while we were living in Sandakan, I nursed a bad cough. It came on suddenly and chose not to leave me. My parents tried everything, from the supposed restorative properties of snake soup, to more conventional herbal remedies from the Chinese doctors, boiled up into strong-tasting broths. (For some reason, I have no recall of the Western medicines used.) The strong odours that I associate with these inflicted remedies created an apprehension of illness rather than appetite. So, now, when I’m offered bak kut teh, or other soup that contains any measure of Chinese herbs, part of me is slightly repelled by the aromatic reminder of a time when I was ill.

One day in our garden a friend of my mother’s pointed out that one of the decorative plants we’d always ignored had some medicinal properties, including improving coughs. (She had obviously noticed my persistent, and most likely quite annoying, cough.) By now my mother was no longer conservative in choosing her treatments for me; an extra herbal concoction was probably just another way of covering the myriad bases. I protested greatly when I was offered the infusion that stank of crushed ants and citrus peel. While I can’t tell you now how bitter or how unpleasant the drink might have been, I know that my cough disappeared shortly afterwards.

My mother and I have long wondered over the identity of this possibly cough-dispelling plant. We think now it was eau de cologne mint, but can’t be sure, so its mystery lives on in our minds. That scent lingers with me, reminding me of the past experience of suddenly getting better.

Recipes in this Chapter

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