If you’ve ever attended a tea tasting, visited a tea bar, browsed the wares in a tea shop, or even awkwardly dropped in on a friend who was right in the middle of performing a gongfu tea ceremony, surely you’ve noticed this vital piece of teaware on display, a piece so central to the whole process that it looks indispensable.
Upon seeing this, you might find yourself wondering, “Why are they using that? Should I be using it? That looks mighty unwieldy and clumsy. What in the world is it anyway?”
That elegant instrument is known as the gaiwan (蓋碗), a term that literally translates into “lidded cup” or “lidded bowl.” It is the gaiwan that equips the tea enthusiast with one of the most popular ways in the world of brewing tea. Indeed, it’s a cherished piece of teaware that transcends its appealing aesthetic by proving to be far more functional than the teapot as well.
Thought to have been invented during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), the gaiwan may be slightly younger than the teapot but is a natural artistic extension of the tea bowl, a piece of teaware first mentioned in text by the great tea scholar and sage Lu Yu in his widely beloved work, Classic of Tea (or Ch’a Ching), composed in the 8th century.
If you have any familiarity with how to use a tea bowl “grandpa style,” you may already know that it requires spending your leaves. This means that you let your tea leaves remain infused in the water while you drink your tea directly from the bowl. This makes for a casual, nice way to enjoy your tea. Furthermore, in addition to the homeliness of the method, another upside is that you get to admire the beauty of the tea leaves as they blossom in your bowl while you sip from it. The drawback, however, is that this method also tends to tap out the flavor much more quickly, making it impractical for multiple infusions.
At the other end of the traditional teaware spectrum is the universally recognizable teapot. Consisting of a vessel with a lid and a handle, the teapot enables tea drinkers to pour off their infusion, preserving the tea leaves for later infusions. There is little question that this affords a convenient way to drink tea. The handle minimizes the chances of burning one’s fingers, and the spout makes for an exceptionally clean way to pour the tea.
When you factor in the historical prevalence of the teapot in the west, it also carries a lot of sentiment for people. The downsides are few and come down to matters of preference: (1) do you enjoy seeing your tea leaves (of course, there are glass teapots that can accommodate this)? (2) do you enjoy smelling your tea as it is infusing? (3) do you feel safe traveling with your teapot (be sure to watch the delicate spout)? (4) do you mind cleaning your teapot?
Regardless of how you feel about these questions, the gaiwan offers the ultimate response to each, able to easily rise to just about any challenge and satisfy any desire.
Like the tea bowl, the gaiwan always leaves you with the option to sip straight from it when you’re feeling like having a slower, lazier type of day. But because you’re still able to easily pour off your infusion into a teacup, mug, or bowl, you’re not trapped into a single infusion or two.
Contrary to the teapot, the gaiwan’s lid is easily removable, leaving you with a wide open vessel that showcases your beautifully blossomed tea leaves and filling the room with a lovely aroma. Consisting of two or three pieces, the gaiwan is also much easier to transport than a teapot, as there is no part of it that is as fragile as the spout of a teapot. Above all, however, the gaiwan could not be easier to clean and maintain. Depending on how it is made and with what material, you’ll either gently wipe it down with warm water or use a very mild soap (provided it is made of non-porous materials).
Next week, we’ll touch on the various pieces of the gaiwan, explaining their purposes as well as how to use one. Stay tuned!