For new tea drinkers, and even some seasoned ones, the gaiwan (or “lidded bowl”) can look intimidating and confusing. After all, why not just settle for the convenience of a stainless steel infuser or the fuller flavor of a teapot? There are a few reasons to consider purchasing a gaiwan.
For practical purposes, the gaiwan demonstrates an amazing amount of versatility. It can be used to steep for any tea. It is also not only be used to steep your tea leaves, but it can also be used for casually sipping tea grandfather style or even in place of a tea cup altogether. The cleanup is also incredibly easy, even more so than an infuser. Whereas used tea leaves tend to get stuck in infusers and teapots, a gaiwan requires little more than a gentle emptying and a rinse for any remaining tea leaves. Furthermore, with the exception of stoneware and glazed gaiwans, many tend to be lighter in color, allowing the user to most easily see the color of the tea liquor and to properly assess the strength of the infusion.
In addition, there is the aesthetic consideration. The gaiwan has an inimitable elegance to it that simply cannot be replicated by even the best teapots and infusers. Visually, most feature subtle curves in the body that taper down toward a narrow base, as if it were in a constant, delicate state of gentle motion. The nature of a good gaiwan is such that, when in use, one loses track of where it ends and the tea begins.
So what should you consider when trying to purchase one?
There are at least three “must have” features for any good gaiwan:
(1) A Flared Rim - When using hot water to prepare tea, there’s always a chance that one gets burned, and the longer anything is exposed to higher temperatures, the hotter it will get. There are exceptions of course and this largely depends on the heat-resistant properties of the materials, but in general, this holds true.
In the case of gaiwans, anything over 185°F (85°C) or longer than 90 seconds can make them very uncomfortable to directly hold. The flared rim, however, helps manage some of that heat, and it is usually the last part of the gaiwan to get hot. Without this feature, one ends up with what we call a “finger scorcher,” a gaiwan that cannot be held comfortably anywhere when in use.
(2) A Domed Lid - A flat lid should be avoided for two important reasons. One, it fails to optimally manage the heat. Because it is nearer to the source of heat than a domed lid, it will comparatively be hotter than one. This heat is also more likely to transfer to the rim of your gaiwan, regardless of whether or not it is flared. A domed lid, by contrast, helps resist some of that heat by creating some space between the water and the lid.
Two, tea leaves tend to back up more when pouring with a flat lid, slowing down the speed of the decanting. This means that one will need to accept a slower pour or open up the lid more, increasing the chances that some tea leaves will fall into your cup. The domed lid, however, creates some space for some of the tea leaves to sit, decreasing the chances of a backup.
One final advantage of the domed lid is that it better traps the aroma of the tea leaves. It is not an uncommon practice to pick up the lid of the gaiwan and breathe in in order to appreciate the scent of the tea.
There is a sense in which a gaiwan can have too much of a dome though. This occurs when it begins to get unwieldy and uncomfortable for the user. One will need to experiment with different dome shapes to discover which is ideal for your particular hand shape and size as well as your style of pour.
(3) Fit of the Lid - A third and final requirement for a gaiwan is a good-fitting lid. You want to check to make sure the lid fits such that there are no obvious gaps between the body of the gaiwan and the lid. When there are gaps, tea leaves can slip into one’s cup during a decanting. Depending on the size of the leaves and the size of the gap, this can get rather undesirable very quickly. If the lid rests more completely on the body of the gaiwan, one will have more fine-grained control of the lid opening during a decanting, which minimizes the chances of any leaves escaping into the cup.
We hope this sheds some light on things to consider when purchasing gaiwans! In our next post, we’ll discuss the relevance of their sizes and shapes.