When Fanny Shiau left Taiwan for Kansas on a student exchange program, she set a fascinating love story in motion. After graduating from Eudora High School, she attended Kansas University and met Gary Peterson. They fell in love and returned to Taiwan, where Fanny's family owned a tea plantation.
Gary was smitten by the culture, the people and the tea process, and he wanted to bring it to Kansas. He did. House of ChÃ¡ at 21 W. Ninth St. was opened to "educate and enhance awareness of the world of tea."
Writing on the window invites us to experience: "A life, a journey. A cup of tea, a sip of rejuvenation."
How could I resist?
I stepped inside, and the doors of my mind were opened with an introduction to Gong Fu Cha - the art and skill of making tea.
Gary welcomed me to a table furnished with an earthenware tray, a clay teapot (which was older than me,) kettle and two smaller pots.
"Clay pots improve with age; they absorb the oil and essence of the tea."
"Maybe I just need to drink more tea?"
He produced a raw tea leaf.
"Looks like a shamrock."
"Yes. Two leaves with one heart."
When picked, the young leaves are left to wilt in the sun. This oxidization process produces the distinctive aromas and tastes of oolong teas (pronounced wu-long.) House of ChÃ¡ supplies more than 100 varieties of full-leaf Taiwanese and Japanese oolongs such as High Mountain, Oriental Beauty, Golden Lily and Emerald Jade.
Gary placed some tiny leaves into the small two-spout pot, covered it with boiling water, and then poured some into the elongated fragrant (or nose) cup on the tray.
"Pour tea into the sipping cup, and put the empty one over your nose."
"Just try it," encouraged Gary.
I did as bidden. The aromas enfolded me. My back teeth and eyes tingled. I breathed deeply.
"This is something else. I've never tasted tea through my nose and eyes."
It sounded ridiculous, but it was the nearest I got to describing the sensual experience.
"Now sip the tea," he instructed.
"Without milk?" I asked tentatively.
"Just sip. Savor it."
I tasted my first truly black tea. It WAS different than anything I'd drunk before. It tickled and teased my taste buds.
"Good tea will create a sweet drying in the back of the throat," my teacher continued.
Fanny produced fresh snacks - a rice-cookie selection, pineapple cake and raw pumpkin seeds. The sipping and smelling process continued over conversations about the benefits of tea, beautiful Taiwan and its culture. Teatime in Taiwan is an opportunity to relax and enjoy meaningful conversation.
I returned another day to experience Bubble Tea, introduced in the early '80s to appeal to younger generations. Originally black and green tea was shaken with sweetener and ice to produce frothy bubbles. Milks were added later for a creamy flavor. Tapioca pearls, like chewy gummy balls, are placed in the glass and sucked through a wide straw.
I chatted with Juanita Peterson, a Lawrence native who has been married for more than 55 years. She met her husband, Robert, at a dance in Kanwaka (on Highway 40.) Oolong drinking is a generational affair in her family. Her Aunt Bev introduced her to it when she was a little girl, and she in turn taught her daughter Elaine Fellenstein, the Garden Lady, to appreciate it. They love visiting the House of ChÃ¡.
"Taiwanese oolongs are the world's finest. The ones here are the best I've ever tasted," Juanita enthused. "I love the Four Seasons and Iron Buddha."
Elaine sipped green rosemary-peppermint tea.
"Good for an uplift," she smiled.
They laughed as I slurped and gurgled. Was I really in Kansas drinking flavored iced tea through a gummy ball strewn straw? I was, and I loved it.
Gary and Fanny have achieved their goal. They shared parts of their love and life journey with me, led me to experience and appreciate another culture, and engaged my senses at a new level. I left rejuvenated after both visits, and have an "enhanced awareness of the world of tea." I encourage you to try it.
Service 5 out of 5.
Ambience 5 out of 5.
Tea 5 out of 5.