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Eating tea with the Bulang people

By in Travel on

The finished product - suancha
The finished product - suancha

Editor's note: GoKunming was recently invited by WildChina to visit stops along the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan trade route with tea expert and explorer Jeff Fuchs, who has traveled the route's entirety. This article from the WildChina blog is reposted with permission.

One of the best things about traveling around Yunnan is that no matter how well you think you may know the province, there's always a surprise waiting to prove you wrong.

This was illustrated when we visited the small village of Nongyang, a half-hour drive outside of Menghai, in Xishuangbanna. We were in search of suancha, a fermented tea that is eaten rather than drunk.

Nongyang is primarily inhabited by the Bulang (布朗) ethnic group, who along with the Hani and Dai are considered one of the main stewards of some of the region's finest tea plantations.

Often misleadingly referred to as 'pickled tea', suancha is probably better translated as 'sour tea'. The ever-hospitable Bulang serve suancha at weddings and celebrations. As our hosts in Nongyang noted, if you don't have suancha, you can't get married.

The production of suancha is surprisingly complex. First the tea is cooked for around 10 minutes, after which it is drained, then packed into a section of bamboo, which is then sealed with red clay.

The bamboo tube is buried for six months to two years, and is frequently watered while underground to aid the fermentation process.

The tea is sealed in bamboo with red clay
The tea is sealed in bamboo with red clay

We were lucky enough to visit our hosts on a day when they were digging up a bamboo tube of suancha that had been buried for more than a year. The flavor was a sour but clean variation on the classic green tea experience.

Unearthing tea that has been buried for more than a year
Unearthing tea that has been buried for more than a year

When eating suancha, Bulang people either eat it straight or they may mix in salt, garlic and chili and serve with rice. We ate several pinches of suancha straight from the bowl and found it to stimulate our hunger. Taking our cue from our stomachs, we headed back to Menghai for a local feast.

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Ironically, I was in Menghai just the other day with my girlfriend, visiting a pu'er tea processing plant. I had no idea that we were so near the Bulang and their suān chá!

I was struck by several things. During the tour of the processing, we started in the middle, i.e., processing of tea leaves that had already been fermented. It didn't seem to occur to either of our hosts that it might be better to visit the work sites in the order in which the tea is actually processed; in fact, they didn't even mention the major steps or their order.

I translated parts of "The China Tea Book" for CYPI last year (www.cypi.net/ProductView.asp?ID=54&SortID=126), and took part in a tea ceremony in Kyoto many years ago. When I casually mentioned that ceremony to the marketing manager — whose card describes her as a "senior tea technology expert" (gāojí cháyì shī) — all she had to say was: "The tea ceremony came from China. The Japanese simply adapted it."

The piece on "sour tea" above, as brief as it is, points out how rich the culture of Yunnan really is. To date, I've found it difficult to locate Yunnan travel info on the web (in English or Chinese) that does anything more than point out the super-commercial attractions, e.g., the Valley of Wild Elephants with its circus-like show, etc. Am looking forward to more writing like that of Mr. Fuchs!

Bruce Humes


Awesome. I'd love to try this. Anybody seen it for sale in Kunming?

wow, that's amazing! I only know that the local like to drink roasted tea. I tried it before, it's so easy to get drunk.

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