- Master Gao-Que preparing Insect Feces Tea, or 蟲屎茶。
When I drank Fermented Yak Butter Tea in Manali, I thought I could safely say I had consumed the weirdest tea in the world. Today, my brothers and sisters, I am pleased as punch to tell you that I was mistaken. Sorely mistaken.
I officially proclaim the weirdest tea in the world, until further notice, to be Insect Feces Tea, or 蟲屎茶.
Today I bring you the story of how I tried to make a Tea Master smile, and consequently wound up drinking Insect Feces Tea.
Skim Time: 5 mins
Read Time: 10 mins
The first time I was in Taipei, around three years ago, I fell crazily madly in love with tea. I wrote about this incident at length here in Strawberry Hookah Tea. This was a massively positive development in my life, and I owe it to two people. My friend Sejin, and the owner of a hole-in-the-wall tea house in Muzha, Taiwan: Master Gao-Que, a tea master with an extremely rare compound surname.
Over the course of a summer in Taiwan, Master Gao-Que was exceptionally kind to me. He was patient with my mediocre Chinese, and went out of his way to educate me about tea. Every single time I went to his teahouse I would leave feeling high on life. I came to see him as something along the lines of a Mentor-Uncle-Older Brother. Since I left Taiwan three years ago, I’ve tried to send the Master business anytime I hear someone is going to Taiwan.
Making Master Gao-Que Smile – the Elephant Tail Hair Bracelet That Really Smells Like Elephant Manure
When I found out I was coming to Taiwan again, I was immediately excited to go and see Master Gao-Que again.
So, I picked up a gift for him. A bracelet made out of elephant tail hair. I thought it would be nice to surprise him and try to make him smile. Aside from being good manners, I’ve found time and time again that you get unexpected surprises and returns on your efforts when you go out of your way to make someone’s day. I don’t believe in Karma, but people will treat you as family when you treat them as family, no matter what country you’re in, no matter what cultural background they come from.
When I walked into the Master’s teahouse he greeted me like a long lost son. After about two years, he still remembered my name, and remembered all of the hours and conversations he had passed with me talking about tea. He sat me down, asked me about my life and my plans in Taiwan, and we drank a whole bunch of delicious tea.
I brought out the elephant tail hair bracelet for Master Gao-Que, and asked him to guess what it’s made out of. He did not know, he told me.
If you’ve never felt an elephant tail hair bracelet before, it feels like a mix between bamboo and wicker. It doesn’t feel like hair from any animal you know, and doesn’t even feel like an organic substance. Most people cannot guess what an elephant tail hair bracelet is made out of when they see it and feel it for the first time.
“It’s from South Africa.” I said.
He still couldn’t guess. His eyebrows were shifting up and down like millipedes inching across his forehead.
“It’s made from the hair of an animal,” I said.
“An animal? Hair?” He said. He told me he had no idea, and by this point his wife was trying to guess, too.
When I told him it was made out of elephant tail hair he didn’t believe me. He put the thing up to his nose like he was trying to smell the elephant that the hair had come from. He turned it around and over in his hands, and put it up against a light like someone examining a $100 bill to see if it’s counterfeit.
I told him I wasn’t lying. Elephant tail hair bracelets bring good luck, I said.
Master Gao-Que smiled at me, but he didn’t seem to really believe me.
I left the teahouse feeling like my mission was only half accomplished. The Master had definitely smiled and been surprised, but I didn’t feel like he really believed that the bracelet was made out of elephant tail hair…
About a month passed before I went back to see the Master. A friend called ahead, and when we arrived just after dinner around 8pm Master Gao-Que had roasted some Taiwanese sweet potatoes over a big ceramic plant pot just for us to eat. He grew them himself in his back yard, he said. They were probably the best sweet potatoes in Taiwan, he said.
As soon my friend and I sat down he started the water boiling. He whipped out some amazing Alishan Oolong tea for us all, and threw his wrist up on the table with a happy flourish. Like he was laying down a royal flush at a poker table. On his wrist was the elephant tail hair bracelet I had given him a month ago.
“It really smells like an elephant.” Master Gao-Que said. “It really does. You can’t find anything like this in Taiwan. At first I didn’t believe you when you said it was made from elephant tail hair, but I tested it. Now I know it’s real.”
I asked the Master how he had tested the bracelet.
“You can only really smell it if the bracelet gets a little wet. If it’s really elephant tail hair, it’s an organic substance” he went on. “It would have to be affected by water somehow. So I got it a little bit wet when I was washing my hands to test it.”
“And what happened?” I asked.
“It smelled like elephant manure on my wrist for a little bit, so I knew it was the real deal.”
I’ve never looked up to someone’s sense of smell the way that I look up to this Master’s. He’s like the Harry Houdini, or Evil Kenevil of olfactory sense.
If he says he smells elephant manure when the bracelet gets wet, he does.
“I’m happy you like it,” I said back to the Master. This was exactly how I was hoping he’d feel after I gave him the bracelet. It just seemed like something he would really appreciate it, and I could tell that he was truly happy with it.
“You can’t find anything like this in Taiwan,” he said again, “unless you go to the zoo and chop it off the ass-end of one of the elephants!”
Then the Master turns around and whips out a small vial of beautiful amber liquid. About the size of my thumb. He tells me to open it up and give it a whiff.
Do you know what that is, he asks me?
It smells better than anything I’ve smelled in Taipei.
“Sandalwood oil,” he tells me.
“Just like you can’t find an elephant tail hair bracelet in Taiwan, you can’t find Sandalwood oil like this. Not anywhere. It’s not cheap,” he tells me, and he says that “you can’t find anything like it in the shops around Taiwan no matter how hard you try.”
A close friend of Master Gao-Que’s used to be a wood worker, and he gave him this vial of Sandalwood oil as a gift one time. “It’s pure,” the Master tells me, “and not diluted at all. Not like the aromatherapy oils you find elsewhere that have been watered down into diluted concentrations.”
“I’m giving it to you as a gift,” Master Gao-Que tells me. “Put it on your own elephant tail hair bracelet a drop at a time, and slowly it will absorb the smell of Sandalwood and grow in value.”
I was completely floored. I thanked him for his generosity and took a swig of Alishan. Pure sandalwood oil smells better than any perfume or cologne you can buy in department stores.
Next, the Master tells me he’s going to share something special with me. Something else you can’t find just anywhere.
I tell him that’s totally unnecessary, and that he’s already shared enough with me for the day.
No, no, no. Master Gao-Que says. You want to try this.
Insect Feces Tea | 蟲屎茶
What is it? I ask, knowing that basically anything the Master shares with me and my friends will be a unique experience.
“蟲屎茶” He says.
Literal translation: “Insect Feces Tea.”
It’s tea made out of bug shit.
That’s right. He says. Tea made out of the little shits of lots of little bugs. A special kind of bug that only lives in tea. He says that a container of this stuff about the size of his thumb costs around US$350, because the people that prepare it have to go through a bunch of tea leaves with something like a magnifying glass and tweezers to pick out the little bug shit pellets and collect them into vials.
One of the most labor intensive teas in the world to produce, the Master goes on.
Is it healthy to drink? I ask him.
Master Gao-Que assures me that since the bugs live in tea, tea is the only thing they ever eat. Since tea is the only thing they ever eat, consequently tea is the only thing that has ever passed through their digestive tracts. No meats, no pesticides, no unhealthy substances at all.
Nothing dirty about Insect Feces Tea at all, he says.
Sort of like Kopi Luwak, I think to myself. Coffee made from beans passed through the digestive tract of the frugivorous Asian Palm Civet. But with insects instead of Civets.
As it happens, the Master keeps a small bottle of Insect Feces Tea in the back. And would my friends and I like to try some, he asks us?
Absolutely, I say. My friend Ting Ting hesitates a little bit, and I tell them that when the hell else are they ever going to get to try bug shit tea?
Ok. They’ll try some, too.
Master Gao-Que dropped a scoopful of little pellets into a white ceramic tea bowl. They made a faint tinkling noise as they hit the bottom of the bowl, and my friend Ting Ting cringed a bit.
The Master whipped out his hot water, and rinsed the feces with boiling water. “Mmmmm!” He said. His smile stretched from ear to ear. “Can’t you just smell the insects that produced this delicious stuff, already?” He was joking with my friend Ting Ting, but there was a decidedly unique aroma emanating from the tea bowl.
As the Master rinsed the black raisin pellets in boiling water, they heaved up and swirled around under the rim of the tea bowl. A graceful dust devil of insect feces hung against an elegant white ceramic backdrop. The Master tossed out the first two steepings to assure Ting Ting that she what she was drinking had been properly cleansed of any dust or unhealthy organic matter.
He poured us each a little cupful of the shit tea. The high temperatures of the tea burned the skin on my fingers pleasantly as I picked up the cup, lifting it up to my nose for a nice deep smell.
Inhale. Whiff. Mmmm.
It was “gamey.” Light. Earthy-smelling.
I lifted the cup up to my lips. Ting Ting insisted that I be the first to take a sip, so that she could see if I fell over dead, or something.
The french have a term, Haut Goût, meaning gamey, or “having a slight taste of it’s origin.” Usually used to describe the flavor of game meats, this is the first term that came to mind when the shit tea hit my palate. It’s not that it tasted like feces (actually, I’ve never tasted feces so I wouldn’t really know), but it had a decidedly organic twang to it.
Master Gao-Que looked over at me. “How is it?” He asked.
“I’ve never had anything like it before. I would never have known that something like existed in a million years, and you’ve given me and Ting Ting a truly unique experience here. Thank you.”
What Goes Around Comes Around, Even if it’s Feces.
Master Gao-Que told me that the bracelet I had given him for good luck was something he’d never have known about, and something he’d never be able to find in Taiwan.
Also, the bracelet smells like shit when it’s wet.
The Master wanted to repay me in kind. By letting me taste and experience the Bug Shit Tea, he was giving me something that I would never have known about, something that I would never be able to find on my own.
In a more literal sense, the tea smelled like shit when it was wet, just like the bracelet smells like manure when it’s wet.
I wanted to do something nice for the Master because he treats me like an apprentice or a son, or something. I know that he likes weird things with a story behind them, so I found something like that to give him as gift. I hoped it would make him smile, but I didn’t expect anything in return.
In his characteristic way, Master Gao-Que went out of his way to be generous to me and to my friends. He cooked us up some home-style Taiwanese sweet potatoes, gave me a little vial of Sandalwood oil, and cooler than anything else: let me try something I’d never tried before, or known existed. He thoughtfully educated me about something new and interesting that directly relates to one of our mutual interests, which is way cooler than any material gift.
Surround yourself with good people who are experts in their area of interest. Do good things for them, and try to give them a story they can tell their friends. Then have good manners and be a good person to them. Don’t expect anything. You’ll be surprised to find how they are good people right back to you.
You just might even get something cooler than insect feces tea.
Question of the Day:
What’s the nicest thing someone has ever done for you?