Steap’d In Storytelling: Mona from Teawala

In this first interview recorded for the blog, I’m thrilled to introduce Mona, the tea enthusiast, proud Hong Konger, and Founder of Teawala, a source for authentic teas direct from farms aimed at celebrating the people, places, and traditions behind each cup. Ever since we met virtually for tea this summer, I’ve found great joy in sharing stories, tea leaves, and conversations with her. She’s fearlessly contributed to the Activist Teahouse in September during our segment on decolonization and has just launched a comprehensive tea course through her site. Grab a tea and enjoy her storytelling!

Thank you for taking the time to chat, Mona! I’m preparing a gaiwan full of the 2012 shou mei you graciously sent my way and a kettle heating to boiling. What are you enjoying today?

It’s slowly transitioning into autumn here in Hong Kong – the air feels crisper and the temperature is lowering – so I’ve been drinking more black teas recently. Today I’m enjoying a Darjeeling 2nd flush, steeped in my glass teapot so I can appreciate the colorful leaves, tinted with reds, browns, and white, that remind me of autumn itself. 

So fitting for the season! Speaking of tea and looking at them closely, I’ve loved seeing your sketches of tea leaves and how you’ve incorporated them into your tea journaling. Where did this inspiration originate? What does this additional step teach you about the leaves?

Since a young age, I’ve always enjoyed drawing. Art class was one of my favorites – I loved putting to paper the world in front of me. 

When I first volunteered at a tea farm, I would spend a lot of my evenings and lunch breaks in between work shifts at the tea lab, tasting and studying the various white teas they produced. I took notes about the tastes of each tea in my notebook, and I found drawing the leaves both soothing and a great way to capture the visual essence of each tea.  

It can tell you a lot! Drawing – like brewing tea – is a practice that requires patience and asks you to focus on the details. The size, shape, colors, and textures of the leaves are revealed when tasked with illustrating, and I find myself noticing details I wouldn’t have otherwise, like an extra bud in the crevice of the stem. It can also shed light on the quality level, and level of care that was put into your tea. I greatly encourage it to anyone looking to strengthen their tea appreciation through a mindful means.

You’ve said yourself that the fruit yangmei tastes like a cross between a raspberry and a plum, prompting me to seek out more foods outside my norm. What are some foods throughout travels and living abroad you recommend to a western audience?

Oh my gosh, I love Yangmei! And I love so many of the beautiful foods I’ve been able to taste along my tea travels. China is such a diverse country, where each province has its own culture and food traditions, and I’ve been lucky enough to experience some of these! There are too many to count, but some veggies that come to mind are: bamboo, lotus root, wood ear, and taro. And fruits: Yangmei, pi pa (kumquat), and longan (similar to lychee). I also love black sesame and red bean for desserts, and there are some delicious pastries, like rose cakes in Yunnan and pineapple cakes in Taiwan. 

As for flavors – I highly recommend trying Sichuan spicy cuisine! The Sichuan red peppercorn gives a tingling sensation on the palate unlike any other spice, known as “mala” in Chinese. They douse this on literally anything, even plain cabbage, and it tastes amazing. If you’ve never tried it, imagine eating pop rocks and spice at the same time… mind blowing! 

I’d like to draw a photo of yours from social media and ask for context. These goats are adorable! What’s going on here?

This is one of my favorite photos! I backpacked with a close friend through Sichuan and Yunnan in 2017, while we were both taking a gap-month away from work. We share a love for the outdoors, animals, (and food!), and speak Mandarin which made traveling China exhilarating. We were hiking through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is a stunning geographical formation in Yunnan.

Along the way, you see animals like horses and mountain goats. Here I was petting some baby goats along the trail when suddenly one of them leaped onto my backpack (!!) and my friend couldn’t resist snapping a photo. Since that trip, she’s gone on to work in food systems and agricultural products, and I have followed my passion for tea. The experiences on this trip have shaped both of us.   

From the Songzalin Monastery, Yunnan, to the Makaibari estate, Darjeeling, you’ve followed your desire for experiences and traveled the world. What are some lessons you’ve learned through traveling that support your vision of running Teawala?

I’ve learned that the world has so much to offer, outside of our everyday bubbles. Whether it be culture, landscapes, or food, there is so much to explore if we just keep an open mind. I cherish the real human connections I’ve built over these travels very dearly, making friends from all walks of life, while learning their unique stories and struggles. 

Through Teawala, I want to give people who may never get the chance to experience travel to these remote areas, a taste of these various cultures and regions, and to tell the story of the wonderful people behind them. Tea is a culmination of so many things – history, culture, traditions, land, people – and it is truly a labor of love. I hope to foster a deeper appreciation for tea and celebrate the beauty behind our leaves.           

How has your relationship with tea changed over this year, and how has your practice fostered connectivity?

It has changed immensely this year. For anyone who knows me, I’m adventurous and energetic at my core. I love to be outdoors, moving from place to place. 2020 has challenged me to stay in, sit still, and relish in more introspective practices.

While tea was always an avenue for me to explore, it is now the ritual I look forward to every day. I savor the few moments I get to disconnect and place my full awareness and energy on the simple act of brewing. It has also been a vehicle to connect with others, including you! By sharing virtual cups of tea, I’ve been able to meet some wonderful minds in the tea community, which I am truly grateful for. 

You’ve certainly have made the best out of a turbulent year including your tea education opportunities. Releasing a tea course is no small feat, and you’ve scaffolded a beautiful curriculum that fosters consistent communication between yourself and participants. What inspired you to create a tea course, and what unique approach do you hope tea lovers everywhere can take from your expertise?

Thank you so much for your kind words – It means the world!

When I first launched Teawala, I would often host tastings around Hong Kong. People were amazed by the world of tea but had so many questions about brewing, tasting, production, and so forth. I noticed a huge information gap and decided to send out an online survey to find out what people wanted to learn most about.

I discovered that people struggled most with tasting and evaluating their tea. There is an overwhelming amount of tea and information available to tea lovers, but it is very difficult to make sense of it all – knowing what information is accurate, how to maximize appreciation for your tea, and how to tell apart quality teas from the rest. For wine lovers, this sort of understanding is clear, but this is not the case (yet!) for tea. I believe structured tea education is the key to bridging this gap, and I hope to achieve this with my online course.

By drawing upon the lessons I’ve learned from my tea travels – from hands-on experience producing tea, tasting teas from various regions, and leaning on tea producers as my teachers, I’ve created an online course that helps tea drinkers learn how to identify, interpret and assess their leaves on a deeper level. I’ve collaborated with a friend who is amazing with photography and videography to produce the course over the past six months. It has been a very challenging undertaking, with a lot of time spent behind the scenes, but I’m immensely proud of the outcome! Just like with tea, it was a labor of love!

The very first chapter teaches a simple 5-step method about how to taste tea, which professionals around the world use and anyone can do from home. I also turned this method into a tasting sheet that students can print and fill out when they taste teas. It then goes on to teach how professionals use a cupping set to evaluate teas side by side, and eventually dives into each tea category (white, green, oolong, black, pu’er), to identify famous tea styles, and gives tips for assessing quality for each tea type. 

I hope students will come out of my course feeling more confident and empowered as tea tasters and be able to identify and appreciate quality teas, as well as gaining a deeper understanding of the world behind their leaves.

  • Mona’s course is open for enrollment! If you’re interested in solely purchasing the course the deadline to enroll is Dec. 25th, 2020. If you’d like to purchase the course + tea sampler + book, you’ll want to enroll by end of day on Nov. 27th, 2020. Check out the course agenda and objectives for more information and purchase the course HERE.


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