Tea is China’s beauty secret

Afternoon tea may never be the same: exotic infusions that claim to aid wellbeing are on offer. But which one to choose?

Is weight loss your problem? Need to cleanse your liver after too many big nights? Want something to get you to sleep? Or wake you up? There are teas and herbal infusions that can help with all these things — and much more. But which one to choose?

A fashionable restaurant in London has stepped in to provide guidance with a new “Tea-Tox” service allowing customers to drop in after lunch and choose from a variety of herbal remedies — consuming them in what amounts to a health-driven makeover for the traditional British afternoon tea.

To find out more, I visited last week and talked to Melissa Choi, the woman who supplies the teas to the restaurant, Bam-Bou, in Central London. On my way, I pondered why I felt mildly resistant.

It’s not that I don’t like afternoon tea. My girlfriend at university took me out to tea frequently and when we married years later we celebrated with tea at a smart hotel: sandwiches with the crusts cut off, assorted patisseries, sliced fruit, jellies and scones, to which I’m extremely partial.

Nor do I resist unusual infusions. On the contrary, I’m a gourmet of weird teas. I recently tried a box of comfrey tea that I found in a health-food shop and kept serving it till, after a few days or weeks, my wife complained of stomach pain and dizziness. She then looked it up and discovered that comfrey is widely (though not universally) shunned as poisonous.

No, what worried me was the idea that afternoon tea and health-giving herbal infusions could be improved by being combined. As gimmicks go, this seemed rather like fixing pedals to a car and trying to ride it as if it was a bike.

But, on the other hand, I recognised that our tea drinking in Britain is substantially indebted to the tea ceremonies of the East — and they’ve always seemed fairly healthy.

Bam-Bou is a South-East Asian restaurant on fashionable Charlotte Street, owned by the company that runs The Ivy. Till now, the place has been closed in the late afternoon, but people often stop by to ask for a cup of tea on the terrace.

Somebody in the restaurant concluded that a worthwhile commercial opportunity was being missed and so various exotic tea suppliers were called in for taste tests, and the one whom impressed the most was Choi and her company Choi Time.

In person, she proved to be the perfect tea-time companion: easy on the eye and pleasant company. The darkest our conversation got was when she alleged that certain tea bags contain sweepings from the floor — inspiring me to buy a packet of loose leaf tea when I got home that nevertheless proved to be less satisfying than the teabags I customarily purchase.

In the past few weeks, Choi has spent time familiarising Bam-Bou’s staff with with the taste and benefits of her menu of infusions. Alas, I’m unable to vouch for their competence because as soon as I arrived I was presented by Choi herself with a dazzling variety of glass teapots, each containing pretty plants bobbing about in pale fluid.

As she enthusiastically poured from one pot after another, I could hardly keep up with the list of supposed health benefits. One contained an orange flower that would be good for my lungs. Another included jasmine, a natural form of botox, she says. (“China’s beauty secret!”) Then there was rose, which is good for stress, and is used for that reason — Choi says — by the likes of the health specialists Neal’s Yard and Dr Hauschka. A “1,000-year red flower” turned out to be globe amaranth. This brings the drinker happiness and prosperity and peace — making me wonder why anybody bothers with the other teas.

The most sensational was named the “sacred heart” for the obvious reason that it was heart shaped when Choi dropped it into the pot. But in hot water it opened up, magically, to reveal enough plants to stock a medium-sized aquarium. Each sacred heart is put together by a team of seven people, Choi says. Even by combining forces, they manage to make only 170 of them a day (or just over a kilo).

According to Choi, the first English tea drinkers used to swig green tea — as she does herself, in quantities never smaller than 1.5 litres a day. It all went wrong for us when we moved on to black teas, which have been fermented and otherwise mucked about with — and then we added milk too. Yuk!

Much better to stick to green tea, she says, which has more antioxidants, pound for pound, than anything else — goji berries, spinach, you name it. But, alas, much of the green tea sold in the West — powdered, canned, in tea bags or decaffeinated — is highly processed or low grade and of little benefit.

I’ve heard much the same from traditional Chinese medicine practitioners whom I’ve consulted over the years. But my conversations with them leave me sceptical about the vaunted health-giving effect of Bam-Bou’s afternoon offering: as the doctors will tell you, every patient is different; herbal remedies for one person won’t necessarily work for the next, and the idea that waiting staff — even trained waiting staff — can prescribe to customers off the street is a bit of a joke.

So I asked directly: is she expecting people to come in search of good health — as if this were a spa or clinic — or for a treat? Choi smiled politely but stayed quiet, allowing a spokesman for the restaurant to say that the emphasis is firmly on the latter.

Phew! I stopped worrying and got on with enjoying my tea, including the food served up with it instead of scones:

dainty slices of caraway seed cake, exotic fruits, and an iced granita flavoured with lemon grass. And I have to say that I didn’t feel any the worse for that.

Tea-Tox starts on August 16 and runs until the end of September, 3pm to 5pm, Mondays to Fridays. To book: 020-7323 9130 or go to bam-bou.co.uk.


- Melissa Choi’s teas offer a variety of tastes, and contain ingredients that have for centuries been regarded as health giving.

- Chrysanthemum flower tea is naturally sweet and refreshing, with a scent of chamomile, this detoxifies the blood, help relieves sinus congestion and high blood pressure, and is said to help hay fever

- Pai Mu Tan has a delicate fragrance and a sweet taste. It’s said to prevent cardiovascular disease, inhibit arteriosclerosis and strengthen blood vessels

- White silver needle lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, improves eyesight and has a high level of antioxidants

- Damask rose buds from Fiji, immersed in tea, are said to relieve anxiety

- Lapsang Souchong is a black tea smoke-dried over a pinewood fire. It strengthens the immune system, promotes digestion and inhibits the growth of bacteria in the mouth

- English breakfast tea is also apparently helpful in promoting relaxation.

1200 words. First published 10 August 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.