It is a single-herb tea made from the wax-leaf hawthorn or ligustrum shrub. It is not made from the more popular Camellia sinensis shrub that produces green, oolong and pu-erh, teas.
Most of the ku ding is the hawthorn species, which is harvested as young emerging leaf sets (three to four leaves and a bud sprout) that have grown to about 1-5 inches long. Then it is twisted by hand into a spear, ball, rope-like or knotted shape and dried. The final product appears to be a single leaf. Higher-grade ku ding leaves are generally about 2 inches long without a shiny luster. It is important to drink the tea to determine its grade because most of it looks similar. Better grades have a slightly sweet taste underlying the bitter taste, more noticeable after it has infused for some time. The exception to this is the finest-grade ligustrum tea from Sichuan, which is plucked from the bush when it is a tiny, vibrant chartreuse-green sprouting leaf that is only 1/4- to 1/2-inch long. It is generally the least bitter-tasting of this group of teas.
Locals commonly make it using water brought to a boil and a single high-grade leaf in a tall glass. It is drunk slowly, continually being topped off with more water. Ku ding tea leaves yield much slower and longer than most teas we drink, similar to the yield of thick oolong tea leaves.
For the Chinese New Year holiday, I traveled to the city of Chengdu in Sichuan to check out its famous tea house culture and attend a wedding out into the countryside. Sichuan people are well-known for idling away their spare time at one of their numerous neighborhood tea houses. The local people have very white skin and big eyes by Chinese standards, and are known for their fiery temper.
The weather was typical for the area; very damp, drizzly, cold and windy with no sun for two weeks. The humidity was so heavy that bedding stays damp unless air conditioners/heaters are running continuously. This is the kind of weather that chills you to the bone and makes you sick. The first day there, it was shocking to see everyone drinking cooling green tea or ku ding tea, in that kind of weather. After eating Sichuan ma la (numbing/spicy) food for two days, it became clear why they need the cooling effects of ka ding cha.
The local diet uses two different hot peppers. Both Fructus piperis longi and Fructus piperis nigri strongly warm the entire body, unblocks cold, invigorates blood and causes profuse sweating. This can potentially cause excess fire in the stomach, large intestine, small intestine, liver, lungs and heart. Amazingly, despite the really spicy diet, most of the local people have excellent facial complexions. I wonder how significant a role green and ku ding teas' cooling effect is involved in balancing their diet.
Ku ding cha is excellent and safe when used long term for draining internal liver fire and dampness, resolving summer wind heat conditions, and even cases of winter cold that have transformed into heat or fire. Blood cleansing and regulating, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory effects of this herb are similar to Camellia sinensis.
In other areas throughout China, green tea is often combined with fresh ginger root for its warming and maintaining effect on spleen/stomach/lung yang. Ku ding cha is even more cold than green tea. Therefore, Westerners, especially women, may want to use some caution, as they are far more likely than men or Chinese people to be susceptible to cold attacking the center. Chinese people can tolerate larger amounts of cooling tea because they eat ginger root daily and rarely consume cold drinks.
So, next time you go out for some of your favorite Sichuan or Hunan food, or want to detox, enjoy a cup of ku ding cha.
Click here for previous articles by Brenton Harvey, LAc, CH.