29 October 2011

Teh Botol Sosro

Aaannndd... yet another reason for loving the Monell Chemical Senses Center! Apart from all the science I learn, I also get to sample Teh Botol, which my mentor tried in one of her science trips (at Singapore...? I think she said Singapore, but Wikipedia says it's popular in Indonesia.). There are varying types of jasmine, and apparently a specific type is used to make this tea, and it is difficult to emulate the flavour that this type of jasmine has. The chemical company that she was visiting was trying to find a more cost-efficient way of making  a Teh botol knockoff.
To her, the tea tasted slightly bizarre. Of course, cultural considerations, along with genetic ones, come into play (receptor sensitivity, haplotypes, etc.). In American culture, tea is... well, "chilled tea" is normally some generic tea, slightly bitter, possibly made from slivered stumps and roots and not actual "leaves". American iced tea is packed with cane sugar, caramel flavouring, crushed ice, and, and sometimes milk.
This differs from hot tea (in which multifarious niches exist, from the British-y Earl Grey with a sugar lump and milk, to the (optional honey) hibiscus, to the bland roadside Lipton).

In contrast, East Asian tea is never sweet (bubble tea is an exception). It's just hot water and tea leaves. The tea leaves stay in the water; there is no bag that gets picked up and throw away while the cream is being added. It's just a sprinkling of aromatic tea leaves (or non-leaf-portions of the plant)...and water. Having drunk hot Chinese tea, including jasmine tea, all my life at restaurants and at home, I found Teh Botol slightly different, because it was a tad sweet (despite it being the "Less Sugar" version). Actually, it's not all that strange to me, because I've had the slightly-sweet Vita Chrysanthemum tea in the carton before, countless times, in HK (I don't really like Chrysanthemum tea though, whether it be hot or cold). The interesting thing about Teh Botol is that the jasmine has a flowery flavour. There is no other word to describe it; it tastes like a flower. It's how I'd imagine flowers taste - airy, sweet, fragrant. It's like a smell for my mouth. It's very appealing in this aspect, for me. I've never gotten the florid taste from hot jasmine tea before.
"Try it on your non-Asian friends",  my mentor encouraged. So, I did! (I was planning to anyway, just to see whether different ethnicities/races have different perceptions). I'm wondering whether it's appropriate to talk about patient data without previous written informed consent, so I'll just stick with A and B even though usually I would just use each person's initials. You know who you are.

A is African American, and A has lived in the US all A's life. A really enjoys tea, in general. [This is paraphrased. I should've taken notes]:
A: "This tastes like bubble tea...or, like, tapioca. I like it."
Me: "D'you think it tastes flowery at all?"
A: "Um...I guess?"
Me: "What about the sweetness?"
A: "The sweetness is great...it's not too sweet/too bland. DELICIOUS."

B is Caucasian, although B has lived in Japan before and... there's delicious tea in Japan. I took notes for this one, so here is what I wrote:
"iced tea, sweet, not flowery, weird aftertaste on roof of mouth, tea residue, enjoyable, but would get tired of it after a while".

So, is taste preference cultural? Racial? Dependent on upbringing (i.e. would B's preferences chance if B had lived in Japan for longer? Would my evaluation differ if I grew up on Dunkin Donuts as opposed to Chinese dim sum?)

And then there's my reaction, which I've described above. I suppose if you've been checking out my blog for a while, you know that I'm Chinese but have grown up in Ireland, Australia, Hong Kong, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, so my taste preferences aren't characteristic of the average American or Chinese.

Yes, small sample size and plenty of confounding factors. This is case report, without a Discussion section (actually, to avoid derisive comments, I shouldn't even be thinking about this as a scientific study. I'll just call it an "experiment" --notice the lack of the word "scientific" in front of the word "experiment". However, I do have an Acknowledgments section):

I would like to thank my mentor for supplying me with Teh Botel!! I would also like to thank the participants in the study for their time (They should be thanking me because I hooked them up with a free drink, and in college, free Calories are highly sought-after).

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