Do you know the gaiwan, the beautiful and traditional Chinese covered cup for brewing fine tea? The gaiwan (literally “covered bowl”) has a noble place in Chinese culture: it’s elegant, pragmatic, and impartial (most gaiwans are either porcelain or glazed stoneware, meaning they’re nonabsorbent and don’t inflect the flavor of the pure brewed leaves). Gaiwans have evolved a bit over the centuries, but the modern version consists of three components: the body, or bowl; a lid that rests slightly inside the rim of the body; and a saucer.
As teaware, gaiwans have many advantages. The wide mouth makes it easy to check the progress of your brew and admire its color. It also gives you maximum flexibility to control temperature: leave the lid on to seal in as much heat as possible, or lift it for faster cooling. You can dip the lid into the bowl to stir the steeping leaves, ensuring an even brew and also facilitating heat loss. And, when the tea is ready to drink, the lid is a convenient way to strain off the leaves, whether you drink directly from the gaiwan or pour into a pitcher for sharing. The saucer is handy, too. Not only does it provide the usual function of buying forgiveness when we’re a bit sloppy, but it also insulates the hot bowl, making it easier to drink or pour without burning your fingers.
There are several things to consider when choosing a gaiwan. First, like many kinds of teaware, it’s intimate and tactile, meant to be held, so it should simply fit and feel comfortable in your hands. The size, weight, and surface texture, all should be pleasing. This is a highly personal judgment that can’t be prescribed. The visual impression should be satisfying as well, but regardless of the exterior design it’s nice for the interior to be white, the better to observe the brew.
The next thing to think about is what the gaiwan is made from. You can find gaiwans in a range of prices made from either porcelain (high-fired and vitreous, typically translucent) or stoneware (high-fired, partially vitrified, slightly absorbent unless glazed; yi xing ware is a type of unglazed stoneware). Unless you want to dedicate your gaiwan to a single type of tea as you would an yi xing teapot, select a porcelain or glazed stoneware one. The material dictates another vital gaiwan characteristic, its ability to retain or lose heat. Intuitively, the thinner the body the faster the contents cool. Heat loss can be desirable for highly temperature-sensitive teas (green tea, for example) that become bitter if “cooked” too long in hot water. With its vitreous nature porcelain loses heat fastest—sometimes too fast if your tea requires a long steeping time or you’re in a chilly environment.
Whatever your gaiwan preference, you should get to know this versatile piece of teaware, which deserves a place on every tea table.