Photo by Max Falkowitz

Ganpu are a big step up from a tea bag, and perfect for your sore throat

Max Falkowitz
Updated: March 15, 2018

We’re in the home stretch of what I call the Phlegm Times, the sniffly, congested part of the year that starts in December and runs through allergy season in spring. For me, the Phlegm Times mean a lot of gross, guttural throat noises that draw frightened looks from my coworkers. It also means gulping down lots of tea—chenpi tea.

Walk into a Chinese herbalist shop and skip past the piles of ginseng and mushrooms, and one of the first scents you pick up is a pungent-sweet wisp of orange. Orange peel, that is, dried and aged into pliant, leathery strips called chenpi. If you’re fighting off a cough or some post-nasal drip or are in your third month of an on-again-off-again relationship with the Phlegm Times, these little buddies are going to be your new best friend. Chicken soup may be the cure for the common cold, but nothing soothes a sore throat like chenpi. Its sweet, refreshing citrus oils, tempered by months or even years of aging into something dark and rich, seem to take the edge off of everything.

Chenpi have been a staple of Chinese herbal medicine since the 10th century, but their tastiest delivery system is only a few decades old. It’s a tea called ganpu, and it may be the greatest invention since the tea bag.

Here’s what you do: Hollow out a mandarin orange, dry the skin, pack it with dried tea leaves, and let it age a few years for the tea and citrus to commingle. The result is a compact ball of sweet, rich, throat-coating tea that you brew with the orange skin for good measure. It's equally great on its own or with a bit of milk and honey.

Photo by Max Falkowitz

The best part is that you don’t need any fancy tea equipment to brew it. Just throw one in your standard teapot or coffee mug and cover with boiling water. The citrus skin keeps the tea leaves safely contained at the bottom while sending a heady orange fragrance straight to your congested nostrils.

Ganpu is big business in China’s southeastern Guangdong Province, where the country’s most prized citrus—Xinhui mandarins—grow abundant. The orange skins also find their way into classic Cantonese dishes like minced beef wrapped in rice noodles, but chenpi stuffed with tea fetch the highest prices. The tea is typically puer, a fermented style from Yunnan Province that’s beloved in Guangdong and Hong Kong for its dark, earthy taste and stomach-settling character. It’s the go-to tea to drink with dim sum, and its rich, mellow flavor is the perfect counterpart for the chenpi’s bright, citrusy aromatics. Like chenpi, puer generally gets more valuable with age, and top-notch batches of ganpu may be stored for decades before brewing to develop rootsy, amaro-like flavors.

Today’s ganpu come in two main styles, determined by the maturity of the fruit when it’s picked and stuffed. A fully ripened Xinhui mandarin is about the size and shape of a clementine, and when dried and filled with puer weighs in at an ounce or so of sweet, sunny, orange-zesty tea. Then there’s the new style: teeny-tiny immature mandarins, picked while they’re still green and processed into tangy, eight-gram marbles. Both are great, and your favorite will come down to personal taste. The ripened mandarins taste more classically orange; the green style is brighter, almost limey, with a subtle twang.

For a full-size orange mandarin, you typically break up the skin to brew with some leaves like any other tea. But the green versions are small enough to be single servings all on their own. One green ganpu at the bottom of a coffee mug usually lasts me all day, and you can re-steep the tea with fresh boiling water at least five or six times before the flavor starts to fade.

You can find solid ganpu in well stocked Chinese groceries, but as with all things tea, you’ll get higher quality stuff from a specialist. I buy TeaVivre’s green ganpu in bulk; you get about 25 to a 200-gram bag, which translates to a little more than a buck per serving. That’s pricier than a tea bag, but considering how long a single eight-gram ganpu lasts, it’s a bargain compared to the cost of your morning latte.

Guangdong-based White2Tea sells several versions of fully ripened orange ganpu, aged as far back as 2011. For a new spin on the classic pairing, they make a brick of puer tea and chenpi bits scored like a chocolate bar, so you can snap off a portion for the bottom of your coffee mug. Even more convenient are these single-serving wafers of tea and chenpi made with year-old chenpi for a fresher orange flavor.

They’re all worth trying and experimenting with, and they’ll all make the Phlegm Times ancient history.

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