Why You Should Add Tea Pets to Your Morning Ritual

Tea pets, which trace their roots back to ancient China, are whimsical clay companions to enjoy tea with.

paru san diego tea pets
Dog tea pets are believed to bring good luck. | Photo courtesy of Paru
Dog tea pets are believed to bring good luck. | Photo courtesy of Paru

The act of drinking tea is a lesson in mindfulness. Patience is required while the water boils and as the tea steeps, unfurling and releasing its aroma. It is the antithesis of drinking two shots of espresso and rushing somewhere.

Adding a tea pet to this routine is a fun and easy way to extend the ritual of tea-making. For the uninitiated, tea pets are typically clay figurines that live on tea trays and date back thousands of years to ancient China. They were crafted from the excess of clay used to make teaware and became wonderful, albeit silent, companions to drink tea with.

Although, yes, they’re very cute, tea pets do much more than sit pretty. “In Gongfu tea ceremonies, you have to first rinse the tea to get rid of impurities and dust,” Leo Lukidi, owner of Las Vegas tea shop, Tea and Whisk, explains. “The idea is that once you rinse the tea, instead of just dumping it into a bowl, you feed it to your tea pet.” The first rinse of tea is not only for washing the tea and cleaning it, but it also allows the tea leaves to bloom and deliver a stronger flavor. At Lukidi’s shop in Vegas, tea pets adorn the shelves and live scattered atop a tea table in the center in the showroom, where guests who visit for tastings sit. There, they can feed the pets that call the tea shop home and adopt their own.

Tea pets may change color over time or absorb the scent of teas as they continue to be fed. “Every time you pour hot tea over it, that’s when it comes alive the most, which is delightful,” Amy Truong, co-owner of San Diego–based Paru Tea, says.

It’s the reason why she, too, decided to carry tea pets in her shop: to spread a little joy and also add routine to the tea ceremony and a method of measuring how much tea one consumes in a lifetime. “It’s kind of fun to think that the tea pet has drank the same amount of tea you’ve been drinking years ago. It could also be considered an heirloom that you can pass down through generations, which I find really powerful.”

Jesse Appell never expected to have a large family of tea pets, both in China and stateside, or even a thriving tea business called Jesse’s Teahouse. He studied abroad in China and would venture to tea markets to practice his Mandarin. He then later returned in 2012 for a Fulbright Scholarship to research Chinese comedy. Chinese stand-up, it just so happens, typically takes place in tea houses.

“It worked out well because I would basically practice material at the tea market, and after hang out with my tea friends,” Appell says. After shared laughter, his tea friends would then teach the tradition of Gongfu tea and introduce him to his first tea pets. “It was almost by accident that I got into tea pets,” Appell says.

In January 2020, Appell traveled stateside for a brief vacation, but was unable to return to China due to the coronavirus pandemic. Without an audience to perform for, Appell drank a lot of tea, wrote new jokes, and decided to combine his two interests into Jesse’s Teahouse.

On TikTok, videos of Appell rinsing his tea pets and discussing Gongfu tea traditions went viral almost immediately. “When I started the channel, I thought people might think the tea pets were cute, and they might drink the tea, but I didn't think I could get that whole essence of it together to people,” Appell says.

The same is true for Truong. “Any time we post anything tea pet-related on our channel or reels, it definitely has higher views,” she laughs. There is something soothing about watching shaped pieces of clay get baths. Perhaps it's the warmth emanating from the steaming tea, or the charming faces of dogs, smiling pigs, and rabbits.

ghibli style tea pets no face
Ghibli-inspired tea pets live on the tasting table at Tea and Whisk. | Photo courtesy of Tea and Whisk

Tea pets come in a variety of designs, but the most traditional forms carry symbolism from Chinese culture and the zodiac signs. A frog carrying a coin in its mouth may encourage wealth and prosperity, whereas a tiger or dragon may lend strength and bravery. Truong offers many dogs at Paru, which carry luck (but also, she adds, she thinks they’re adorable).

“The general idea, in Chinese philosophy and superstition, whatever kind of attribute the tea pet has, by pouring tea on it you bring some good karma,” Appell says.

He flashes his own tea pet to me through our video chat, a pixiu—a mythical Chinese creature that vaguely resembles a winged lion—that he has lovingly named Maurice. “Pixius are known for eating gold, and they have no butthole,” he adds, flipping Maurice around so I can inspect him. “They accumulate a lot of gold, so pouring tea on a pixiu full of gold will bring wealth.”

Although Appell says he won’t go out and buy stock or change his investments based on Maurice, it is clear that he is rich in the happiness that preparing tea and sharing it with his tea pets has provided him. “I'm glad that tea pets are oftentimes the bridge to realizing and learning more about tea culture,” he smiles.
 

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.