as told to me by Zhu Ruyin (支如云) of XinJiang China – Kombucha purveyor
artwork by Jade Bengco
My favorite Kombucha origin story begins thousands of years ago in the Bohai Sea District, not far from Beijing. As the legend goes, there was a family in Bohai that owned a grocery and sundries shop. A sloppy shop assistant was rinsing out a honey jar but sloshed some of the rinse water into an earthen crock full of wine that stood nearby.
Over the next few days, a strange fragrance both sour and sweet gradually wafted through the shop. Everyone who smelled its aroma were very curious to discover its source, but try as they might, it could not be located. Even the shopkeeper was puzzled. The week wore on and the shopkeeper instructed the shop assistant to sell the wine. When the assistant opened the cover of the wine jar, he cried out in alarm, “The sweet-sour flavor is coming from here.” Everyone immediately rushed over to have a look.
In the earthen crock there was a thick layer of a milky-white, sticky film sealing the mouth of the vessel. Upon smelling that fragrance and witnessing the first kombucha culture, everyone fell into solemn praise of this wonderful curiosity, believing the earthen jar had given birth to a treasure.
It was during the period of summer that is called “The Hottest 30 days of the Year”, and the thirsty assistant couldn’t resist the taking a drink of the clear, sweet-tart nectar in the jar. He grabbed the dipper and in one gulp drank the whole spoonful, wiped his mouth, not even letting a single drop fall as every onlooker greedily salivated. Each person in the store drank half a dipper of the delicious, sweet-tart liquid。 The shop assistant tried to remember what he’d put in the jar – honey, and water and then he’d let it steep.
From that moment on, he used the same technique to make another batch of “sweet-tart vinegar.” The shopkeeper not only made money but drank this original kombucha and ate the culture prepared cold with dressing (涼拌) and thus he became a local celebrity known as the “Long Life Expert.” After he died at the ripe old age of more than 70 years old, his mysterious treasure was shared with the world and made public. From that time on, it has been handed down for all to use.
Perhaps, this is what has been called the origins of the “Sea Treasure”. Still to this day families in the Bohai district use this ancient technique to ferment their own “vinegar” using their white “vinegar moth” (醋蛾子)(meaning SCOBY).