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Kulov's annual Tea Festival is hitting its stride

May 3, 2010 | 10:05 am

Japanese tea ceremony

The diversity of tea was on display at Kulov’s annual Tea Festival. Held at Royal/T art gallery and cafe in Culver City over the weekend, the festival seemed to have finally found its perfect home.

Royal/T is at once playful, open, and inventive. If you’ve ever been to Royal/T, you know it’s all Harajuku girls, pop art and high tea -- a wonderland, really. The space lends itself to the cultural. There was room for a Japanese tea ceremony in the front, a cooking with tea workshop in the back, and somewhere in the middle a man sitting on a huge gold pillar playing a sitar.

Harajuku/French maid waitresses dashed from cafe table to cafe table serving milk tea and scones to hungry visitors. Kulov, 45, was the magic maker. He wore a Mad Hatter hat and was sitting at a children’s table when I met him. Right away, he asked me to join the children’s tea party, sat me at the head of the table, poured me a cup of rose-colored tea, and offered me my pick of treats from a silver tower: tiny scones, cucumber finger sandwiches, green grapes, and sugared strawberries.

Tea parties for Kulov originated this way. “I was living in Amsterdam at the time, and I had some brand-new nieces. Since my name has L-O-V -- 'Love' -- in it, we started having tea parties for them on Valentine’s Day. From there, it went from the nieces to having the tea parties for friends and clients, and then we finally opened it up to the public.”

The event has been public for five of the 10 years it has been in existence. Though the attendance grows each year, Kulov enjoys the intimacy of the festival; he hopes to never get to “expo” proportions, hoping to keep the communal feel. That seems to be right, as tea -- to Kulov, and to many others -- suggests intimacy and peacefulness, connection and universality.

Tea, for me, is steeped in family roots. My grandmother drinking cups of Tetley in a railroad apartment in Queens while smoking cigarettes in the kitchen, blowing smoke out the back window. My parents meeting for the first time in Japan -- two Americans learning about ceremonial green tea. Me living in London, sitting in the corner in a sweat shirt, cup of tea in hand, trying to figure out how to dial long distance.

This same universal appeal could be seen at the festival as I walked from table to table, trying tiny cup after tiny cup at the festival that drew a mixed crowd of tea connoisseurs and casual tasters.

And there was much tasting to be done. So many flavors: Iced matcha with fresh-squeezed lime juice and fresh ginger. Earl Grey Creme. Assams from India. Medium-bodied Ceylons. Dark Darjeelings. Light white teas. Herbal tisanes. Something with rose hips.

The day wound down with a Japanese tea ceremony, pictured above. Part performance and part meditation, the whole practice made you feel as if you were receiving something special -- a gift made just for you. After eating a red bean, sticky rice flour bun, I waited for my cup of hand-whipped bitter matcha. A bright kelly green, I sipped it in.

As we sat, the hostess offered a lesson on tea ceremonies of this kind, which she said originated in Kyoto in the 16th century. With every sip, we learn something new. Among L.A. cultural celebrations, Kulov’s tea festival is firmly rooted in the cultural and the communal. Like a good cup of tea, it maintains a sweet appeal without being too overwhelming. It’s fun and fantastic and friendly -- all the things some people expect tea not to be.

-- Lori Kozlowski (follow me on Twitter @lorikozlowski)

Children's tea party

Loose leaf tea for sale

Photos, from top: Japanese tea ceremony, a children's tea party and etiquette class, and loose leaf teas on display at the entry way. Credit: Lori Kozlowski / Los Angeles Times