Like the alchemy of acid and fat, the balance of sweet and salty, and the classic pairing of peanut butter and jelly, two is often better than one in the world of food. Introducing Culinary Duos, a series from culture editor Megan Zhang highlighting dynamic pairings — from couples to siblings to friends — whose partnerships produce flavorful magic.
When Lani Gobaleza first met Amy Truong in Japan, she noticed that Truong always seemed to be having tea. “It was just constantly there in the background,” says Gobaleza. Whenever they met, “we would go to a cafe and have tea, or go to a little teahouse”.
The two became friends in Yokohama while taking an international studies program at Meiji Gakuin University during their freshman year of college in 2010. “I was a little shy,” Truong says, recalling that she offered tea to his peers to get to know them better. “Everyone was going out to clubs,” she recalls with a laugh. “I decided to stay and try to live more, like everyday life in Japan. I think Lani also had similar values. Amidst the delicate scent of cherry blossoms permeating the air during the sakura season, the tranquility and the simple pleasure of sharing a pot of tea allowed them to bond with the novelty of their environment.
This theme that defined the first months of their relationship led them, seven years later, to co-found PARU Tea, a San Diego boutique offering specialty varieties of loose leaf and matcha from around the world, putting the focus on lesser known, sustainably grown teas from Southeast Asia. The now married The couple works closely with small growers, many of whom operate family farms, to import their leaves for PARU’s two stores in La Jolla and Point Loma, California.
A few months of study abroad certainly boosted Truong’s interest in tea, but the drink was by no means new to her. Truong’s maternal grandfather had worked in Japan and was fluent in the language; he developed a love for tea that carried over to Truong’s mother, who spent part of her childhood in Paris drinking herbal teas like lavender and chamomile. Refreshment was ubiquitous in Truong’s own childhood, and she grew up enjoying the ritualized aspects of tea preparation, serving and drinking. While living in Yokohama, she learned more about the art and performance of Japanese tea ceremonies, from the materials used to the gestures exchanged between host and guests. “Even how you hold the cups is really important,” says Truong.
Gobaleza, on the other hand, tended to sip more coffee than tea before living in Japan, as her mother grew up on a farm that grew coffee beans in the Philippines. “It was this whole new world that intimidated me,” she says of tea culture, as she didn’t want to accidentally flout the conventions surrounding the drink in Japan. However, she has come to realize over time that while tea drinking can certainly be refined and ceremonial, it is also simply part of the daily routine. “Our host families were so easy going with the tea,” she recalls. “It was always free in restaurants, and to me it felt more like a community thing.”
Upon completion of the program in Yokohama, Gobaleza and Truong returned to UC Berkeley and UC Irvine, respectively, to complete their studies. A few years passed before Truong contacted Gobaleza to ask if she wanted to catch up — over tea, of course. They had been on each other’s minds for years to come, and their reconnection blossomed into romance. After two years of a long-distance relationship (during which Gobaleza returned to Japan to study the language further) and time living together in the Bay Area, the couple moved to their hometown. Gobaleza, San Diego.
Over the years, Truong had toyed with the idea of starting his own business. She was passionate about tea, but the idea of pursuing an import business didn’t materialize until 2017, when Truong won a trip to Japan, an experience she ended up turning into a trip. supply. “To this day, we transport tea from the farmers I met there,” says Truong. Gobaleza credits the event with encouraging the two to take a leap of faith: “I don’t know how long it would have taken us if we hadn’t seen a sign that it had to happen.”
The global introduction to PARU Tea was in the form of a pop-up. “I was selling iced teas because I thought people just wanted a nice little drink to go,” Truong recalls. “But then people started asking, ‘Oh, what is this tea blend? How do you do it at home? Encouraged, they launched a digital storefront and began hosting more events around San Diego. After two years, they decided to open a physical store, even though “everyone advised against it,” says Truong. But they had accumulated enough clientele that a long line of customers came through the door when the storefront finally debuted.
Inside, Truong’s aesthetic sensibilities are on full display. Clean and minimalist, with lots of natural wood and soft lighting, the shops are carefully designed to bring out the colorful tea varieties that line the white walls. Truong and Gobaleza also plan to unveil a photo exhibit featuring images captured by their farming partners, so customers can get to know the artisans behind the leaves better.
San Diego already had a strong specialty drink scene replete with small breweries and specialty coffee roasters. Yet no one has focused on the diversity of tea culture, let alone the artisans and cultivars behind the craft. Although Gobaleza grew up wanting to leave San Diego, it was while living in Yokohama’s similar coastal environment that she reconsidered her perspective on her hometown (which happens to be Yokohama’s sister city). “It’s an international city where a lot of amazing things have been imported and exported,” she says.
Today, the two carry on the tradition of the port city as a gateway to international culture by working directly with small tea producers across Asia and making it a priority to develop and nurture strong relationships with these farmers. Rather than ordering a single variety from many different sources, the pair aim to source multiple teas from a handful of long-term partners, hoping to have a more meaningful impact on farmers’ lives. . “One thing we thought about was, is this really going to help them support their families and their workers – just the tea? said Gobaleza. By keeping their partner network small as PARU Tea grows, “we also order more from our tea partners, so they also grow every year,” says Truong.
In addition to stocking popular varieties such as Longjing (sometimes called Dragon Well), hojicha and chrysanthemum, the duo focuses on lesser-known tea producing countries. PARU’s inventory includes, to name a few, tea cigars from Phongsaly, Laos, whose leaves are hand-picked by women of the Phou Noy minority, as well as a raw tea of pu’er style called Witch’s Broom from Tây Côn Lĩnh in Vietnam. Ha Giang Province. Gobaleza and Truong also source from areas of China and Japan that aren’t as well-known as their more famous neighbors. “[Tea from] Kyoto is huge, and we source from Kyoto,” Gobaleza explains, “but Nara is right next door, and nobody really talks about Nara. Now Taro Toki, a town tea grower who has become a long-term partner of PARU, is helping to develop the shop’s own 10-acre tea estate, where varieties are grown specifically for the company. This includes “a lot of things I’ve never done before, like growing mint,” Toki notes. “Through [their] offers, I explore new areas, always.
To promote sustainable tea growing practices, Truong and Gobaleza not only look for leaves grown without pesticides, but they also try to support farmers’ efforts to minimize waste. A shop partner in Wawee Village, in the Thai city of Chiang Rai, produces a blend of tea from the year’s leftover harvest, which PARU sells as Thai Earl Grey.
Truong produces her own blends for the shop, including Ingat (meaning “take care” in Tagalog), which is inspired by the Filipino herbal tea salabat. Ginger is “such an important ingredient in so many Filipino dishes,” says Gobaleza, and the refreshing peppery taste of the root takes center stage in the mix. Another creation Truong loves is Pandan Waffle, the aroma of which reminds him of the bright green pandan coconut cakes his mother used to buy when Truong was a child. “I took a nostalgic route to recreate memories of my favorite desserts growing up,” she says, adding that the pandan and coconut flavor combination is also loved in the Philippines and was also nostalgic for Gobaleza. Although many tea purveyors shy away from blends, Gobaleza and Truong hope to inspire customers to look at blends differently, as they can be a way to showcase flavors from different parts of the world in a single cup.
Likewise, the couple itself forms a dynamic couple. PARU’s wholesale partner, Julie Nguyen, describes the two as “yin and yang,” opposing personalities that bring out the best in each other. “A few months of our lives,” Truong says of that fateful study abroad program in Yokohama, “really changed the course of everything.”