Most tea cups have handles, some being more utilitarian than others. The big question is: What makes a good cup handle? Now, you’re probably thinking something obvious like, “One that helps me hold the cup.” Duh, of course! But what is that? Time to take a closer look.
A handled cup has two basic parts: a body (“bowl”) that holds the liquid and from which you drink, and a handle that you grasp to lift the cup without burning your fingers (the “bowl” often heats up when you pour your hot beverage in it).
The first criteria for a cup handle is that it stays attached to the “bowl” when you try to use it. I know this is obvious, but if you have children who have brought home their pottery class project mug where the handle isn’t quite committed to the idea of being part of the whole, then you know what I mean. Nothing is more disconcerting than taking hold of the handle of a cup you have filled with a lovely Darjeeling or some perfectly steeped Keemun, raising the handle up to your lips, and finding that — Yikes! — there is no cup! You do one of those cartoonish doubletakes, looking at the handle in your hands and then at the cup “bowl” sitting on the counter, calmly waiting for you to notice this odd state of affairs. Meanwhile, the tea is cooling in the cup. Sigh!
So, you use a cup that you know absolutely and without a shred of doubt has a handle that there is not the slightest possibility of rebellion when that moment of truth comes.
But that’s not enough.
Handles come in a lot of sizes and shapes, some more accommodating than others. What “accommodating” is can depend a lot on you. Fingers are the anatomical feature that interacts with the cup handle most often. They can range from long and bony to stubby to beefy. Handles have to have enough room in their “loop” for at least one of your fingers and ideally two fingers. If you are attending a proper “afternoon tea” being served at low tables à la “Anna Duchess of Bedford style,” then etiquette says you don’t put your fingertips in the handle but instead grasp the handle between thumb and the first two fingers. Having seen some of those teensy dainty teacups used for such events, you would know why. They almost seem scaled for a young child’s hands.
The final thing to consider here: Do you need a cup with a handle at all? That’s up to you. Some teas seem to be sipped best from a gaiwan or a small handleless cup like they serve your tea to you in at Chinese and Japanese restaurants. Teas like oolongs, green teas, white teas, and pu-erhs. Others, such as a Breakfast Blend or Earl Grey, seem fit for a nice handled teacup. Sometimes a particular mug or cup, with or without a handle, just feels good in your hands. It has the right “heft” (weight and feel), which can be as comforting as the tea in it.
Whichever way you go, remember that pinky pointing is definitely an etiquette no-no. You could put an eye out that way — probably your own!
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