On the UK Tea & Infusions Association webpage, you can experience the sheer size of tea’s mass following: at the time of writing this piece, 73,938,788 cups of tea were consumed–just in the UK. Another German company based in Lower Saxony boasts processing ten billion tea bags every year. Across the Atlantic, while coffee shops abound downtown, walk down any aisle of an American grocery store, and you can find packets of tea leaves for a few cents or a two-dozen pack of Lipton tea bottles with citrus infusions. On the other side of the world, you’ll find chai wallahs at every other street corner in India, delivering spiced tea with milk. The Japanese tea ceremony involves matcha being steeped and served on a tatami floor. In China, tea is a foot-in-the-door offering on any occasion, and Taiwan’s bubble tea has become synonymous with the Chinese-American identity. At the core of all of these customs is still the water infused with Camellia sinensis leaves. While tea continues to inspire many to experiment with methods of harvesting, preparation and serving, the origin of tea is still unknown. Legend has it that Bodhidharma, considered to be the father of Zen Buddhism, was so frustrated when he dozed off during one meditation that he tore off his eyelids and flung them to the ground. The bloodied flesh miraculously bloomed into tea plants, and when Bodhidharma plucked and chewed the tea leaves, he felt as “one who awakens.” In another legend, the “divine farmer” Shen Nong (now considered an agricultural deity) was resting under a tree after a day of foraging for edible leaves. He accidentally poisoned himself seventy-two times, but before the poison could kill him, a tea leaf flew into his mouth. Shen Nong chewed on it, and it revived him. Either stories seem equally plausible, and since its mysterious inception, tea has offered a slice of peace amidst the chaos to those who drink it. Yet, as we will see, how tea helps people achieve serenity will depend on the culture, the person’s social status, religious affiliation (or lack thereof) and tea’s legacy in that region.
One cannot talk about the English obsession with tea–or a good cuppa–without talking about their tea parties, social events defined by the rules and etiquette. However, this tradition started out in a more pragmatic way. If you have ever looked into the pantry for an afternoon snack, you will likely relate to the first-world problem that Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, encountered one afternoon. In the Victorian Era, the upper class used to eat two main meals: one large breakfast early in the morning, and dinner at 8 p.m. The Duchess felt so hungry (“sinkful feeling”) between the two meals that she started asking for a pot of tea and light snacks starting at 4 p.m. At her leisure, it was only natural that Anna wanted to share a cuppa with some friends–other royals. This social habit of Anna’s then became popular with the middle classes after the price of tea dropped drastically. Since then, tea parties have become ensconced in the English psyche.
For common laborers, they had no afternoon break, so they directly served tea in the evening with heartier foods such as pies, meats, and cheese. This became known as “high tea”, since it referred to how the fare was served at a dining table, as opposed to a lower-level tea table.
Afternoon tea is a completely different affair. You are surrounded by delectable treats–crustless finger sandwiches, scones, macaroons, cakes–but must project an air of complete satiation (Anna would no doubt find this ironic). While pretentiousness is inherent to afternoon tea, according to Bruce Richardson–a British tea historian–partygoers must also maintain a relaxed atmosphere. “Pay attention to your manners,” Richardson says. Etiquette includes placing the napkin on your lap, taking nibbles, sipping (not gulping down) your cuppa, and being careful not to make noise when stirring with a spoon. Most importantly, keep those pinkies down!
A more recent–but no less important–tradition, started in the 20th century. Late-morning snack breaks became known as elevenses, where light snacks (muffins, scones, biscuits) and hot tea or coffee were served. Together, these social tea events have become “a vital element of [England’s] traditional way of life.”
Japan’s largest city, Tokyo, is home to nearly ten million people. As some make trades at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, fickle to the minute changes of other financial markets, there are others who go to find respite at a Japanese tea ceremony. The authenticity and formality of each ceremony differs, but traditionally, the ceremony is held in a tatami room, surrounded by a garden venue. This ritual, also known as the discipline of Chado, involves specific choreography, highly emphasizing religiosity and meditation. From preparing the tea to holding the bowl, concentration is required in every step of the ceremony, helping people forget about the problems of the chaotic world.
The four elements of Chado–Wa (harmony), Kei (respect), Sei (purity), and Jaku (tranquility)–offer a sense of peace. The serenity stems from the “modest and humble” tradition of wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic rooted in Zen Buddhism. Today’s tea ceremonies are modeled after the long-standing traditions of Japan’s most famous tea master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). Rikyu was the first to introduce the tearoom modeled after a typical Japanese farmer’s rustic hut. Tearooms are sparse and austere, and decorations are simple. A couple of flowers in a vase or hanging scrolls are common.
After World War II, the Japanese also wanted to shift the country away from its reputation of war to a separate peaceful narrative. The basic hand movements are taught to guests, so that diplomats, politicians, important businesspeople will serve themselves tea (after it is prepared by the host). The focus on humility in these ceremonies is also exemplified by the low ceiling entrance (nijiri-guchi) of tatami rooms, which force people to bow down when entering. For many, the Japanese tea ceremony provides a meaningful connection to the nonmaterial. For others, it can be used as a tool to wield harmony–between the people of Japan and between nations–despite the obvious tension.
It does not matter whether you are a Bollywood star or a university student. In India, everyone needs tea. And there is always a chai wallah (or chai walli, for female vendors) operating a tea stand nearby. Street vendors may serve their chai in clay cups (kulhar) or flimsy plastic cups, and tea is brewed fresh each day. In Uttar Pradesh, chai is often enjoyed with jalebi, pakodas and namkeen. Spices added to tea may include a combination of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, depending on the region and preparation methods. At the small tea shop in the Sera Jey Buddhist monastery, the monks place chunks of ginger in large, tall glasses. They then pour honey over the ginger, topping it off with lemon extract. Previously prepared tea is poured, and the monks fill the rest of the glass with hot water. For Kena Shree, her nostalgia revolves around tea. On her train rides, Shree described the chai vendor as “literally snatching change from our hands and hopping like Spiderman from one bogie to another,” and how drinking tea “was a constant companion to the friendly gossip, conversations with strangers and offerings of snacks that were such a staple of train journeys.”
The typical tea stands also serves up not only tea but also political and social conversations. University students come to these hubs for philosophical debates, and some chai wallahs have entered an entirely separate sphere from their role as tea vendors. For the Muslims who pray at the Chaukhamba Masjid, the 14th century mosque in Varanasi, they will also visit the tea stand of Bechan Baba and his son, who are both Hindu. Followers of all faiths, according to journalists Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks, come to seek not only a good cup of tea but also Baba’s wisdom. Laxman Rao, another chai wallah, has authored twenty-four books based on his own experiences. When he was campaigning for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi highlighted how he spent his childhood working at his father’s tea stand before becoming the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Tea truly underpins the country’s socio-political and cultural arenas.
The Jesuits despised it, and now, the Pope drinks it. The South American drink Yerba Maté is technically not a tea, since it is an infusion of the holly plant, Ilex paraguariensis, rather than a brew of Camellia sinensis. However, the functions of this beverage are similar for those who regularly drinks tea. As for flavor, some say it “tastes like tea but hits you like coffee.” Yerba Maté is a crucial part in the rhythm of life in South American countries like Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
The widespread popularity of the Yerba Maté can be traced back to the 1616 ban on the herbal drink by one Spanish governor (whose jurisdiction includes what is now known today as Buenos Aires). The drink was originally invented by the Guaraní people, and before long, Spanish colonists started to enjoy mate as well. However, the ban was put in place because the Jesuit priests considered Yerba Maté to be “sinful.” One priest characterized the drink as “dusts in hot water,” and groaned that “when [Spaniards and Indians] stop drinking it they fade away and say they cannot live.”
However, towards the late 17th century, the very same people who complained about this drink started cultivating the holly plant and selling Maté. This turned out to be a very profitable operation, and the drink has become a mainstay in South American cultures. In every household, you will find people sipping their drink out of a special mate cup with a bombilla, a metal straw with a strainer at the end. For the average drinker, a cup of Yerba Maté represents connection, whose intimacy is preserved in one’s home and whose comfort is shared with close friends only.
After the Tzar Michael Fedorovich received a gift of tea from the ruler of Mongolia, Altyum-Khan, in 1638, Russian tea culture has stood on the shoulders of earlier tea cultures and has also carved a space for its own. Similar to the history of tea in Britain, tea was originally reserved for the upper class, and it was not until later that everyday people could enjoy the drink.
The preferred type of tea in Russia is strong black tea, but different blends of tea–such as the smoked black tea Lapsang Souchong– were also invented in Russia. At the heart of brewing tea is the samovar, a kettle that is elaborately decorated and highly valued. The samovar is used to first brew a strong tea concentrate called zavarka. A little bit of the concentrate is poured into each teacups or tall glasses. Then, each person pours boiling water to dilute the concentrate to fit his or her taste. To sweeten the affair, people can hold on a sugar cube in between their teeth or eat a scoop of jam before taking a sip of bitter tea. Food is always served with tea! Typical fare may include cheese, meats and round cookies called sushkie, which can be dipped into tea.
To sum up its tea culture, every Russian could probably share the same sentiment as the French author, Alexandre Dumas: “the best tea is drunk in St. Petersburg and in general across all Russia”.
The connections created by tea–as exemplified by the selection of tea cultures described above–will continue to leave a concentrated, sweet, bitter, rich, refreshing, and powerful legacy.
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