There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
We Indians seem to share quite a few things with the Chinese – our alarmingly large population, low daily working wages and our deep ties to our culture. But there is yet another thing we share with our Chinese neighbours….our love for Tea. Both nations have a rich tea culture, being two of the largest producers and consumers of tea in the world. However, there is much more to tea culture than just the practices followed in these two countries.
Today people from across 100 nations and regions around the world have their very own, unique and distinct tea culture. In some places, tea making and the culture associated with it has been given the status of art, and promoted like the same. So what are the salient characteristics of the tea cultures across the world? Let’s find out!
One Beverage: Several cultures across the world
Tea today is much loved not only for the cultural ties it has with the society, but also for its many health benefits. However, based on the region and the way tea is produced or procured there, the culture of tea preparation and drinking changes. There are various unique traditions linked to tea across the globe – from Asia to Middle East to Europe to North America and even South America. From quirky tea ceremonies to interesting tea making practices, let’s pay a little tribute to the world’s favourite beverage and enlighten ourselves to the other tea cultures across the globe.
Exploring tea cultures from around the globe:
China is introduced tea to the world, and their culture and social ties deeply revolve around their tea culture. Lu Yu, a scholar from the 8th century who wrote the first book on tea penned ‘Tea liquor is like the sweetest dew from heaven’; he couldn’t have been more apt. In China, the art of drinking tea requires finesse and wisdom; it’s been a part of their culture since 2000 BCE after all!
The Chinese value tea so much, they use if for more than just drinking. It’s a part of their religious ritual, their courtship rituals and even their gifting rituals. They like their Green tea and their varieties are as famous in the East as Earl Grey is in UK and USA.
They say to experience the best of Chinese tea culture, there is no better place than Chengdu. Here tea drinking has its own charm and you will find that not only are you served authentic oriental tea in all its style and quaint charm; these locals think of their tea drinking as a complete package that also involves light hearted conversation, some great food and interestingly, ear cleaning that is followed by a shoulder massage! In fact so trendy are Chengdu teahouses, they symbolize their idea of nightlife as much as they symbolize being a centre for quiet and relaxation.
Tea travelled from China to Japan with travelling Buddhist monks. It first became a part of their temple tea practices and soon was adopted by the locals and became an intricate part of Japanese culture. What we know as the famous Japanese Tea Ceremony was coined in the 1500s by Sen Rikyu, a priest who created three schools of this magnanimous ceremony. Tea drinking is an integral part of the Japanese daily life; what started as a sophisticated practice by the high end society in Japan that didn’t wish to participate in the vulgarity of wine drinking soon became a way of life for even the common man.
Like China, Japanese tea culture revolves around green tea as well. For the Japanese, the delicacy and the colour of the tea liquor is of utmost importance and they brew teas that are green to golden in colour and highly fragrant too. Their famous Matcha is world renowned, being a powerful powered form of tea used traditionally for their Japanese tea ceremony. But other worthy teas that are a part of the Japanese tea culture are the Sencha, Bancha and Gyokuro.
As the largest exporter of tea in the world, the quality and finesse of Indian teas is worthy of the love and respect it has garnered amongst true tea connoisseurs cross the globe. From the ‘Champagne of teas’ which is also Darjeeling tea, to the full bodied Assam tea and the fragrant fruity Nilgiri tea; in India there is no dearth of variety.
The Indian tea culture gave birth to the world famous Indian Chai; a beverage made from simmering black tea with fragrant whole spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and clove, added with milk and sugar. There seems to be a new recipe in every household, and every chaiwalla you see by the road will add to this drink his very own unique touch! However, in the end, we Indians cannot do without our Chai – it’s the way we greet guests, celebrate new beginnings, mourn for painful endings and draw strength for each new day.
Russians, like the British, like their tea black. Tea reached Russia through the Silk Road and made use of 200-300 camels that dredged along the long and tiresome 11,000 miles to get this highly priced item from China to Russia. It comes as no wonder that back then tea was only for the wealthy! However, soon tea became a part of Russian culture; its warm soothing and life sustaining properties ideal for the harsh climate.
Russian tea culture can be called unique. They drink black tea that has added to it pulp of lemon rather than just the juice and some recipes also add jam and fruits to the tea! You won’t be surprised to see that in winters Russians also add tea to their wine to keep colds and flu at bay.
Tea in Russia is always served hot always, even if the temperatures outside are warm. When one thinks of Russian tea culture, the Samovar comes to mind which is a combination of a water heater and teapot, much inspired by the 13th century Mongol kettles. In summers, Russians still use their samovar but keep it in the garden, while in bitter cold winters it is placed inside right underneath the chimney.
Tea culture is very important in the Middle East. From the Mongol lands to other countries in these Muslim regions, tea is a beverage that is associated with family time and relaxation, as well as with entertaining guests. The Middle East is a perfect haven for tea lovers; one can find anything from refined tea served in ornate glasses to traditional teahouses still using their samovars.
In elite circles, you will find that a warm tea served in a refined manner is the way to welcome visitors. It’s served in luxurious reception rooms that are fragrant with the smells of burning incense, and the host will wash their hands with rose or orange scented water before they serve you the welcome drink. The tea itself is sublime – prepared with fresh mint and sugar which is added to a delicate green tea brewed to perfection. To enjoy tea in Morocco the way locals do, visit Marrakech. Here, you will find sweetened tea poured in to small palm sized glasses (not cups) from copper kettles.
The land of King Louis XIV, one of the most famous tea connoisseur in all of history, France is a country that has a tea for every mood, occasion and event. You will find a rich tea culture in the country with many teahouses – big and small; each serving its own unique beverage that will quench your thirst and calm your senses to perfection. The French art of Tea is owed to the French pastry it is accompanied with that gives it a true French character that is so unique to this culture.
Tea is the quintessential British drink. It’s believed that no other culture has embraced the tea culture as seriously as the Britishers have… and it won’t be completely untrue to say that we all have the Britishers to thank for giving tea the publicity it needed to become the world’s favourite beverage today.
‘Tea Time’ in Britain is an elaborate affair; and there are many tea meals that are also a part of their culture. The Afternoon Tea or Low Tea is a tea meal served around 4:00pm. There is also the High Tea that is served around 5:00-6:00pm and is often a part of their supper or dinner. Interestingly, the names ‘High’ and ‘Low’ are not derived from the class of people who followed the practice, but from the height of table each of these tea meals are served at! While Low Tea is an evening tea and hence served at the coffee table, High Tea is part of dinner and hence served at the higher dining table. Interesting, isn’t it?
In the English tea culture, the most popular names you hear are the English breakfast tea and the Earl Grey tea. They call it their ‘National Drink’, and there is no better place than England to truly reveal in tea drinking and all its refined mysticism.
You would think that the South Americans would love their coffee, but the interesting thing is that South America also has a tea culture. They make their own unique tea called as the ‘Mate tea’. Its drunk using a straw, and is a refreshing concoction that helps aid digestion. Their Andean tea uses the coca leaf; now this leaf has a rather notorious reputation, being used to make cocaine as well!
But these people drink this ancient brew to alleviate the effects that come from living at such altitudes, especially the people who live around the mountains like in Cuzco. Tourists will get a complementary cup on arrival at all good hotels, and it works wonders considering that you are about 11,000 feet above sea level and need that buzz to take it all in.
Believe it or not, right up till the World War II, green tea was the most commonly had beverage in the United States. Intrigued? Some say that tea is intricately linked to America’s independence – in 1773 during the Boston Tea Party, shiploads containing tea were dumped to protest against taxes on the same tea being re-exported from UK.
But the biggest role the USA has made to tea culture is by making Iced Tea world famous. You see, most of the other tea cultures around the world popularize tea as a hot beverage, while it is the Americans who introduced iced tea to the world. The story behind that is just as interesting – In 1904, some Indian producers were trying to sell their black tea at a World Fair in St. Louis. It was hot, and they decided to pout the brew over ice in order for Americans to try it, and thus came in to existence the Iced Tea.
Today it comes in many forms and there are endless flavours to try, but the Americans like theirs best very sweet with a squeeze of lime on hot summer days. In places like Tennessee, Iced tea has been used for ages to welcome guests, offering them a refreshing drink to cool off with. Back then it was only polite to drink 3 glasses to show appreciation for one’s hostess….though thankfully now that culture is mostly redundant!
Sri Lanka’s Ceylon black tea is world famous, but did you know they like to drink their tea bitter? And though Thailand is in Asia and very much influenced by the oriental cultures around, the Thai like their tea cold in the form of Iced Tea too, much like the Americans. The Mongolians have a special tea called as the ‘Brick tea’, where in they add finely ground brick tea to a pot of boiling water and serve the brew hot with goat’s milk. In Mali, tea is had after every meal. Traditionally, a tea pot is put over a mud stove with some fresh leaves and left to boil, wherein the brewing method is pretty special. It’s had with meats as well; much like the rest of the world likes to drink wine!
Some interesting insights in to tea culture:
You find many diverse tea drinking rituals around the globe; it is a reminder that tea is rather worldly! The way different people drink their teas or rather prepare them is a perfect representation of the cultural differences between them; they all love the same beverage, but simply enjoy it differently!
- While you will find beautiful tea cups served on saucers and milk pots with matching sugar pots and kettles used to serve tea the British style, most other Eastern European cultures actually serve their tea in glasses. Russians serve it with an ornate glass holder they call as ‘podstakannik’.
- Tea is also the national drink of Egypt and so popular that coffee doesn’t even come as a close second. Egyptians don’t just have black tea in the morning, it’s also compulsory after lunch.
- In Turkey, tea is sweetened with not normal sugar but beetroot sugar.
- While we know Kashmiri Kahwa to be a refreshing, filling and heart warming beverage that is so well suited to the colder climates, the Pakistani’s have their own version called as ‘noon chai’. It’s a bright pink in colour and is flavoured with the richness of pistachios and cardamom.
Which one is your favourite tea culture? Have you encountered some other interesting tea drinking ceremonies and unique traditions on your world travels? If the rich tea cultures across the world have left you longing to try some new tea recipes and experience the difference.