Peer into the cultural ken of a tea-filled kaleidoscope, and you’ll be surprised at the astonishing array of images that appear.
Every region across the globe exhibits a unique tea-drinking culture that is both intriguing and informative, incredible as it’s commonplace, novel and traditional all at once.
THE ORIENT- Part 1
Let’s start our Tea Cultural Journey in the Orient. After all, it’s where tea was born, where tea is widely cultivated, and where tea offers an experience that’s varied and extraordinary.
- ACeremonial Experience.Tea drinking in Japan and China,while very much a part of daily life, is more widely recognised for their elaborate ceremonial rituals.
Kung Fu. Not the martial art, but rather the art of serving and drinking tea in Chinais known as Kung-Fu or Gong Fu. It is an elaborate ceremony involving various prep steps and the use of many interestingtea-warelike:
- the brewing vessel or Yixing teapot
- a tea tureen or Chahai, to make sure the tea’s flavour is consistent
- a porcelain brewing table on which the tea is prepared
- a tea towel
- a teaspoon to clean the spout of the tea pot
- 3 tea cups called Pinming
- 3 matching « scent cups » for smelling the aroma of the tea
Gong Fu means « making tea with skill » which includes warming of the cups and pouring tea from a height, in one continuous movement, till all the cups, which are placed in a circle, are filled. This is followed by the tasting when guests support the cup with the palm of their hands, and slowly sip and savour the tea till their cups are empty.
The tea servedis either Oolong or Pu-erh tea. Green tea is not served as part of the Gong Fu ceremony.
In Japan, the famous Chado ceremony is as much about the tea as it’s about the experience. You do up the house, dress up, keep the tea-ware ready and warm, and prepare sweet confectionaries to accompany the tea.
Chado means the “Way of Tea”, and the ritual draws inspiration from Zen Buddhism.
There are two types of Chado.
- The informal ceremony called chakai.
- And the artfully choreographed, formal ceremony called chaiji.The Chaiji ceremonycan last up to four hours.
For the Chado ceremony, the tea used is a Japanese green powered tea called Matcha, and it is brewed to a thick creamy consistency.
- A Cultural Experience. In India, there is no dawn without tea and no dusk without tea. Tea is woven into the very fabric of daily life like no other country in the world.
Tea is a way of life in India. Tea is the most popular hot beverage here and while there is no particular ceremony linked to tea, like in Japan or in China, no ceremony is complete without tea, in India.
Tea or Chai is prepared and consumed mostly for breakfast and at evening tea time. It is offered to guests, family, and friends. It is a social drink, a mood-booster, a street culture as well as a special treat.
Some of the most popular types of tea or chai preparations include:
- Masala chai- Black tea with milk and sugar brewed together, along with some ginger or cardamom or cinnamon.
- Suleimani- Black tea served with some lemon and sugar.This is a preparation commonly found in the Malabar coast of south western India.
- Kadak chai- Black tea with milk and sugar that is brewed over a long time, giving it a very strong and somewhat bitter flavour. This is popular with Indians living in the North and usually in the cold and hilly regions.
- Malai mar ke chai- tea with sugar, topped with a large dollop of cream.
- Noon chai- Loosely translated it would mean “salt tea”. This preparation is popular in the Himalayan region of Kashmir. Himalayan rock salt is a key ingredient in this tea, resulting in a pinkish hue. Often, dry fruits such as pistachios and almonds are added to this tea.
There is a whole gamut of vocabulary that is tea-specific in India. The commonly-used ones are:
- Chai shai- This means tea served with snacks and accompaniments both sweet and savoury
- Cutting chai- a small cup of tea
- Chai wallah- tea vendors of small tea shops that dot every street in every city in every region of India.
- Tea Kedah- small tea shops. The word “Kedah” comes from the Tamil (a regional language in the South of India), which is now widely used in Malaysia and Singapore where there is a large Tamil population.
- A Novel tea:Tea preparations in Tibet, Pakistan, Thailand and Burma offer a novel experience that you may rarely find elsewhere. It’s sweet, salty, pickled, and cold.
Milk, salt and yak butter are ingredients used in Tibetan tea. It’s a little oily and salty and is definitely an acquired taste. But in the high altitudes of Tibet, it provides much needed warmth and sustenance.
Kahwah- the most popular tea is the green tea. It is often accompanied with every meal in the north-western regions of Pakistan.
Further south, tea is called Chai and its generally black tea served with milk, sugar and pistachios as this region of Pakistan is rich in dry fruits.
In Burma (Myanmar), tea leaves are used to prepare both beverages and a dish. Pickled tea leaves or “laphet”is a delicacy and is served as a meal or a snack, along with fried peas, roasted peanuts and garlic. In ancient Burma, laphet used to be served as a peace offering between two warring rulers.
As for tea as a beverage, in Burma it’s both a street culture as well as a social fare. There are tea shops at every nook and corner. The Burmese enjoy two types of teapreparations:
- Laphet-yei-gyan- green tea made from dried green tea leaves
- Laphet-yei gyo is a sweet black tea served with milk and sugar.
It was the Chinese refugees, fleeing war, who introduced tea to Thailand. However, Thai tea,locally known as Cha-yen, is a far-cry from traditional Chinese tea brews.
Itinvolves black tea mixed with aromatic spices like star anise, and sweetened with condensed milk. The drink is served chilled and it’s particularly popular during the hot summer months. It’s quite common to have a take-away Thai tea.
Jasmine tea is also popular in Thailand.
- Say-what’s that-name-again Tea
TAIWAN’s Bubble Tea
Bubble tea is the most popular tea preparation in Taiwan. It was created by accident, when the manager of a tea house dropped some tapioca balls, meant for dessert, into her tea.
Today Bubble tea can be found everywhere, from food trucks, to tea shops and malls. Tapioca balls that resemble bubbles or pearls are dropped in iced Black, Green or Oolong tea. The beverage is sweet and calorific as it’s mixed with powdered milk and sugar syrup.
Bubble tea’s popularity has spread far and wide, and it’s widely recognised as a fun drink for its flavour, texture and look.
HONGKONG’s Pantyhose Tea
Hong Kong’s “Pantyhose tea” is the region’s most popular tea preparation. The name has little to do with clothing,but rather with the long cloth strainer used to blend and strain the brew of Black tea and milk repeatedly.
Cha chaanteng are diners that serve Pantyhose teas, and welcome people of social classes and backgrounds.
MALAYSIA’s Pulled Tea
Pulled tea. Calorific, sweet and strong. Teh Tarik or pulled tea is made of black tea, condensed milk and sugar. It gets its name from the practice of mixing and cooling the hot tea by pouring it from one glass to another.
The tea vendor’s hands slowly widen further and further resulting in the tea being “pulled” between the two glasses.
THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE OCCIDENT- Part 2
Though the silk route existed long before the British colonised the East, tea was rarelya merchandise traded on its routeuntil the British established their Raj in India.
It was only then, that tea started to make its wayfrom the East to the West, across the Arabian sea and over the Khyber-pass, and its brew grew in popularity.
Tea has since been adopted by several cultures, from Moscow to New York, from Tehran to Casablanca, there is a tea trail and tea tales like no other.
ENGLAND- The Posh-posh tea
It’s a cuppa for breakfast and a cuppa after lunch, and the famous tea-time cuppa that was once served to royalty and now available in cafes. This afternoon tea is all very posh posh. It’s served along with snacks that are presented in a silver three tier tray. It contains finger sandwiches made of cream, cucumber, and some water-crest, and dainty little scones too.
To say that the English love their tea would be an understatement, as they have toppled economies, manipulated trade and fought rebellions for their favourite cuppa.
The English usually prefer their tea (mostly black tea) with a spot of milk and a spoon of sugar.
IRELAND- Tea before Whiskey
The Irish consume more tea than whiskey, in fact they are the largest per capita consumers of tea in the world. Blimey! who would have known!
They love their tea a little stronger and spicier than the English brew, and it’s usually had with milk and sugar.
TURKEY- Çay what?
Çay(pronounced “say”) means tea in Turkish. It’s a black tea variant that is grown in the eastern Black Sea coast, and very popular in Turkey.
Çaydanlikis the Turkish tea pot. It’s a two-tier tea pot, where a strong tea is brewed on the upper pot while water is boiled in the lower one. The brew from the upper pot is served as a concentrate, and the lower pot is passed around so guests can pour hot water as per their choosing.
Though the Turks are often thought to be prolific coffee drinkers, they are one of the largest tea consumers in the world.
IRAN- Between a rock and hot water
So here’s a little flashback: In the 15th century when Iran was still Persia, tea found its way to the country via the Silk Route.
So hard did the Persians fall in love with their tea, that they gave up their coffee drinking culture and replaced it with tea, and then anointed tea as their national drink.
For the next few centuries up until early 1900s, Persians had to import tea and were not allowed to produce their own, due to the British monopoly on tea trade.
A young Persian diplomat who worked for the Iranian consulate in Bombay, changed all that. He brought back tea saplings and seeds from India to his homeland. Today, tea is grown and produced in the Gilan province of North Iran.
In Iran, every street has a “chaikhaneh” or tea stall. Iranians love a strong, black tea. They don’t add sugar or milk, but to sweeten their tea they have the ingenious tradition of sucking on a sweet rock candy called “nabat”.
The nabatis placed between the teeth while the tea is slowly sucked in.
It’s all about the mint in Morocco. Touareg tea or Maghrebi tea is sweet and minty and black.
The tea is usually served by the patriarch and refusing tea is considered extremely rude.
The Touareg tea is poured from a height into slender glasses, and it’s served three times. With each time the flavour gets stronger
Popular Moroccan proverb says: "The first glass is as gentle as life, the second is as strong as love, the third is as bitter as death."
RUSSIAN tea- Never Naked
That’s right! The Russians never serve their tea “naked”. According to the renowned expert of Russian cuisine, William Pokhlyobkin, in the 18th and 19th centuries the Russian nobility didn’t consider tea as a self-dependant beverage and it was always served along with snacks.
The tradition has continued till date, and Russians never serve their tea “naked” without the accompaniment of cookies, candy and pies.
Tea is part of daily life across social classes in today’s Russia, however the tea brewing method has remained faithfully traditional.
Zavarka, a strong tea concentrate made from black loose leaf tea is brewed in a metal container known as Samovar, over a long period of time. Then a little bit of the concentrate is served in large mugs to the guests, who in turn mellow the brew with warm water.
A cup made of pumpkin shell, a metal strainer-cum-straw and a flavourful brew of herb tea- this is what Argentinians offer their friends and guests, and those to whom they are thankful.
The cup is called Calabaza, the straw is bombilla, and the herb tea is known as “yerba mate” (pronounced ma-tay) or the drink of the gods.
UNITED STATES- So cool!
Cold iced tea. 80% of tea consumed in the States is iced sweet tea, without any milk. Hot black tea is also popular for breakfast but there isn’t a culture of afternoon tea time or road-side tea stalls in America.
Today, it’s rather trendy among young Americans to tea-experiment with Japanese Matcha green tea or Taiwan’s Bubble tea.