The simple act of putting the kettle on to make tea has been written about, quoted, and even sung about millions of times and yet remains a highly significant and worthwhile task. We do it naturally at the pauses during the day, to comfort others, on waking, when we come in from the garden or when a friend pops over or we are reading or studying and when we arrive home. Well, I do anyway and I know I’m not alone because globally, over 3 million tons of tea are produced every year and in Australia alone we have 9.8 million tea drinkers.
The appeal of Tea is universal even though from culture to culture, what we call Tea varies considerably in unique ways. For many, Tea has a greater significance in life than a mere refreshment or beverage. It is a way of life and represents a host of deep sentiments, characterised by rituals and traditions that date back thousands of years.
Across the world, tea is being poured and enjoyed in these different ways that reflect the particular history and culture of each country. Following the customs of tea around the world is like a virtual journey that chronicles the way tea was originated, how it is made, served, shared and savoured in each region. The one aspect of Tea that is universal is the profound sense of hospitality that tea creates. No matter which country one is visiting the welcoming nature of Tea prevails everywhere.
When I think of tea origins, China comes to mind first, closely followed by Britain with the Victorian tradition of Afternoon tea. Surprisingly though, the first European country to enjoy Tea was France. In 1639 the Cardinal Mazarin drank Tea to cure his gout, and King Louis XIV also enjoyed Tea for the health benefits. In contrast, Tea did not arrive in England until 1662 but was a practice of the French Court before this time. The French courtiers revelled in the ceremony and elegance of Tea.
The bourgeois were the first to love their tea in France, but Tea as a common beverage did not filter down to the masses like it did in the UK and remained a beverage for the aristocracy of France. Once the division in the social fabric between the rich and poor in France occurred the popularity of Tea virtually disappeared with the exception of the Mariage family.
Louis Nicholas Mariage in 1660 went to Persia and India to purchase teas. Later the world-famous tea company called ‘Marriage’ was opened in 1854 by brothers Henri and Eduoard Mariage. It was a wholesale, importing tea company selling to the city’s most elegant hotels and tea salons like the “Salon de te or tea house. The salon was a safe place for women of wealthy families to gather while the coffee shops were filled with men. Drinking Tea, therefore, became fashionable for the nobility and the rich. In the 18th Century, French Traders went to the East to import teas such as green Tea for medicine. After the 19th Century, the French preferred to drink black Tea for its rich fragrance and taste. Tea drinking began to be enjoyed in private homes as å la Anglaise tea; drank it with milk and sugar. France also did not become a substantial tea-drinking country because the French colonies mainly were coffee-producing nations, so the Tea prices were too high compared to coffee.
In the 1990s, flavoured teas in France were trendy, and today the various French tea brands are consumed in a casual manner but the Tea in France is far more delicate, refined and fragrant than the tannin-rich strong brews of the UK and Ireland. Typically French like their epicurean and wine heritage, French tea is lighter in colour and taste and more aromatic than English tea.
The French may not like strong Tea, but they certainly have the best Tea accompaniments in the manner of delicate French pastries, exquisite fine bone china and flatware. Today, in Paris for example, there are many beautiful tea salons or salon de thé filled with customers sipping on their Tea and gorgeous macarons- the only obstacle is choosing which one to visit.
In Morrocco, they drink a delicate mint tea called Touareg tea. It is named after the nomadic tribes of Northern Africa and is a refreshing, hot sweet tea made of green tea and spearmint leaves. It is a welcoming gesture everywhere one goes in Morroco, especially in the Medina and markets. The custom is for the male of the house to make the tea and it can be quite a ceremony when made for a guest. The Tea is served three times a day for three purposes the first to symbolise life, the second to symbolise love and the third is death.
In India Chai is the quintessential beverage drunk many times throughout the day. Chai is made by boiling black tea leaves with sugar, milk and cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom spices and pepper. The origins of the word Chai came from the Chinese word Cha – Tea. Chai has its origins in Ayurveda from 5,000 years ago as a healing and energising beverage to aid digestion and circulation. The trend of Chai has travelled across the globe and is now very easily available in cafes and home mixes and tea brands. Across India, traditionally Chai wallahs serve the hot sweet tea from carts on every street-it is an essential and beloved aspect of the cultural heritage of India. As in Morocco, it is impossible to avoid being offered chai in every shop, stall or business you enter in India. Chai has a black tea base usually Assam or Darjeeling with spices added and sugar although green tea is also used especially in the South of India, which makes the Chai a lighter style. Chai is a legacy from the British, who were the first to develop tea plantations in the 1800s that now cover vast areas of Assam and Darjeeling and other areas of India; notably the arrival of the British East India Company in 1830.
In Turkey tea is also drunk all day long until evening and is a deep red colour served from an Inci belli bardak,– a thin belly glass’. resembling the shape of a tulip. As in India and Morrocco, Tea is closely linked with friendship and hospitality and is offered everywhere one goes as a welcoming gesture. It is served by young boys hurriedly roaming the streets carrying trays of sweet tea in unique Turkish glasses. Turkey is amongst the top five countries in the world that love their tea and have the largest tea plantations; around 700 million square metres of plantations. In Turkey, in every home or work site, you will find a pot of tea always brewing and ready to drink. It is a custom to offer tea to everyone and it would be considered rude not to accept.
In Ireland, there is a very specific etiquette for drinking Tea. Tea is offered as soon as you step into someone’s home no matter if a visitor, a relative or an electrician, handyman, builder or another worker you will be offered Tea as an icebreaker. This is the backbone of Irish hospitality and a symbol of camaraderie, and friendship, although, it is also expected that you refuse first by saying “No, thanks” and then wait. Later you will be offered tea again, and it is actually a cultural faux pas not to accept the tea and drink it. The other major faux pas in Ireland is to make yourself a tea without offering tea to everyone in your vicinity- quite a challenge at work!
Tea is always black tea and rarely is there any choice for other styles. The tea will be made in a teapot that is scalded beforehand with boiling water and made with strong Assam Tea leaves and always milk. Tea can be served as well in large mugs made with teabags. One aspect of all Irish Tea is, it will be made piping hot with just-boiled water and it will be strong and have milk and sugar. There are basically only two brands of Tea in Ireland -Lyons or Barrys and the Irish are sticklers for loyalty. Once a brand is chosen it will continue for life and one must never run out of Tea.
In Japan, Tea is not a quick cuppa with a teabag in a mug and is far more than a popular beverage. It is a sacred aspect of Japanese culture and has a long history of ritual and ceremony. Much preparation goes into the Japanese tea event called chanoyu, or sado. It is considered one of the three classical Japanese refinement arts of Kodo incense appreciation and kado flower arranging- these all date back to Zen Buddhism in 815. Throughout the history of Japan, Tea evolved as a “transformative practice” and developed an aesthetic or “Way Of Tea” that represents purity, tranquillity, respect and harmony.
The tea ceremony creates a bond between the host and guest that develops inner peace. It is an essential aspect of Japanese culture derived from ancient zen monks and noble warlords and has its origins in Buddhism, dating back to the 9th century. It is a ceremony that is a meditational task of preparing a drink of Matcha Green Tea for a guest through intricate movements and art forms in strict order to be appreciated by the guest and performed in a ritualistic manner, including the surroundings, dress and atmosphere. The Japanese sense of omotenashi is to look after guests wholeheartedly. The Tea Ceremony does just that by preparing, serving and ceremonially drinking the powdered green tea to induce feelings of wellbeing and harmony.
Green Tea is known to have extraordinary qualities for improving health and reducing the impact of aging and has become a trustworthy, therapeutic part of life. It is the most popular beverage, often served free in Japan, just like water in cafes and restaurants. Apart from the more ceremonial formal tea drinking, the Japanese also drink green tea in the morning, and the afternoon or serve to guests as a show of hospitality in their homes. Some popular Japanese green teas are Bancha, Sencha, Kukicha, Matcha, Gyukuro, Genmaicha, Shincha, and Kabusecha. The Japanese people believe in the Power of Tea and drink it with meals for the curative properties of Tea rather than any pleasure of drinking it. Two sentiments surround Tea in Japan
There is a tea culture in America although caffeine from coffee is the nation’s first love. Tea in America is mostly made as an ice-cold beverage in fact about 85% of the tea consumed is served cold, in the heat of summer. There are many varieties and some are made as iced teas to buy on the go like soft drinks. To make Iced Tea at home a tea brew is made in a pitcher or jug the same way as hot tea and then chilled before drinking. The type of tea used is mostly black tea-Jasmine, Oolong, Gunpowder, Darjeeling or Assam. Then when served the iced tea has crushed ice added, a lemon slice and a sprig of mint.
Tea in the USA is an evolving culture that sees hot Tea consumed most likely for well-being or healing and energy purposes. All herbal tisanes and black tea in the USA come under the banner of Tea but do not have the feeling of being a socialising stimulant like Tea is in the UK, Ireland and Australia. Tea in the USA is marketed often with references to Asian spiritual traditions or healing like Davidson’s Ayurvedic Infusions, Budha Digestive Nirvana Tea, Yogi Tea’s Egyptian Licorice, and many Celestial Seasoning’s herbal blends for relaxation or energy. There is also a growing trend toward ethical and environmentally sound tea production around the world and the modernising of the Tea industry to be more transparent in the development of blends that reflects the traditions of origin yet are contemporary in outlook and sustainability- Three Gems, Us Two, and Alaya.
In Tibet, tea is auspicious and implies friendship, respect, and purity. Tibetans drink buttered tea and barley wine whilst singing and dancing at their festivals. There are two unique tea beverages in Tibet; salty butter tea and sweet milk tea. Tea has for a thousand years been an integral part of the Tibetan peoples social customs, social rituals, and arts. The Tibetan tea culture began thousands of years ago because of trade during the Tang Dynasty. The high altitude at the top of the world in Tibet means that a hearty hot beverage made of ghee butter is needed to add calories and sustenance in an area devoid of excess green vegetables and fresh produce. The butter Tea or Yak tea is the most popular and consists of brick Pu’er tea, yak butter, yak milk, and salt. The other Tea is Sweet Tea which is black tea, milk, and sugar and without the butter is the tea is more palatable for tourists. Tibet has many teahouses that serve authentic Tibetan sweet tea and it is often accompanied by Tibetan noodles and snacks.
Tibetan Milky tea is drunk with rice or bread. Tibetans usually drink this in the morning and continue up to 40 – 60 small cups a day for extra nutrition and hydration but also the tea is offered to guests. To make Yak Tea they pound brick tea into pieces, boil it in a stainless steel pot, and then pour the hot, fragrant tea into a wooden vat – one meter high. They add butter and salt, and it is mixed with a stick and the mixture dissolves. When the mixture is heated again in a teapot they get fragrant buttered tea. If a distinguished guest arrives they often present a hada, which is a piece of white silk used as a greeting gift among the Tibetans, the guest is offered a seat and then buttered tea. There is a strong sense of etiquette when drinking Tibetan Tea as well. The host must continually add milky tea to the guest’s bowl and the guest must sip the tea so the host can continue to refill. If the host fills up the guest’s bowl and the guest cannot drink anymore it is left and must be drunk in one gulp on leaving to say thank you and express satisfaction or gratitude to the host.
Tea in Pakistan is central to the country’s culture and a common drink that is given to guests as a courtesy. Noon Chai is a Kashmiri special tea made from a blend of pistachios, almonds, salt, milk, and spices – cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise. Noon Chai has a delicious flavour and is pink but the pink colour doesn’t come from a colouring agent it’s a result of chlorophyll in the tea reacting with bicarbonate of soda that’s added to boiling tea leaves. It is made with green tea not black as in Indian Chai and is usually served on special occasions, and enjoyed with pastries like sheermaal, kandir tchot, bakarkhani, and kulcha. The spices in the pink tea are optional. The taste is meant to be delicate and not overpowering so the tea itself can be enjoyed. A more casual style of tea in Pakistan is “Doodh Pati” or milk tea, which involves no water with milk, salt, pistachios, almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise spices.
In Malaysia Teh Tarik, is a type of milky black tea often called “pulled tea” and it is the unofficial national drink of Malaysia. The tea is sweet and frothy and made from strong hot black tea, condensed milk and sugar. It becomes frothy by pouring or pulling the contents of two mugs from one to the other repeatably until it transforms into a rich frothy tea. Considered tea heaven. Locals have family-run stalls and guard their own secret recipe for the best Tea Tarik. The pul is performed like a theatrical display and whoever gets the best feat of tea pull becomes a celebrity and is revered.
The debate is still out on the origins of Teh Terak tea being either from Singapore or Malaysia but can be traced to the Indian-Muslim immigrants in the Malay Peninsula who set up sarabat or drink stalls at the entrance of rubber plantations after World War II. This was to serve the workers a refreshment. Sarabat stalls today are still common in factories and construction sites in Malaysia but the ones in Singapore have been moved to the Hawkers centre in the 1970s.
Teh Tarik is made with any type of tea, but tea dust is the preference because it results in a stronger flavour compared to tea leaves. Tea dust is made of a lower-grade tea of broken tea leaves that are ground into dust. To make the pulled tea the sweet condensed milky tea is taken off the heat and strained into a tin mug. Then the tea is poured from a height of about a metre into another tin mug. This “pulling” of the tea forms the froth, cools the tea and enhances the flavour. The significance of this tea is the cultural melting pot of indigenous Malay, Chinese, British and South Indian influences representing a liquid fusion of the cultures and customs.
In Sweden, there is a tradition called ‘fika’. It is a time when friends, family and colleagues meet for coffee or tea and something sweet at least once a day. Fika is an opportunity to get together and bond. The essence of what Tea is about, although Fika, is not based on a love of tea or coffee more a desire to catch up with special friends and family. Fika is a Swedish word that means ‘taking a break’, a moment to relax, to catch up with your family and to laugh with your friends. In Sydney, there are two Swedish Fika places in Bondi and Manly and one in Perth. Swedish people love to say ‘let’s do fika’ so why not try it out? https://fikaswedishkitchen.com.au/
Join me next time as I continue our Tea journey to the UK, South America, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, Russia, Egypt and back to Australia.
All content Di Baker with Images as cited
Title Image Karl Larson watercolour print