Around the World: Touring the World of Tea
As worldly travelers know, tea service is a gesture of hospitality around the globe. In many countries, tea is an almost ceremonial aspect of lifestyle. Sipping tea is a wonderful way for tourists to experience local culture.
Tea service is distinct in different places, but it’s always meant to honor the guest and the moment. Whether offered casually with the welcoming words “Would you like a cup of tea?” when you enter a home or presented formally in a pre-arranged ritual at a tea house, tea drinking is a pleasing shared experience.
Of course, tea culture is more prominent and accessible in some countries than others. For example, most people know about Britain’s “high tea.” The high tea habit may have been adopted in other places around the world, but it began in England. Stopping for high tea at a fancy hotel or shop is almost requisite on the tourist agenda for Britain.
Britain's high tea originated during the early 1800s when, as the story goes, Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, felt peckish between noon lunch and late night dinner. Anna arranged for the service of a light meal in the late afternoon. The light meal soon became a popular aristocratic social venue.
Although the custom began with high society, the term "high tea" is actually working class. "High" is actually a reference to the tall tables used by the working class, which were sturdier than the low, delicate tables at which the gentry took their lighter, more formal tea. Workers chose to eat their evening meal earlier rather than later, and added meat, pies, cakes and bread to the menu.
High tea is a daily event in former British colonies, too, especially Hong Kong, which is geographically closer to where tea was first cultivated, brewed and imbibed.
That, of course, is in China. Tea drinking dates back to around 200 AD, and was used for medicinal purposes. Medicinal applications are still prescribed in Chinese apothecaries. But special tea shops and cultural venues also entertain tourists with China’s traditional formal tea ceremony, a meditative practice known as Gong Fu Cha, developed during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD). The art of preparation and pouring is mastered through years of practice. Seamless elegance and a subtle personal style are the trademarks of an accomplished Gong Fu Cha server.
Gong Fu Cha preparation required miniature Yixing pots and cups, named for the special purple clay used to make them. The clay is found in Yixing in China’s Jiangsu province. Everything in Gong Fu Cha is small, precious and delicate. Perfection is the goal. The tea is steeped and poured several times to let celebrants experience taste variations as tea leaves unfurl.
Oolongs are the preferred tea type, always hand- picked from tea gardens. A tea garden can vary from a single bush to hundreds of bushes planted over acres of land.
China is still the world’s major tea producer, but tea is also grown in Japan, India, Argentina and several other countries. Each location has its unique terroir (yes, that term is also used to describe the “earth” element in winemaking) and each country has its particular way of preparing the leaves.
Contrary to common assumption, white, green, black and Oolong teas come from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. The variations are due to regional growing conditions, handling, plucking and processing. The finest teas are hand plucked, usually by women with sharp blades attached to their fingertips. They pick only the first two leaves and a leaf bud from top of the stem.
Japan is second to China in tea growing, with major crops harvested in Shizouka, Kagoshima and Mie provinces. Smaller crops come from the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto.
Buddhist monks brought tea to Japan in the fifth century AD, and the Japanese tea ceremony began then. It is still considered high art. Tourists can experience it in specialty shops in Tokyo and throughout Japan.
The ceremony is called Chado -- the way of tea. Powdered green tea called matcha is prepared ceremonially and served to a small gathering of guests in a peaceful, meditative setting. Chado is the Zen Buddhist transformation of the traditional Chinese ceremony observed in China. It has a unique character, with ritual behavior required of the server and guests.
In India, known for black teas from Assam, Nilgiri and Darjeeling, the longstanding tea tradition is spicy Marsala Chai, a blend of black tea with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, cardamom and pepper. Recipes vary from region to region.
Marsala Chai is so popular that street corner vendors known as Chaiwallahs have huge followings of people who won’t drink tea made by anyone else. Their stands are local hangouts - like the office water cooler - where people meet and chat about what’s going on.
Tea is not grown in Russia, but the Russians are big tea drinkers, preparing their tea in samovars. These huge metal urns are like a water heater and teapot combo. Charcoal or wood burned in the belly of the samovar heats water, while atop the samovar sits a small teapot with zavarka, a concentrated brew of black tea. The water is used to dilute the zavarka. The mix is served in glasses, sometimes flavored with fruit or sweetened with jam. Every Russian home and eatery has a samovar and tea drinking is a daily routine.
Tea has a special place in the social life of Morocco, where it is served with ornately engraved silver teapots, trays and crystal glasses. The tea is brewed in a samovar -- but Moroccans use green tea, while Russians prefer black tea. After the tea is brewed, it is heavily sweetened and flavored with mint.
The tea service is showy: the teapot is held high in the air and the tea is deftly poured into small delicate glasses, and not a drop is misdirected or spilled. Tea service is considered to be a way of making guests feel welcome and respected.
Argentina’s yerba mate tradition is not to be confused with its appreciation for tea. Yerba mate isn’t really tea. It is an indigenous plant that has been brewed and imbibed by indigenous people for centuries. When Jesuit missionaries arrived in Argentina, they banned yerba mate because they thought it was addictive. Times have changed. It’s now thought to be healthful. There’s a fascinating yerba mate museum in Tigre, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
Yerba mate is prepared in a gourd, with hot water poured over the leaves. The gourd is passed like a peace pipe from person to person, always clockwise, and everyone sips the beverage through a silver straw. People chat while the gourd is passed, and they tend to be a bit insulted if you don’t partake.
Argentina’s involvement with actual tea began during the 1920s, when it was introduced by Russia and the government urged farmers to plant tea seeds imported from China. Production remained small and the crop was considered inferior -- until the government banned tea importation in the 1950s, and homegrown took off. Now, most tea packaged in the U.S. comes from Argentina.
The Brits have influenced Argentina’s way of tea. In fact, high tea is served throughout Argentina. The practice was introduced by Welsh folk who emigrated to Argentina during the 19th century when the Gaelic language was banned in Britain. Welsh teahouses in Patagonia - especially in the town of Gaiman - are famous and attract tourists from around the world.
America, too, has contributed to worldwide tea drinking traditions. Iced tea, now a global favorite, was first presented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where tea merchant Richard Blechynden attracted buyers for his India black tea by cooling it, and serving it as welcome relief from unusually high temperatures. An instant tradition was born.