All Things Tea

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Chinese TRADITIONS

In China, long before tea became the beverage of choice and a way of life, it was considered a medicinal staple. Tea was not only a treatment for individual illnesses, but was also a general health tonic, said to promote long life and vitality. Even today, in traditional Chinese medicine, green teas and pu-erhs are prescribed for a variety of complaints, especially as modern research has come to support many of these claims. Tea was also used by those wishing to achieve better results while meditating, and became popular with Buddhist priests who later introduced it to the aristocratic circles. For some time, only people of high standing in the imperial courts and these select priests were able to drink tea on a regular basis. But later on, tea became more widely available to all people, and the lower classes were finally able to enjoy tea more frequently.

It was not long before tea was incorporated more and more into daily life, and began to be enjoyed solely for its own pleasures. Since the beginning of the Ming dynasty, teahouses sprung up all over the country, and people of all ages would come at all hours of the day to drink tea and enjoy each others’ company. In this way, tea was never confined to a strict time of the day, but could be taken at any time. The teahouses would usually serve nothing except tea, and became a part of most people’s daily ritual. Today in China, while the teahouses still retain popularity as gathering places, the importance of tea in daily life is usually evident at the table. Tea is one of the most important parts of every meal, whether it is breakfast, lunch or dinner. At home or in a restaurant, one will always find a cup of tea set in front of them. Besides mealtime, tea is served to welcome guests as a form of respect, and is a long-held tradition in all classes. In China, green tea is consumed the most, with oolong tea being a close second, followed by Pu-erh. White tea and black tea are drunk less frequently, but still deserve some recognition.

The Chinese practice a form of tea ceremony called Gong Fu, which has some similarities and many more differences to the possibly more well-known Japanese tea ceremony. In a Gong Fu style tea ceremony, the tea master preparing the tea for the group is considered an artist in his or her own right. Styles for pouring the water and tea vary individually, and many devote a lot of time practicing difficult and artistic maneuvers. Usually the equipage for this tea ceremony would be a clay Yi-Xing pot and several small teacups, a tea sink or shallow bowl for draining water into, and a few bamboo tools for handling the hot objects. The tea master will arrange the teapot and cups in a circular fashion over the tea sink or in the bowl, and pour hot water into each to rinse the objects and to warm them so that the temperature of the tea is more consistent. This rinse water is discarded, and then a generous helping of tea leaves, usually oolong, is measured into the pot. More hot water is then poured into the pot and the tea leaves will begin steeping. Every infusion in Gong Fu ceremony is very quick, about 30 seconds, though the method for timing is never exactly precise. In one tradition hot water is poured over the outside of the teapot, and when the water is seen to be fully evaporated, the tea is ready to be poured. In another, the tea master must count a full 4 deep breaths before beginning to pour. Either of these methods is roughly a 30 second steep, and remainsconsistent throughout the multiple following infusions. Then the tea master will begin pouring in a continuous flow around to each of the teacups, a little at a time, resulting in each person having the equal amount and strength of tea in his or her cup. After enjoying this first round of tea, the leaves may be resteeped for many more infusions.

Another tradition to mention is the curious yak butter tea from the mountains of Tibet. Strong black tea leaves, or often Pu-erh, are simmered overnight to create a very strong concentrate of tea. This concentrate is churned in a special vessel with yak or goat’s milk butter and salt for a thick and frothy concoction. This tea is drunk every day by most people and, because of its high caloric count, is an important nutrition source for the Tibetan people.

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Japanese TRADITIONS

Although tea took some time to spread from China to Japan, many believe that Japan was where tea met perfection in the art of Cha-no-yu, or the Japanese tea ceremony. After arriving in Japan many schools of the tea ceremony began, with influences ranging from monks to samurai warriors. These separate schools existed until the 16th century, when Sen Rikyu, considered the highest tea master, brought together these differing principles and set forth the practice that is still followed many years later. Today the tea ceremony is still practiced by many in Japan and abroad, and survives as an honored and thriving tradition, rather than an antiquated relic. The essence of the tea ceremony has made it a poignant reflection on life, even in today’s world. Cha-no-yu’s fundamentals lie in the humility of the guests, appreciating the moment’s uniqueness in terms of time and place, season and those present, and the art of simplicity and balance in form, movement and objects. These three fundamentals have found their way outside of the tea room and into many aspects of Japanese life. Consider, for example, the simple architecture of houses and buildings in Japan, or the balance and harmony found in the shapes and textures of a garden or in ikebana style flower arrangements.

In the tea ceremony, humility and respect are expected of the guests and the host. The door to the sukiya, or tea house, is a low crawl space that requires all who enter to bow and humble themselves before entering the precious space. Once inside, the first thing he or she will see is a simple flower arrangement, and a scroll of artwork or poetic calligraphy. The guest must humble themselves again upon seeing the greatness of such a simple yet beautiful artwork, and also for the flowers that are considered to be great sacrifices, because they are cut from their roots and will soon die. The ephemeral nature of the flower also helps the guest to realize the ephemeral nature of this present time and the experience that he or she is about toshare with others.

The unique nature of each tea ceremony is something to be cherished. The ceremony is special because although a person may take part in many ceremonies over his or her lifetime, there will never be a chance to recreate the same experience, with the same group of people, the same setting and utensils, during the same time of day and the same season, or even at the very unique time of their own life and experience. Every detail is to be savored, because it cannot ever be the same. There is special emphasis placed on the seasons, which decides the type of food prepared for the ceremony, the type of utensils especially the chawan, or tea bowl, the flowers and artwork present, as well as the clothing of the tea master and guests. For example, on a hot day in July the tea master might choose a wide shallow chawan, which cools the tea quicker, and light sweets made in the shape of peaches. In November, the choice of chawan would be something with more weight, more substantial kaiseki style food would be prepared, and the colors of the objects in the room would be more somber, with the exception of a few frail boughs of bright red winter berries as the floral arrangement.

With regards to simplicity and balance, every aspect of the tea ceremony supports these ideals. Nothing in the tea room should be superfluous, loud or garish, in order to not distract from the moment. Simple colors and design in clothing, art and floral arrangements is ideal. The form of the chawan itself is a simple elegant shape. Every movement in the tea ceremony, whether performed by the host or the guests, is perfected to the most simple and minimal act possible. The tea used for the ceremony is matcha, made from ground green tea leaves, and whisked with hot water to create the purest form of tea: nothing is added, nothing is changed.

The ceremony itself can take hours to complete, and a lifetime to learn, so it would be best to discuss just the preparation of the matcha and the utensils used, as this can apply to every day enjoyment of the tea. The equipage needed for preparing matcha are the chawan (tea bowl), chasen (bamboo whisk), chashaku (bamboo tea scoop), furui (matcha powder sifter), hishaku (bamboo ladle), kama (large kettle), and an hearth or heat source. First the matcha powder is sifted in the furui, so that it is the perfect fine consistency; this is usually prepared beforehand in the tea ceremony. The kama is placed over the heat source and allowed to come to a simmering boil. Using the hishaku, one will dip into the kama to draw out water to use to warm the tea bowl. This water is discarded. Then, the matcha is measured into the chawan using 2 or 3 scoops of the chasaku. Another ladle of hot water (about 4 oz.) is drawn from the kama and poured into the bowl. Using the chasen, the tea is whipped into a thick and frothy substance. The tea can then be drunk directly from the bowl. While tea ceremony is an important aspect of Japanese life, there are many other ways that the Japanese people enjoy tea every day. Recently, Western-style black tea has become popular, especially for breakfasts that include bread or pastries. Chinese teas, especially oolongs are enjoyed at home and in restaurants. And for on-the-go lifestyles, bottled and canned teas are widely enjoyed.

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Indian TRADITIONS

Tea in India only gained popularity as a national beverage in the 19th century after the British began to create large scale tea plantations in order to ensure adequate supplies for their country’s growing thirst. India is one of the world’s largest suppliers of tea, and yet because of this very recent history, tea has not had time to appropriate any elaborate tea rituals like in Japan or China. Although not ritualized, tea is more a part of everyday life at home, work, on the streets and while traveling.

Cha-ya is the preferred style of tea sold on the streets, in train stations and in restaurants. Cha-ya is strong black tea, spiced with cardamom, fennel, cloves or other spices, sweetened with sugar and mixed with milk for a sweet and creamy beverage, that many Westerners would know as Chai tea. This tea can be drunk alone, but is often enjoyed with a savory snack like samosas. Usually street vendors or train stations will sell this tea in small clay cups that are only used once, and then smashed after use. Whether enjoyed on the street or at home, Cha-ya provides respite from the heat or weariness from travel or work.

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Russian TRADITIONS

Tea became available in Russia in the 17th century, brought by the caravans of traders on camels who would make the cross-continent journey from China. This journey took almost an entire year to complete, resulting in tea being quite expensive and only available to the aristocratic class for many years. Everything changed in 1880 when the Siberian Railroad was opened, and the trip could now be done in just two short months. Tea became widely available, and was embraced by all social classes.

Around this same time, the samovar was introduced in Russia, and became the centerpiece of any Russian household, rich or poor. The samovar was a large decorative urn made from copper or silver, that could hold a large quantity of water. An inside chamber was heated with coals and kept the water hot and bubbling all day long, so that tea could be prepared on a moment’s notice. On top of the samovar, a small teapot rested and was kept warm, containing a very strongly brewed concentrate of tea called tscheinik. When one desired a cup of tea, they could immediately prepare it to their liking by pouring out a small amount of the tscheinik, and diluting it with hot water from a spigot on the samovar. This invention, of Chinese origin, soon came to be recognized as the symbol of Russian hospitality. If unexpected guests were to arrive in a Russian home, they could count on being served tea quickly thereafter. Even in the great expanse of Russian literature, from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky, the samovar is consistently mentioned in scenes taking place in the Russian home, as a symbol of Russian hospitality and company.

Russian tastes in tea are quite unique compared to other countries. The concentrated tea found in the samovar’s teapot can be green, but is more often black tea from India or Sri Lanka. Russians will often use a blend of teas which has been smoked to varying degrees. Some believe this to be a taste that developed due to the Russian climate or local gastronomy, while others have the more romantic notion that this smoked tea is a reminder of the old caravan tea, which would become slightly smoked simply by the repeated exposure to campfires along the route. In fact, many tea companies have created smokey blends which are often called “Russian Caravan Tea.” The preference for smokey tea would seem an odd combination with sweets, but the traditional way of drinking tea in Russia is to sip the tea through a sugar cube in the mouth, or by stirring a spoon of homemade jam into the cup before drinking. However it is prepared by the individual, tea can be found in any household and is enjoyed throughout the day.

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TRADITIONS IN Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey

These three countries have quite a few similarities with regards to their tea drinking habits, though also many unique differences. Egypt is one of the world’s largest importers of tea, and most people drink several cups of black tea every day. Usually strongly brewed black tea is served in small glasses and is heavily sweetened.

In Morocco mint tea is drunk throughout the day, though especially during and following meals, because of the mint’s naturally ability to aid in digestion. Preparing tea is a masculine role in Moroccan culture, and because of the high honor of this role is usually performed by the head of the household. Regional variations exist, however the basic recipe for mint tea is as follows: Chinese green tea is mixed with fresh or dried mint leaves and a large lump of sugar in a tall silver or stainless steel teapot. Hot water is poured into the vessel and allowed to steep for a few minutes. The tea is then poured from an almost standing height in a thin stream into the small glasses arranged below. This extravagant pouring gesture aerates the mint tea into the room and fills the space with its refreshing aroma.

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English TRADITIONS

When tea was first introduced in England in the mid 1600’s, the consumption was limited by the high cost and also because of the segregation of tea being served in coffee houses that catered solely to men. Once tea became popular enough in the coffee houses, more specific tea houses began to be opened in London and elsewhere in the country. Here, men and women could both enjoy a cup of tea or buy some for home.

Afternoon tea, a tradition that is thought of being almost synonymous with the word “British,” did not become established until almost 200 years later. In those days, most people only ate two meals: a large breakfast late in the morning and a late dinner around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening. Anna, Duchess of Bedford, can be credited for creating the tradition of afternoon tea. She would become hungry during the afternoon, in the long hours between breakfast and dinner. She began asking her servants to bring her some sweets and a cup of tea to ward away her hunger. Eventually she began sharing this custom with her friends, and afternoon tea soon became popular among the aristocratic class. The working class caught on quickly, especially as the afternoon meal was a good opportunity take a much needed break and spend time with friends. Later on in the 19th century, Queen Victoria’s love for afternoon tea was well known, as were her particular tastes for having a slice of lemon with her tea and her preference for certain cakes and strawberry jam. Afternoon tea also gave way to another favorite tradition: the creation of tea gardens. Tea gardens were quiet places, created specially for taking in afternoon tea, with beautiful flowers, herbs and quaint outdoor furniture. Today tea gardens are not as popular as they once were, but one can still stumble across many throughout the countryside.

In England today, the tradition of afternoon tea continues on in the home, in upscale hotels, in department stores and even in the small neighborhood cafes and tea rooms found in every town. Whether it is a short break for a cup of tea and a small cookie, or a 3 course event of cakes, scones with jam and Devonshire cream, sandwiches and other treats, afternoon tea will continue to be a true English tradition. And tea itself will have a lasting place in English culture. Besides afternoon tea, the English consume large quantities of tea throughout the day, from breakfast to dinner and the last cup of the night. This love for tea is not unique to the English alone, but is found in most citizens of the British Commonwealth, including all of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

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French TRADITIONS

France has a very similar history and affection for tea as England. Tea was introduced around the same time and was indulged in primarily by the aristocratic class, before eventually being taken up by the rest of the population. Tea was first introduced as a medicine, although French doctors were quick to denounce it as having any medical worth, even citing the amount of caffeine as a potential health threat. To this day many French families do not allow their children to drink tea, because of its caffeine content. And many adults even prefer naturally caffeine-free herbal tisanes like chamomile and verbena, or verveine.

However, true tea from the Camellia sinensis plant has taken a strong foothold, and many salons de thé can be found, not just in Paris, but in cities throughout the country. A salon de thé is a slightly more quiet and serene place for relaxation in the busy cities; certainly more so than the crowded cafes. The atmosphere in a French salon de thé is slightly more formal than the English tea room. The porcelain teapots are sophisticated and the place settings elegant, while attention to the highest quality of tea is of the utmost importance. The French will usually indulge in exquisite pastries, like tarts and petit fours with their tea, a tradition that has carried over to many afternoon teas served outside of the country.

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