Tea-tillating Tales

"Do drop by for a cup of tea, my dear."

This may be a trifle too snobbish or too English (no offense meant for our dear English friends out there), but for the purpose of introducing the topic, it’s quite appropriate. A very simple statement really but the objective drives home the matter at hand: socialization.

It may be to strike a business deal or to put together a wedding. Perhaps to end a bitter war between parties, or just to get acquainted with each other. No matter what the purpose is, trust the tea to do its magic.

Folkloric Origin

Since it was discovered in 2,750 BC by the Chinese Emperor Wan Tu, tea has weaved a colorful tapestry of tradition. It even entered the domain of folklore, inculcating in the minds of various peoples the fantastic origin of this tonic drink. Legend has it that the emperor, after being banished, disappeared into the forests of southern China. While he sat near the then unknown tea plant, plotting revenge against his enemies, a few leaves accidentally blew into the pot of water he just boiled. Before I’m accused of poor choice of research data, I will leave the rest of the story to your imagination. One thing is clear though, the tea has a history of almost 5,000 years.

The invigorating beverage is derived from the leaves of the evergreen plant Camellia sinensis. Its leaves contain natural chemicals that give tea its anti-oxidant properties. As the therapeutic effect of tea spread, its benefits as a medicinal tonic also became widely known. China, through Taoism, brought tea-drinking to the outside world and the habit caught on from region to region.

Japan started the practice in the 6th century AD and the Arabs hooked on the brew in the 9th century. Soon India and Europe followed suit, though historians are arguing that it was in India that tea was first tasted. Inspite its long history, it was only in the 18th century"when the great maritime states of the Old World were engaged deep in colonial trading"that tea became truly popular worldwide.

The Colors of Tea

Tea or "chai" or "tsa-a" now comes in many varieties and each country has a favorite variety. But the basic types of tea are the black tea, green tea, Oolong tea and white tea. Black tea by far is the most consumed. Its color is achieved by a complete oxidation-fermentation. In China, black tea is red or "Hong ho" and is also a hot favorite among Indians. Darjeeling tea and Assam tea (names derived from places in India where they came from) are the best blends of this type.

Green tea, the type that skips the oxidizing process, gives a more smooth taste and is light green or golden in color. Initially famous only in China and Japan, the tea-drinking community in the world now relishes the green tea for its special medicinal properties such as its reputed ability to fight cancer cells. Gunpowder, Young Hyson and Sencha are popular green teas.

The third type is the Oolong or Wulong tea, a semi-fermented cross between the black and green tea. White tea, for its part, is mostly grown in China and not commonly available in the market

A Class of Its Own

These basic types of tea are profusely scented, a recent innovation. The flavored blends encompass a wide range that extends from Earl grey to lime, orange, mango, strawberry, peppermint, lichee, mint, cardamom, cinnamon, etc. These are available in packs and bags. Most expensive in Asia are the Jubilee (Darjeeling) and Silver Tip brands of Sri Lanka. In the Middleast, Silver Tip tea costs 500 Saudi Riyals per kilo. Quite expensive, but definitely a class of its own among the local elite.

The Indian subcontinent is particularly known for its unique varieties that are specially grown in Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgris. Darjeeling alone produces 12 million kilos of tea in a year. Tea is also very popular in neighboring Sri Lanka whose tea is considered as one of the finest blends in the world.

Traditions of Tea-Drinking

Tea has long been associated with many traditions some of which are still alive today. One example is the "tea break""a short break from work in order to relax and charge one’s batteries. This is widely practiced in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East. The English helped popularized this in TV and the movies. Tea breaks are considered necessary to help maintain balance both in physical health and attitude.

High tea is another tradition followed meticulously by the elite community. It is held in the evening before dinner with bread, cakes or biscuits served alongside the main staple, a pot of hot delicious tea poured in conservatively-sized cups. To complete the ritual is a formal conversation or mere gossiping.

The tradition of tea shops in England still remains despite the mushrooming of hip bars and trendy coffee houses. Tea shops began in 1864 when the manager of a bakery urged the owner to let her serve food and beverages in the shop to perk up dwindling sales. The enterprising manager served special tea to her loyal customers as an added attraction. Soon enough, it attracted a large clientele clamoring for similar service. It’s worthy to note at this point that it was these tea shops that laid one of the foundations of women’s liberation movement since an unescorted lady could meet friends in a tea shop without anybody having to sully her reputation.

Tea dance was another custom in England practiced as a part of any celebration or festivity. It soon died after the Second World War. In Japan, a tea ritual in which Kimono-clad women serves hot tea singing traditional songs was very popular. In China, when someone meets an acquaintance on the road, it is customary to greet him or her with "Had your tea?" Tea-drinking was so popular in the early history of China that some believe that the Chinese invented fine porcelain just for the sake of tea.

The Real & the Unreal

Besides the myriad practices associated with tea, it is also intertwined with historical events that shaped the destiny of certain countries. One such event is the "Boston tea party" which acted as one of the catalysts for the American Civil War. It went like this: on December 16, a band of colonists disguised as Indians, boarded the ships owned by the British East India Company at the Graffin’s wharf. They then tossed hundreds of pounds of tea into the sea. They were protesting against the levy of taxes on imported goods such as tea.

Tea is also steeped in superstitions though not widely believed. To illustrate, it is said that bubbles in your tea cup bring in a lot of kisses from your sweetheart. Also, to pour milk before sugar is to risk losing your lover. And, if a woman allows a man to pour a second serving for her, she will easily succumb to his desires (if he has any!). To stir tea while still in the pot is to invite trouble, goes another belief.

The Future of Tea

This beverage has also caught up with innovations and is not impervious to the trappings of commercial packaging. Nowadays, tea packaging is a marketing discipline of its own carefully planned and executed to tickle customers. From the ordinary bags and packs, tea now comes in sleek and handy wooden and velvet boxes, ceramic jars, jute packettes, papier mache and brass casings to mention just a few.

With the crass commercialism that has befallen the tea-making industry, nobody would expect that this noble drink had an illustrious (and notorious even!) history behind it. To add another trivia, did you know that tea also played a rather humanitarian role in trying to curb alcoholism? In England, they used to have tea meetings to convert alcohol drinkers and to raise funds for the cause. Whether it was successful or not, the effort nonetheless gave birth to the word "teetotal" in reference to the exotic concoction.

So the question for us now is whether to "To tea or not to tea?" Cliché again but equally justified like what this author claimed at the beginning. Tea-drinking may not be an "in-thing" yet for the Filipinos but who knows what our palate will want in the future. Only time will tell.

Users Reading this article are also interested in:
Top Searches on Tea Guide:
English Tea Party Boston Tea Party
About The Author, Royce Ambrocio
Royce E. Ambrocio