Dating back as far as 2000 BC, drinking tea has evolved far and wide with countries incorporating it into their cultures in ways that are unique in each country. Tea has evolved from a simple beverage to a sacred ritual and intrinsic part of the fabric of cultures across the globe.
Cultural tea traditions vary significantly and each has its unique eccentricities. But, what binds these global tea traditions together is both the fondness and reverence that tea and its role in hospitality evokes.
Here is a look at some of the different tea cultures across the world. And, how a humble cup of tea has evolved to define the traditions, cultural history, social interactions, and hospitality.
Tea Traditions of Sri LankaJames Taylor, a Scottish planter, started cultivating tea in the Kandy region of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon in 1867. The ideal climate, fertile soil, and idyllic hills of Kandy ensured that the first tea plantation of Ceylon flourished and thrived leading to burgeoning tea plantations across the country. Widely considered the “Father of Ceylon Tea”, the pure Ceylon Black tea of Orange Pekoe from the region is named after the Scotsman.
Over the years, Ceylon tea has earned the reputation of being one of the world’s finest teas with Sri Lanka being one of the world’s largest tea producers. Ceylon tea is loved worldwide for its single origin varieties and mixed fruit blends. It is also used in a number breakfast blends and Earl Grey. Ceylon tea, like its tea culture, is rich, deep, and strong. with some unique single origin varieties and mixed fruit blends.
Tea Traditions of MoroccoMorocco was introduced to tea through the trade and silk route from China. Commonly referred to as Moroccan mint tea or Maghrebi mint tea, it is a refreshing combination of mint and green tea leaves. For special occasions like weddings and engagements, verbena, rosebuds, and cinnamon are added to the brew.
Traditionally served with generous amounts of sugar, a cup of the hot brew is customary when welcoming guests. It is often poured into delicate, embellished glasses from a considerable height and served with an assortment of fruits, pastries, and nuts.Guests are served three glasses of tea, each brewed differently, signifying a different meaning. The flavors vary with each glass. The first glass represents life and has a gentle and soothing flavor. The second glass represents love and is strong and robust. The third glass represents death and has a slightly bitter aftertaste.
An intrinsic part of Moroccan hospitality, refusing to drink one or any of the glasses of tea is considered deeply offensive.
Tea Traditions of RussiaTea, once reserved almost exclusively for the wealthy elite, due to the time it took to reach Russia through the Chinese silk route, is now an ingrained part of the country’s culture. Ironically, the tea culture in Russia became more democratic during its leaner years. The preparation of the very strong and concentrated ‘Zavarka’ came about as an attempt to combat drink and food shortages during the Russian Civil War in 1917. Zavarka, more commonly known as Russian Tea, is widely synonymous with the tall urn-like ‘Samovar’.
The metal urn is used to boil water, on top of which sits a teapot in which loose-leaf black tea is brewed to extract the strongest flavors possible. The rich, concentrated brew, however, isn’t served directly. Poured into cups from the Samovar, it is then diluted with hot water.
Traditionally Russian Tea is served black. But, milk, sugar, and sometimes honey are offered to guests who aren’t acquainted with such robust flavors.
Zavarka is almost always served with crackers, cookies, or sandwiches, as serving it without accompaniments is considered rude and the brew deemed ‘naked’.
Tea Traditions of ChinaLegend has it that Emperor Shen Nong discovered tea more than 5,000 years ago when dried leaves fell into a pot of boiling water. He enjoyed the flavor and vitality of the concoction and commissioned tea plantations. Different dynasties have risen and fallen in China. And, with each dynasty the use and preparation of tea has changed and evolved. The unification of the country transformed tea from a beverage enjoyed primarily by the upper classes to a ceremonious part of Chinese culture for the masses.
Tea in China, today, is an integral part of life and a bastion of the country’s history. Green tea is the most popular variety, followed closely by Oolong and Pu’er or Pu-erh (fermented tea). The widespread cultivation of tea across China means that depending on the geographic location and climate each variety of tea has subtle differences in flavor that are unique to that province. Tea culture is revered in China as a form of high art and the ability to identify those nuances of flavors, a highly regarded area of expertise.The practice of preparing tea, serving it, and enjoying it is as much an act of hospitality as it is a ritual and art form in China. The art of preparing tea is called “Cha dao” while the art form of serving it “Gong fu”. Each ritual has its own detailed process and strict codes of conduct.
If the ceremony seems too elaborate or if too intimidating to you as a guest, make sure to follow your host’s lead. However, make sure that you do not rush it or seem impatient. Impatience during a tea ceremony in China is considered unspeakably offensive. Savor the flavors, sip slowly, and cradle the cup in the palms of both of your hands.
Tea Traditions of TibetSalty butter in a cup of tea?! Yes. Comforting in the cold climate and high altitudes of Tibet, its traditional tea ‘Po cha’ is made with milk, salt, and yak butter. Pemagul black tea is boiled for hours before the other ingredients are added and churned together until it turns to a soup-like consistency. Commonly referred to as ‘butter tea’ it is traditionally served in small bowls.
Butter tea is also served at significant ceremonies and occasions in Tibet. It is customary for a deceased’s relatives during a Sherpa funeral to invite guests with a cup of butter tea.
The host keeps refilling the bowl with butter tea in between sips. So, if you don’t want to drink it, leave your cup untouched until you leave.
Tea Traditions of IndiaIntroduced by the British in the 1800s, tea holds a special place in the everyday life of India. Tea shops and stalls can be found on every street corner in India. Served to important guests, drunk at least three times a day, sometimes even sipped on the go. Tea is an integral part of India’s culture and the diversity of the country is reflected in the subtle differences in its preparation across the different regions.
Commonly known as ‘Chai tea’, tea in India is both sweet and spicy. Depending on the regional recipe, spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger may be used. It is usually served with milk but black tea is also a very popular choice.
India is also one of the major exporters of tea. Premium quality teas are cultivated in its two North-Eastern regions Darjeeling and Assam. Darjeeling and Assam teas are also used in a number of different English, Irish, and Scottish breakfast blends.
Tea Traditions of Argentina“Yerba mate” is the national drink of Argentina. And for most Argentinians, it is more than just a drink. Brewed with the titular herb ‘mate’, it is traditionally served unsweetened and leaves an increasingly strong after-taste the more you drink it.
Prepared in a small pot, it is drunk through a ‘bombilla’, which is a straining straw. The pot is passed around the guests at the gathering who sip through the bombilla. When sipping through the bombilla, do not stir it or the concoction. It is considered a slight to the brewer’s ability and treated as offensive. Saying “Thank You”, strangely enough, signals that you are declining to drink which is also considered offensive.
Tea Traditions of TaiwanDating back to the 1980s, Taiwanese bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea, is a chilled, sweet treat like no other. A cold brew of iced tea, usually Black, Oolong, or Green, forms the base onto which syrup and powdered milk is added. The ‘bubbles’ are small tapioca balls that are added on top of the concoction.
Taiwanese bubble tea is so iconic and integral to the country’s culture that it was once suggested that an embossed gold image of it be the cover of the country’s passport. Bubble tea shops are also widely popular across Europe, Asia, and the United States of America.
Tea Traditions of Hong KongHighly caffeinated, smooth, and fragrant, Hong Kong milk tea is a staple of the vibrant cafes and restaurants in Hong Kong. Commonly known as the ‘pantyhose tea’ or the ‘silk stocking tea’, it is repeatedly strained for the perfect consistency.
Ceylon Orange Pekoe or Earl Grey is brewed hot. Sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk is then added to the black tea and strained multiple times until it forms a creamy, frothy consistency.
Often drunk with all three meals of the day, this milk tea is served at every dim sum teahouse and ‘Cha chaan teng’, Hong Kong-style cafe, in the region.
Tea Traditions of JapanIntroduced by Zen Buddhists and Chinese monks in the 12th century, tea in Japan was reserved for a long time as a beverage for high officials in the emperor’s court. However, during the 16th century, tea became an integral part of Japanese culture. Tea culture in Japan was and remains a highly choreographed, highly revered and sacrosanct art form.
A Japanese tea ceremony, called Chanoyu, Sado, or Ocha, is a carefully conducted ritual, not unlike a dance, where every movement has a symbolic significance. Japanese tea ceremonies are elaborate and every ritual within it, the warming and use of utensils, the brewing, the clean up, is patiently and precisely choreographed.
Traditionally, powdered Matcha green tea is served with sweets to counteract the bitter after-taste of the brew. Declining a cup of tea, grimacing or interrupting during the ceremony, slurping are considered deeply offensive.
Tea Traditions of IranIntroduced during the 15th century through the silk route, tea in Iran is a vital part of their social interaction and culture. Iran began to cultivate black tea during the 20th century and it remains the country’s preferred brew. Tea houses called ‘Chaikhanehs’ are widely popular across the country. A few of the renovated chaikhanehs date back centuries. Traditionally served strong and fragrant, the brew is accompanied with a piece of ‘nabat’. Nabat is a saffron-colored or yellow-colored rock candy of sorts. Iranians drink their tea with an elegant ‘clamp and sip’ which might take some practice to master. Instead of sweetening the tea, they take a piece of nabat and place it between their front teeth. They then sip the strong black tea which then passes through the sugar and is sweetened when it touches the tongue.
Tea Traditions of EnglandEngland has had a chequered but unwavering love for tea. Since being introduced to tea in the 1600s, England has maintained a steady devotion to the brew. After the Opium Wars, when trade relations with China came to a stand still, England started to export tea out of India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. England started incorporating the different varieties of tea from its colonies into breakfast blends. Earl Grey and the English Breakfast Blend being two of the most noteworthy and preferred. A cup of tea to wash down the classic salty, starchy, protein-rich English breakfast became the norm that has continued till the present day.
Legend has it that Anna, the seventh duchess of Bedford, requested a small meal at 4 P.M. At a time (the Hungry Forties) when only two meals, a midday lunch and a 8 P.M dinner, were being had throughout the country, the Duchess’s request was seen as an extravagance. Afternoon tea served with scones, cakes, and sandwiches became a hallmark of British aristocracy. However, with time, the Afternoon Tea, as we know it became more democratic and a household staple. To this day, tea gardens and tea houses can be found along England’s countryside, where elaborate Afternoon Teas are served.
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