Since its invention in 2737 BC by the Chinese Emperor Shennong, tea has been an integral part of human history and culture. Beginning as a medicinal herb in China and its neighbouring countries, it wasn’t until the 16th century that tea was introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants and subsequently brought to the West. Popularised in Britain in the following centuries, tea was planted in India so to end the Chinese monopoly. Perhaps the most famous event pertaining to the trade of tea was the Boston Tea Party, a political protest that led to the American Revolution and the world as we see it today.
Plantations are spread through most of the world where the climate is tropical, subtropical, and in some cases even marine. An annual rainfall of 127 cm is the minimum requirement for this evergreen plant to grow, with better growing conditions provided in acidic soils and at high elevations. While plants can reach upwards of 16 m, they are generally cultivated around waist height for ease of plucking. Interestingly, this results in the production of more shoots that provide new and tender leaves, thereby increasing the quality of the tea.
Teas are classified via their botanical variety, leaf size, processing method and blending. Most Chinese, Japanese and Formosan teas come from the sinensis variety, while Indian and Pu-erh teas have roots in the assamica type. From here, the largest leaves characterise the Assam variety, with Cambodian tea having intermediate leaves and the Chinese tea attributing its name to the smallest leaves. Wilting and oxidation are the main factors in classifying tea based on processing, with the most common being black, green and white. Finally, differences in blending and the addition of additives vary across countries, leading to a world rich in culture and flavour.
Eastern Asia, such as China, Japan and Vietnam, are infamous for their tea ceremonies. Embedded deep in their culture, it is considered an art performance in which tea is prepared and presented ceremoniously. They symbolise spirituality, formalism, humility, simplicity, and the adoration of the beautiful.
In contrast to such precise and meaningful preparation, some nations are renowned for their quick brewing and high consumption. Turkey is one such country, with the average consumption exceeding 10 cups per day. Black tea is the most common, drunken plain with the addition of sugar.
This is similar to the rest of the Middle East, with tea becoming a focus for social gatherings. In Bedouin culture, sugar is used in excess due to the otherwise dietary lack of sugar. Sage is also common here and produces a richer taste.
Tea is also consumed excessively within Britain and is in fact considered a cultural norm. Served in larger cups with milk and sugar, it is often accompanied by biscuits or scones if later in the day. From this stems the stereotypical afternoon tea.
The British influence is not lost on India, whom they originally introduced to the beverage. Tea is typically consumed daily and in large amounts, again with milk and biscuits, though spices may also be added depending on the person.
A multitude of spices are added to the noon chai tea of the Kashmir region that covers the border between India and Pakistan. Pink and creamy in nature, it is prepared with cardamom, almonds, pistachios and sometimes cinnamon. It is primarily brewed for special occasions and weddings.
Pakistan actually boasts a wide variety in tea blends. In the Punjab and Sindh regions, tea is served with milk and sugar, along with the nuts and spices as found in Kashmir. Other regions prefer the green tea known as kahwah, which is served after every meal.
Green tea is also the typical beverage of Morocco and other Maghreb countries. Prepared with spearmint and sugar, it can take on a ceremonial form when being offered to guests.
While tea differs around the world, it clearly holds a special place in our lives. It transcends cultures and aims to bring people together through ceremonies, social gatherings and just general hospitality.