Tea is a drink made from either fresh or dried leaves of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to Asia. Because it normally requires very hot water to steep, it is a healthy way to drink water contaminated with microbes, which are killed by boiling. It also normally contains caffeine, and thus, like coffee and other caffeinated drinks, it helps keep people awake and alert. The drink has been exported to all the corners of the Earth, so that you can now have a warming cuppa in England, discuss politics in a Lebanese tea house until dawn, or experience the elaborate tea ceremonies of Japan. There are many varieties of tea which are enjoyed the world over, but also special types that are best experienced at the source—a tea itinerary would take you from a rich oolong in Tibet to the floral Darjeeling varieties, followed by strong Irish breakfast teas, a big pitcher of sweet tea in the American South, and the "national infusion" of Uruguay: yerba mate.
|“||If you are cold, tea will warm you;
If you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are excited, it will calm you.
—William Ewart Gladstone
People, especially in East, South and Southeast Asia, have been drinking tea for thousands of years. Since there has traditionally been substantial trade between the Middle East and South and East Asia through the Silk Route, tea got to that part of the world early. Later, with increased trade between Asia and Europe and then European colonialism in Asia, tea gained popularity in many European countries, especially Great Britain, where tea is not merely a beverage or two but also a traditional snack or meal in the mid-afternoon. During this period, most of the Chinese tea exported to Europe passed through the "Tea Road", crossing the vast expanse of Siberia, where compressed tea bricks were used as currency among locals. (The legacy of this route still lives on in the name of the "Russian Caravan" blend.) With the immigration of Asians and Europeans to other continents and the further extension of trade in the ages of oil-powered ships and airplanes, the love of tea has spread throughout the world.
In South America, a very similar culture exists about yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis), a similar plant with a similar caffeine content. Initially confined to a fairly small region of contemporary Brazil and Paraguay, the Guaraní and Tupí peoples introduced the drink to colonizers. The Portuguese called the drink chimarrão and the Spaniards mate—both brought it back to Europe by the 16th century. The caffeine content of yerba is generally lower than most Asian-derived teas and has experienced a surge in popularity as a health drink in the 2010s.
Tea exists in many colors and flavors, made from different stages of growth from the tea leaf: white teas are from young buds and have lighter flavors; fresh leaves make green teas that can be grassy or sweet but are generally not bitter; leaves left out in the sun to wither make oolong teas which can be deeply thick, aromatic, or flowery, depending on the method used to oxidize; and finally black teas are generally the strongest and bitterest types which are sometimes fermented for years. Various cultivars and brewing or roasting methods can produce virtually any type of flavor and caffeine level. Adding spices, milk, sweeteners, or mint expands the possibilities even further. Lastly, leaves and stems from other plants can be infused alongside tea (such as mint) or simply produced as a tea-like drink known as "herbal tea"—possibly the most famous of these is rooibos or red tea. These are also popular in many countries, including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Many Chinese people also like chrysanthemum tea, which is an herbal tea made from yellow or white chrysanthemum flowers and has a distinct flowery taste.
The names for tea in most languages approximate either the words ta or te or the word cha, all of which most likely originally derive from Chinese dialects. It is easy to group the languages geographically depending on their preference of either word: the languages spoken in most of Asia (except Malaysia and Indonesia), Eastern Europe, and the Balkans use derivatives of cha, while elsewhere in the world, variants of te are more common.
Although in English, we also speak of "herbal teas", which are infusions of herbs and even fruits, in many languages, unless the drink uses tea leaves, it is not considered tea at all. For example, in French, herbal teas are called tisanes. You will occasionally encounter this word even in the English-speaking world and it can be a distinction with a difference, especially if you are looking to avoid caffeine.
Tea around the world
As at least one of the original tea-harvesting and -drinking lands, China grows an incredible variety of teas, from the most basic (but still good) to the very expensive. Among the parts of China that are famous for tea are the provinces of Fujian and Yunnan and the area around Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. See the discussion in the China article.
Tibet and neighboring areas influenced by Tibetan culture (much of the Himalayas) traditionally drink tea combined with yak butter. These usually have salt mixed in, creating a unique blend. This also serves a practical purpose in adding some much-needed calories and acting as a natural lip balm for those living on the highest plateau in the world.
Taiwan is a tea-growing land well-known for its oolong teas, which are often called Formosa tea after the Portuguese name for the island. Their oolong styles are green when brewed. Various sub-varieties range in taste, but it is typical of Taiwanese oolong to have a somewhat earthy perfume, with a bit of bitterness and a bit of natural sweetness. Oolong teas are also grown in Fujian and Guangdong provinces of Mainland China, and some of them are very costly.
While Hong Kong is not a major tea producer, with only a single small tea plantation on Lantau Island, the confluence of British and Chinese tea cultures has made Hong Kong's tea culture unique. Most eateries serve Chinese teas by default to their customers, and the Cantonese custom of yum cha with dim sum is deeply ingrained in the local culture. In addition, British influences have also made milk tea relatively popular in Hong Kong-style fusion eateries known as cha chaan teng. For those who wish for an authentic British high tea experience, the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon is one of the best places in Asia to experience that.
Special note should be given to bubble tea, which started in Taiwan and spread throughout much of the world, especially places with Chinese communities. Bubble tea usually consists of either black or green tea, to which milk is often added, along with tapioca or sago "bubbles" that are sipped through a large straw or eaten with a spoon. Other variants may use agar-agar (a natural gel with a consistency similar to commercial Jell-O but made from seaweed) instead of tapioca bubbles. Bubble tea comes in many flavors. At the low end, it can be full of unnatural-tasting, artificially colored concentrates, but when better ingredients are used, it can be refined. It can be hot or cold (iced).
Japan is another country with traditional tea cultivation, where people drink a lot of tea. The Japanese have very fine varieties of tea—especially green. In Japan, tea is not only drunk but used in all manner of delicious pastries such as cream puffs with matcha (a strong green tea flavor) and azuki bean paste as well as in ice cream.
Koreans drink a lot of tea, too, and much tea is cultivated on Korean hillsides. Another popular drink is barley tea, brewed with roasted barley and often taken cold during hot summer months. These roasted varieties are bold and taste like grains or cereal. Barley tea is also popular in Japan, where it is called mugicha, but it does not actually contain tea leaves.
Any guest to a Mongolian yurt can expect to be served suutei tsai, which is similar to the Tibetans' butter tea but is made by adding cow milk, rather than yak butter, into the tea along with salt. Sometimes it incorporates fried millet as well. Back in the days of communism, suutei tsai was prepared from green tea bricks weighing 2 kilograms (4.4 lb), each trademarked with a hammer and sickle, which were colloquially known as the "Stalin tea", imported from then-Soviet Georgia.
Teas in East Asia are generally drunk neat, without the addition of milk or sugar. However, Hong Kong-style milk tea and Taiwanese bubble tea are an exception to this, and have also taken much of Asia by storm.
Myanmar, along with China, may be one of the first places where tea was grown. Much tea is still grown in Myanmar, and not only do Burmese people drink tea, they also make delicious salads with tea leaves. Make sure to try some if you have the chance, but consider having it for lunch, rather than dinner, lest the amount of caffeine you're eating may keep you up at night.
Malaysia is known for the tasty tea which is grown in the Cameron Highlands. Its flavor is well-balanced and it is relatively mild, with a pleasant degree of natural sweetness. Local demand is high, so it is uncommon for Malaysian tea to be exported and a good idea to enjoy it while you visit. In Malaysia and Singapore, two common ways to drink tea are "teh o", to which sugar is added to the black tea and "teh susu" or "teh tarik", to which sweetened, condensed milk is added. Chinese restaurants in these countries often serve unsweetened tea, otherwise called "teh kosong" ("empty tea").
Indonesia is one of the world's top 10 producers, growing tea mostly in Sumatra and Java. They are known for particularly strong and bitter varieties that are in some cases jet-black and may be unpleasant for people more used to somewhat subtler varieties. Indonesians drink a lot of tea, but there is still a sufficient supply for export, for example to the Netherlands, the former colonial overlord of the country.
Thailand is another tea-growing country, and even better known for drinking tea. Thai tea, made with condensed milk and drunk either hot or iced, is similar to Malaysian teh susu. Thai cuisine is known for its intricate balance of several flavors in a single dish and the same is true of Thai tea, mixing milk, sugar, ice, coconut, and orange flower water. This type of tea preparation is also commonly drunk in other neighboring countries, including Vietnam. As in Myanmar, tea salads also exist in Thailand.
In India, tea is commonly called chai, and masala chai (tea with a mix of spices and usually milk) is a common and much appreciated drink throughout most of the country. One special variety of Indian tea is famously grown in the hill station of Darjeeling and is sold mainly through the tea auctioning houses in Siliguri and Kolkata. This "champagne of teas" has fruity and floral notes along with a deeper spiciness known as muscatel. Munnar and Ooty are other hill stations known for their tea plantations. Dibrugarh, Assam is said to have the largest concentration of tea gardens by area in the world, and there are quite a number of other parts of India where much tea is grown.
In Pakistan, tea is usually drunk black and is often combined with milk. Other ingredients, which include a long list of spices and nuts, and the level of sweetness (or, saltiness in the north) vary across the regions. While Pakistanis are among the heaviest tea drinkers in the world, the local production is relatively unimportant and is limited to the Shinkiari area along the Karakoram Highway in Northwest Pakistan.
Sri Lanka was called Ceylon under British colonial rule, and it is one of the best-known tea-exporting countries. Sri Lankan teas are often still called "Ceylon tea" abroad. Although dwarfed by India, this island accounts for almost a fifth of the total world export. It's so vital to their economy that this one beverage accounts for over a million jobs and 2% of the GDP. Visit the Ceylon Tea Museum 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) south of Kandy or hit the books at the Tea Research Institute in Talawakelle, about 80 kilometres (50 mi) to the south.
Bangladesh, likewise, has tea plantations on sloping terrain, such as in Sylhet Division. Tea is big business here as well: the mammoth Chittagong Tea Auction is a stock market for tea commodities that sets the national price. View these gorgeous plantations, accounting for almost 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres).
Kenya is a younger tea-producer, but their industry has exploded since the 1990s. Tea from its highlands takes up quite a significant share of the worldwide tea market, with much of it exported to Pakistan and the United Kingdom.
Turkey is one of the world's main tea producers, but almost all its tea (çay) is drunk within the country, more often than not strong and black, just like their famous coffee. A substantial part of the social life in the country revolves around drinking tea—it is almost certain that it will be offered at some point even during a lengthened visit to a shop. Tea is usually served in small, tulip shaped glasses, and traditionally accompanied by two cubes of beet sugar, although more and more urban Turks forgo adding sugar (or anything else for that matter) to their tea nowadays. Most Turkish tea is grown in the area around Rize, on the Black Sea coast, purportedly among the very few locations in the world that the tea plantations receive snowfall regularly every winter, which is said to be one of the contributing factors to its flavor. Atatürk is credited with popularizing tea after the Ottoman Empire lost its coffee growing provinces.
In the Middle East and North Africa, it is common to add mint leaves and sugar to black tea. The world famous Arab hospitality may see you invited to a Sahrawi tea ceremony in Western Sahara that can easily last two hours. (Since it's considered rude to decline, take this opportunity to have your fill!)
Much of Iran's social life involves going to the chai khanehs (literally "tea houses"), where the (often male) patrons are served tea, traditionally drunk with a cube of sugar held between the teeth as the tea is sipped through, and hookah. The domestic production comes from the Caspian coast of the country, especially the area around Zahijan, which is also the site of a national tea museum.
In the Caucasus, Azerbaijan shares a similar çay xana culture with neighbouring Iran. Azerbaijani tea is served in clear glasses called armudu ("pear-like") and is sometimes flavoured with thyme, mint or rosewater. Tea is grown in a small area around Lankaran in the south of the country, on the Caspian Sea. Georgia is the main tea producer in the region, and tea cultivation in its western regions of Adjara, Guria (the regional capital of Ozurgeti, in particular), and Mingrelia on the Black Sea dates back to a time when the czars were still in charge. Georgian tea production topped in the 1970s, when the country was under Soviet rule, and has been going downhill ever since, although a revival seems to have started lately. Most of the production is exported, and Mongolia is surprisingly the largest buyer, due to the trade links established during the Soviet era. Armenia shares little of the enthusiasm for Camellia sinensis leaves common in its neighbours, and tea is often understood to be that of wild herbs collected from the mountains there.
Although it is produced only in a very small slice of the Krasnodar Region around Sochi on the Black Sea—which also happens to be the northernmost tea-growing area in the world—чай (tchai) is drunk widely in Russia. Most Russians drink black tea with either sugar, lemon, honey or jam. An important aspect of the Russian tea culture is the ubiquitous Russian tea brewing device known as a samovar (lit. "self cooker", a metal or porcelain container with a small built-in burner), which has become a symbol of hospitality and comfort.
In the United Kingdom, it is very common to add milk and sugar to black tea. Here, as well as in some other parts of the former British Empire, "tea" also refers to a meal in the afternoon or the evening. Tea is usually drunk hot. Plain black tea ("English Breakfast" on menus) is the most common, but often the choice available includes Earl Grey (black tea with bergamot), green tea (possibly with a fruit flavouring and drunk without milk), redbush/rooibos, and fruit infusions. One particularly posh way of having afternoon tea is known as high tea, which is most famously served in the Palm Court of The Ritz in London, and is also available in many other Grand Old Hotels and tea houses throughout the former British Empire.
It was the Portuguese who introduced tea to Britain, so it should come as no surprise that Portugal has a tea tradition of its own. The Portuguese often savour their tea with milk, lemon, cinnamon or ginger added in (sometimes all of them in the same cup). The Portuguese archipelago of the Azores, out in the Atlantic, is the home of the only tea plantation in the European Union. On São Miguel, organic Azorean tea can be enjoyed right on the spot in the premises of the century-old tea factory. Tea liquor, tea candy, and tea pudding are among the unique delicacies of the island.
Although better known for its coffee culture, France is also known for its various gourmet tea blends, with Parisian institution Mariage Frères being especially well-regarded among tea connoisseurs. The French are also one of the largest consumers of organic teas—if you're in a cafe in Marseille, have some with a baked good or a dark chocolate and see if you can taste the difference.
Germany has little tradition of tea-drinking except in East Frisia, where an appreciation for tea is quite longstanding; East Frisia is probably the only place in Germany where tea is more popular than coffee. The East Frisian tea ceremony consists of black tea served in a flat porcelain cup with special rock sugar (Kluntje) that is put in the cup before the tea is poured, melting it into the beverage. Cream is added afterwards, but is not stirred into the tea. According to some statistics, East Frisia would be the place with the highest per capita tea consumption in the world if it were a country.
South Africa is not known for tea production, but it does produce a delicious, naturally slightly sweet herbal tea from the leaves of the rooibos (meaning "red bush"; Aspalathus linearis). Rooibos leaves do not contain caffeine, but their health benefits are said to be similar to those of the tea leaf with high amounts of Vitamin C and low levels of tannin compared to proper tea. These "red teas" can further be infused with other herbs and flowers making virtually any flavor combination. Since this plant has thus far never been successfully cultivated outside a small area of the Western Cape area, make sure to try it at the source.
In the US South, sweetened iced tea is commonly drunk and it has become the quintessentially "Southern" beverage in the minds of many Americans. (It has become a popular bottled summer beverage in parts of Europe as well, but this usually amounts to an artificial concoction mixed with water, sweetener, tea extract, and sometimes fruit and berry flavors.) In particular, Georgia is known for a peach tea infusions that are naturally sweet. Golfer Arnold Palmer turned his personal preference for a 50–50 blend of tea and lemonade into a drink which is now named after him and which is common in the States. A small and often overlooked domestic tea production exists in the USA, with many plantations scattered around Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and, particularly, the South. A tea vodka, made from locally grown tea, is the firewater of choice in Charleston, South Carolina, which is near the largest tea plantation in the U.S.
Australian tea culture was traditionally similar to British tea culture although recent waves of immigration from all over Asia have added a completely new dimension to how and what types of teas are drunk. The amount of tea production is quite low and confined to a few pockets in Queensland and northern New South Wales. Various kinds of herbal teas are consumed by Indigenous Australians.
See and do
- Visit a tea plantation. Many plantations welcome visitors and offer guided tours. Some have websites that offer specific information about how to arrange a visit.
- Partake in a tea ceremony in Japan or parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
Of course the obvious thing for a tea connoisseur to buy is tea, but there are also countries with a tradition of artisanal manufacturing of teacups and other vessels used for tea-making and -drinking. Japan, for example, is well-known for its Zen aesthetic of simple and appealing teacups, saucers and other ceramic items. Morocco and Turkey have wonderful and often highly decorative ceramic teacups and teapots. When visiting Russia, smaller versions of samovars make for good souvenirs. The United Kingdom, with its long-held tradition of afternoon tea among the nobility, is also known for producing some of the finest examples of ceramic tea sets. Unsurprisingly, as the country of origin for drinking tea, China also has a long tradition of making high quality ceramic tea sets, though you will need to do your homework to ensure that you are not ripped off.
Not all countries that produce wonderful ceramics and metalware traditionally drink tea in huge quantities. Italians do drink tea, but the country is better known for its coffee. However, if you are a tea-drinker travelling through Italy, you are likely to see beautiful cups for sale, and they are equally good to use for tea, hot chocolate or coffee.
Caffeine is probably the safest and most widely-used recreational drug but it does present some risks—chiefly, addiction. Side effects are likely to be mild and consist of headaches from withdrawal. Make sure to monitor your caffeine intake, especially if you are also a coffee or soda drinker.
China and India have millennia of safe and natural tea production to their credit, but between aggressive demands for worldwide exportation and cost-cutting measures, toxic pesticides can be present in these drinks, nowadays. It is worth reading up on any controversial brands. Additionally, tea production in Kenya and other parts of East Africa can sometimes employ child labour. Try to be an informed consumer.
Also note that a common scam in China involves inviting unwitting tourists to a tea house where men will be duped into talking with beautiful women and then find that their tea purchases cost an extortionate amount.
Tea ceremonies can be very formal affairs that are culturally significant. Showing respect to the order and lengthiness of a tea ceremony is basic good manners. In some places, turning down tea is considered rude. For instance, if you are traveling in Tibet and wish not to partake, simply leave your butter tea in front of you without drinking it. (And if you drink a little bit just to be polite, note that the custom is to never let the cup be empty, so your host will certainly fill it up again!)
Although drinking tea is rarely regarded as a vice around the world, its consumption is religiously forbidden for Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Hare Krishnas due to its caffeine content.