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Tea History and Traditions

Before the tradition of infusing tea leaves as a drink came into practice, indigenous tribes in the mountains southwest of China chewed on tea leaves for medicinal purposes, and in Thailand, boiled or steamed tea leaves were seasoned with garlic and salt and served with foods like dried fish or pork. The use of tea leaves evolved in 2737 B.C. when the leaves from a wild tea bush are said to have blown into the cup of a Chinese emperor who sat resting in its shade. Today in China, tea is often brewed in a covered cup from which the liquor is then sipped in small amounts.

As navigators, sailors, and missionaries traveled to China in search of its treasures, the custom of taking tea began to slowly impact those in Western Europe, especially those in England. Tearooms where a strong pot of black tea can always be found now dot the landscape. Following English colonization, Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time), Australia and New Zealand, Canada, and the United States also inherited the British habit of drinking tea, with each area incorporating its own customs, traditions, and values. In Sri Lanka, tea is served with breakfast, lunch, and then again in the evening at the various tea gardens on the island, and tea drinkers occasionally sit on pillows on the floor in keeping with native custom.

Australian sheep farmers adapted the British custom of tea drinking in their own unique fashion. In a tin vessel called a "billy can," the sheep farmer boils water and puts in a handful of leaves. He then lets this brew until his bacon is finished cooking, and after adding a generous amount of sugar, he drinks the strong brew. The “billy can” is left with the leaves inside to simmer all day, so when the sheep farmer arrives home after a day of work, the intense infusion is reheated and enjoyed. Further south on the island of New Zealand, tea is consumed as a less intense brew. Two pots are served for tea; one holds the infused tea liquor while the other contains hot water for dilution if the tea is too strong.

Today in Canada, tea traditions vary only slightly from those in Europe. A "crockery teapot" is scalded with boiling water, and a teaspoon of tea is measured out per two cups of tea. The leaves are then infused from five to eight minutes depending on the desired strength. In the United States, most of the tea consumed is either from teabags or iced tea. Stemming from the American Revolution against British rule, loose-leaf tea was viewed as unpatriotic, and the cultural effects can be seen even today. Still, fine tea is regaining popularity among connoisseurs and green and white teas are gaining recognition for its health benefits.

India’s tea customs include the tradition of blending cardamom seeds, fennel, sugar, and milk to make chai. On tea gardens in the districts of Assam and Darjeeling, a good cup fresh tea can almost always be found. There is some debate as to whether the Indians originally learned of tea through British conquest or from experimentation with native plants.

England was not the only country to learn from China’s tea traditions, however, and other countries that were in close contact with China developed their own unique infusion methods. Morocco, Russia, Spain, and Portugal also modified Chinese tea methods to suit their own distinctive regional tastes and preferences. The Japanese combined tea drinking with their own Taoist ideals, and the popular tea preparation of Cha-no-yu emerged. In Cha-no-yu, the ceremony focuses on the beauty of the tea preparation and the ability of the teamaker. The tradition of Sencha became popular as a countermovement among humanists and the Chinese elite. Praise of cultural sophistication -- imitation of Chinese values -- and refinement are embodied in the Sencha tradition, which was once more popular than Cha-no-yu.

From Japan, Korea and the Netherlands learned to enjoy tea, but once again, unique traditions were incorporated into the brewing methods. Freshly boiling water is used to infuse a strong cup for five to six minutes, and tea from China, Java, India, or Ceylon are preferred in the Netherlands. In Korea, the way of tea was modified even more to include the habit of sipping raw egg in between hot cups of tea.

Moroccans blend Chinese gunpowder green tea with spearmint and other indigenous mints to create the popular Moroccan mint tea. Ample amounts of sugar are added to the infusion to create a delightfully sweet and refreshing beverage. Often, the eldest man of the household serves the tea with elegant motions that creates froth in the cup. The samovar, a symbol of tradition, is used to brew tea in Russia. At the base of the samovar, a charcoal fire burns, and a metal pipe runs up inside the container to heat the water. Tea leaves are infused in a concentrated form in a small teapot that rests on top of the samovar. Water dispensed from the copper vessel is mixed with the strong tea to create a hearty drink that is often served with sugar cubes that are held in the mouth while drinking. In Iran and Turkey, the Russian samovar is used for special occasions and holidays. As Portuguese and Spanish explorers settled parts of South America, they brought with them the budding European tradition of brewing tea; however, coffee drinking already had a firm stronghold in the culture. Yerba mat.ANi, an indigenous plant in many areas of South America, was already known and used by the native tribes. The leaves of this stimulating plant are infused and sipped through a tube with a strainer from a bottle-shaped gourd.

The practice of infusing tea leaves has endured in various forms throughout the world, with each new participant in the tradition of tea adding its own new modification. The method of infusing loose leaf in a small cup is still practiced in China, Japan, and Taiwan while only a dedicated minority in Japan practices the more rigid, traditional tea ceremonies. European modifications to tea include the popular English teapot and the samovar. Today, a return to fine, loose leaf tea in many regions of the world, including the United States, is adding yet another unique practice to the tradition of tea.