Food Stories

It’s Tea Time Somewhere: A Look Into Tea Cultures

By Emma Laperruque | July 5, 2012

Photo: Jeremy Keith

According to Chinese legend, Emperor Chen-nung invented tea in 2374 BC–by accident. One summer day, he decided to relax beneath a shrub tree and place a bowl of boiling water beside him. Soon after, a soft breeze blew a few shrub leaves into the bowl, where they began to steep. After smelling the delicate aroma, Emperor Chen-nung tasted the infusion, and thus, tea was born.

Though the story remains up for debate, no one argues that the shrub Emperor Chen-nung sat under (the Camellia sinensis, or tea, tree) hails from China, nor that the country was the first to brew the drink. The popular modern method of infusion developed gradually, becoming prevalent by the Ming dynasty when drinking tea started to take on symbolic qualities. It began to signify more than a beverage, but a ritual, too, representing discipline and beauty.

Photo: Roger Walch

When the drink’s popularity reached Japan in the ninth century, an artistic ceremony emerged. This tradition continues today, as an important cultural practice and way of Zen. Known as “The Way of Tea,” the ritual requires years of training to master and, at its most formal, can last up to five hours. Water is carefully heated over charcoal. Tea is then prepared to either a thick (koicha) or thin (usucha) consistency and served unsweetened. While the host leads the ceremony’s elaborate sequence, the guests are also expected to understand certain customs. Upon receiving the tea, one ought to bow in thanks and turn his/her cup’s face (that is, most lovely side) outward.

Just as serving tea in a Japanese tea ceremony expresses tradition and skill, serving tea at home in Arab cultures expresses hospitality and warmth. That said, like the tea ceremony, Arab cultures maintain certain rules about who should serve the tea, and how. The male head of the house prepares and pours the tea, always from a highly extended hand. The tea—typically green—is prepared in a metal teapot. In Morocco, mint leaves are routinely added to steeping, as well as a sizeable dose of sugar for sweetness.

Photo: Elaine Nagashima

The Western world wasn’t introduced to tea until the seventeenth century. England opened its first tea house opened in 1640, no less than three hundred years after China. Late start aside, English culture embraced tea fully and established its own iconic customs for the drink. Perhaps the most well known is afternoon tea, a light meal served around four o’ clock. Here, tea is drank with warm milk and sugar, and paired with various pastries, jam, clotted cream, and sandwiches. High tea is a similar ritual, though it takes place later in the evening and includes more substantial savory food items. Of course, the English enjoy “a spot of tea” not just in the afternoon and evening, but in the morning for breakfast, as well.

And in Russia, tea began to import around the same time as England. Similarly, the country also developed a cultural affinity for the drink that has yet to fade. The Russians’ choice tea is strong, black, and preferably from China. Customarily, it’s prepared in a teapot, and served with lemon, sugar, and rose petal jam. Rather than milk, guests add simmering water to their tea, to dilute and customize the flavor’s intensity.

While the way tea is served depends on the culture, it seems that no matter the country, not all that much as changed since the day when Emperor Chen-nung sat beneath the shrub tree. Whether in a tea ceremony, house, or restaurant, drinking tea is still combining leaves and hot water while pausing to appreciate the aroma and taste.


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