More Tea Exploration For You

I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the world of tea leaves and flavors with you thus far, but there is still so much more to learn about tea and its place in the world. It grows and changes in significance as cultures do, and we’ve already discussed that it is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to plain ‘ol water. It started as a medicine and became a lifestyle, and there is much to gain from its consumption. But I have barely scratched the surface with you. I hope to continue bringing you more information and interest about the world of tea, but in the meantime I wanted to leave you with other places to continue your exploration of this global phenomenon.

If you’re interested in documentaries, there is one called “All in This Tea” Which is an exploration into Chinese tea production and the dangers posed to the ancient tradition of a high quality cultural beverage, which has been giving way to cheaper mass-produced variations that have abandoned many traditions and tea growing principals that made the tea of China’s past days so coveted. Here’s a preview:

Tea is also an agricultural product steeped in ethical issues in terms of the conditions under which is it is farmed and marketed. Much like the exploitation found in the coffee-growing business, tea farming has reflected that trend for centuries starting with the tea plantations and continuing into today with labor being compensated for way under what is necessary for citizens of some under developed countries to thrive. Thus, the need for fair trade organizations. I discussed this in a previous post, but it is worth mentioning again. If you’re passionate about your tea and about being an activist, check out some of the NGOs that support fair trade in tea, such as Ethical Tea Partnership, and this site which tells you about sustainable and fair trade companies that sell tea.

Go out and do your own research about the beverage you love and feel free to discuss some of your findings with me. There is more economic significance to it than even I managed to discuss in previous posts (Consider Burma and the tea farmers’ strife), and the traditionally large producers such as India, who has its own government organization dedicated to the tea market; China, the mother of tea which faces issues with mass production of tea as it does with many of its modern markets; or Japan, where tea still plays a very central part to the country culture as a whole.

This one special plant is very central to life and livelihood in Asia, and it is a subject worth looking into. If you started with me, I’m glad we could learn more about it together.

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Tea Ritual: Ceremonies and Traditions

Many people who know anything about Japanese culture know about the famous tea ceremony performed there and may have an idea about the significance of it to the people of Japan. However, most people are not aware that the ceremony came from China (unless you read my blog), or that China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam all have their own distinct ceremonies that vary from one another, and many other countries have their own culture surrounding tea. This post’s purpose is to do a little exploring into the traditions and differences between these traditions for my own education and for yours, too.

The diffusion of the tea ceremony is a good example of enduring symbolism and tradition in Asian countries, but also yet another example of the spread of tradition from one country to the next. It would take up a LOT of room trying to explain the processes and variations between the different types of tea ceremonies in this single post, so I am going to share a video of each type. They’re all super interesting, so give them a view.

Japanese: I chose to start with this one because of its status as the most well-known of the ceremonies. People go to a school to learn and master the art of the tea ceremony! It sounds a little crazy, but I admire the cultural dedication.

Here is a basic instructional video about how to perform a “basic” Japanese  tea ceremony:

A Chinese ceremony:

And a Korean ceremony:

A note that I have found with Vietnamese tea ceremonies is that they are often performed in conjunction with a wedding because of a Buddhist tradition that allegedly dates back to China, which I found very neat. If someone out there has more information, I’d love to hear it!

One of the most interesting things I have noticed is the intense pride a country has in their tea culture and ceremonies. There is a lot of argument on origin in some of the video comments that I looked through when choosing these. Regardless, tea culture in each of these countries is something that they take pride in and is, in part, a way of life. Meditation, contemplation, and a return to a more harmonious and natural state is the goal here for each culture. It differs quite a bit from western traditions, but no matter where you go, a formal tea tradition is something wonderful to view and be a part of.

 

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The Modern Geography of Tea (and its Varieties)

Tea began in China. There are reports of some variant species of Camellia Sinensis (the tea plant) in surrounding areas such as northern India, but many early instances of the plant outside of China resulted from travelers or smugglers who wanted the tea for religious or medicinal reasons. Or both, as the case may be. However, in an extraordinary instance of globalization, diffusion, and the power of a trade commodity, tea is grown in upwards of 43 countries today. Some may only produce negligible amounts or have very small regions dedicated to the growth, but the plant produces the most consumed beverage on earth besides water and is tied directly to many a country’s economy.

Like wine grapes, tea allegedly takes on the flavor of the land it is cultivated in, resulting in distinct flavors from different geographical regions, especially due to the variation in climate in the farming areas. The difference in region also generally results in differences in preparation of the leaf into tea types and blends depending on how it is prepared and what it is mixed with. This is why black tea from different regions of India (Darjeeling, Assam, etc.) are all marketed as distinct types. In Japan alone there are at least a dozen (but probably a lot more) different types of preparation of green tea! It’s a fascinating subject, at least for me. Then again, I love geography, and tea both, so it works out that way.

Here is a map showing the geographical distribution of tea producers:

tea-production-map

For the most information compacted into the least amount of space, I’m going to go by tea type and explain what they are and where the largest producers are. If you happen to gain interest in the subject or want to be a tea connoisseur, I recommend more research on the matter. Here we go:

+ Black Tea:  The leaves of the tea plant are subjected to a long period of oxidation that turns the leaves a black color, and this type of tea has the longest shelf life of the tea “colors” (which are dependent on how the leaves are processed after picking). The largest producers of black tea are China, Kenya, India, and a number of small South Asian countries. Many varieties of black tea are named for the region they come from, as mentioned above. The UK tends to be the largest consumer of black tea.

looseleaf-black-tea-with-two-fresh-tea-leaves

+Green Tea: The leaves of the tea plant are minimally oxidized, resulting in drying of the leaves but a maintenance of the green color. Traditionally this was an eastern style of tea and not very popular in the West where black teas dominated, but it has gained wide popularity in modern times. This tea is primarily grown in Asia, with China and Japan being the largest producers.

800px-Leaves_of_green_tea

+White Tea: The leaves of the tea plant are picked before maturity, along with buds to make this type of tea. There is very little oxidation and is usually rather prepared by steaming and is considered the healthiest type of tea because of how minimally it is processed from its natural state. It is also mainly prepared in China and is less widespread than the other two variations.

White_Tea

It’s fascinating because tea in Asia tends to make up smaller and smaller amounts of many countries’ GDPs, but has risen in Africa as a hot commodity. In fact, Kenya is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea and its economy is very heavily dependent on the tea farmers.

It should be noted here that many types drinks marketed as tea especially “Herbal Tea” is not actually tea at all. Tea is distinctly a beverage derived from the Camellia Sinensis plant, whereas other drinks brewed the same way but lacking the plant are called tisanes. Interesting but important distinction here. Does not make any of them less delectable.

Someday I think I ought to go on a tour around the world to sample their tea. What do you think?

For more info on where tea is grown and what kinds grow where, check out this website.

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The Most Widely Drunk Beverage in Japan

We talked a little about tea and Japan when we had a discussion about the role of tea in the Buddhist religion. This is because the spread of Zen Buddhism from China to Japan in the 7th and 8th centuries precipitated the spread of tea drinking along with it because the two practices and ideas were inseparable by then. Thus, the infusion of tea culture into the country of Japan began with this fateful spread of culture into the sea-steeped culture.

Originally, the drink began, as it did in most places, as a medicinal liquid available to priests and noblemen in small amounts. Within a couple of centuries, though, it began to filter into the culture properly and gained momentum as a cultural hallmark. In the 1100’s, Eisai, who we have previously discussed, founded the sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism, as well as founded the original customs that are performed in the famous tea ceremonies of Japan today, although they have perhaps undergone refinement since then. It was also during this time that cultivation of tea in Japan began to get serious.

tea-ceremony-japan-scidmore_8028_990x742

A couple of centuries later in the Muromachi period in Japan, tea gained popularity with all social classes and became part of everyday life for most people and it fostered social gatherings among many to appreciate and discover tea with friends. Smaller parties with a more spiritual tone arose too, which further established the tea ceremonies into popular culture in Japan. I will write a separate post about tea ceremonies and traditions soon; for now I just want to discuss cultural significance of tea in Japan.

A time has passed, tea has become the most consumed drink in Japan, and is permanent and prominent fixture in the food culture of the country. The most well-known cultivation areas for tea in Japan are Uji, Shizuoka, and Kagoshima, and many types of green tea are processed and refined in the country that are popular globally. There are some black teas and other additions commonly added by Japanese tea makers. For more information about the individual types of tea you might find in Japan, visit this site.

In the meantime, I think I’ll just enjoy a nice cup of Sencha Green tea.

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The Serious Business of Chinese Tea

China, being basically the cradle for the birth of the tea boom seen around the world, has had its fair share of political turmoil that either centered around or thoroughly involved the object of my blog’s affection. I thought that because a large focus of the class I’ve been doing this for is politics, a look at the issues surrounding the plant and the coveted drink in the span of China’s long lifetime was worth exploring for a little while.

In the last blog, I mentioned the monk Lu Yu, who was around to see the first tax to be enacted on tea in the 700’s during the Tang Dynasty. His meticulousness in defining many aspects of tea and the art form surrounding it spawned the numerous ceremonies involving tea that are found around Asia today, most notable of which grew in Japan thanks to traveling Zen Buddhist monks who had learned from him.

The Song dynasty saw a rise in teahouses, which, as already discussed, became a common rendezvous point for commoners and upperclassmen alike to gather, allowing a blending in the culture. Even the Yuan dynasty, brought about by Mongol invasions saw a rise in tea establishments that achieved the same goal. The finesse and elegance that tea called for in those times made it even more popular with higher classes, which was something that gathered the attention of the Portuguese traveler Jasper De Cru, who was allegedly the first European to discover and experience tea. This discovery lead to subsequent European encounters, which opened up a demand for trade in tea, starting with high class citizens of multiple European classes who loved the drink and coveted it for the alleged medicinal properties that it was marketed for at the time.

tea clipper

The 16th and 17th centuries saw a marked increase in tea trading with Europe, especially with the Portuguese, Dutch, and Russians. Later, England joined the fray and became Europe’s largest consumer and trader as the drink pushed its way into everyday life and remained there to modern day. Trade comes with inevitable conflicts, though. Because the British had such an appetite for tea and at one time had a load of silver to spare for the trade, they accepted extensive tariffs imposed by China and ended up in a silver deficit. To continue to fund the trade, England began pushing China to trade tea for opium which was produced in England’s colonies, which lead to the Opium War in the 1840s because a large number of citizens in China had become addicted to the substance. The Qing dynasty banned the trade because of the negative health effects and the amount of resources being spent on it, but Britain began the conflict to force the issue, gaining Hong Kong and a number of other rights such as free trade as a result of their victory on two fronts.

This led to other conflicts outside of China such as the Boston tea party in America, but this had little to do with the political climate of China. Instead, it is worth noting that some of America’s first millionaires became rich from the tea trade with China. In more modern times, though, China has lost its status as the world’s main tea exporter as a result of the colonial times and the projects in growing tea in those colonies that became more lucrative than was first imagined. Main tea exporters today tend to include India, Ceylon, and some African countries.

 

An interesting article here gives more information about the decline of tea exports from China and explains this more in depth. Regardless, China is still regarded as having some of the highest quality tea in the world, and I hope to visit and try some someday.

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All the Tea in China

China is considered the homeland of the tea plant, and tea is the national drink. It is also one of the oldest ongoing societies in the world, so the basis of my blog this semester and one of the largest political powerhouses in the region are intertwined in geography and cultural roles alike. I discussed with you that the folktale discovery of tea was from a farmer in the heart of rural China trying to tend his flock. Other tales suggest it was an emperor of China who discovered it in his hot water one day. Regardless of the source, this substance is not only a delicious beverage to the Chinese. It is a way of life to them, but also a symbolic link to the past.

teahouse

Tea trade began with China centuries ago, leading to one of the largest colonization crazes in history in the name of the trade. But I will discuss the politics of tea in China with you later. Today, I just wanted to discuss the history and cultural significance with you guys in China proper. In the beginning, it was used as offerings to deities, as well as eaten as a vegetable and used in medicines. It continues to be used in medicine today, but it has changed from an offering and a vegetable to a drink with a rich cultural significance.

During the Han dynasty, tea drinking in China became popular for more than just monks in a monastery and royalty. In the Tang Dynasty, more ingredients were added to the brews to explore new flavors and experiences with drinking tea. Later, a monk named Lu Yu wrote a book called “The Book of Tea” where he recorded methods of cultivating and preparing tea, the customs involved, the best water to brew it with, and the different variations. It is said that the way Chinese people enjoy their tea today with the steeped leaves was established after the Yuan Dynasty and continued to be the preferred method of tea preparation.

Interestingly enough, it has ties in the three major spiritual lifestyles in China. Taoists drink tea to cultivate themselves and keep their body and mind as one. It is a drink for reflection and expression of health. I’ve discussed the significance in Buddhism previously, but it emphasizes the Zen quality as it encourages drinkers to have better health and contemplate the flavors. Confucianism even posited that the way a person consumed tea could be telling about their character.

Rituals evolved around making tea during the Song dynasty as well, and these ceremonies are were many of the modern tea ceremonies came from, including those popular in Japan. China is responsible for most of the tea exports in the world today, as it had been for the past millennium.

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Making your own Chai

So, I know we already discussed the culture of Chai Wallahs and Wallies on my blog. They are people of great cultural significance for India thanks to their consistent presence in the towns and cities. They are a meeting place for all the different social stratas that still exist in the country, something of a remnant symbol of British occupation, and a universal signal of comfort for citizens and travelers alike.

I actually wanted to write this blog as a follow-up because I came across this article on the Wall Street Journal from a blog of theirs called India Realtime. The article was actually an explanation of ways you can make delicious chia like the Wallahs in India do. Since we decided to have a chai party for the end of the semester, I thought this would be especially relevant. I will show you their recipes here and link back to the source. Do enjoy. I know I’ll be trying them when I get the chance!

 

Comfort chai   

This is the chai you get on railway platforms and at most people’s homes. It’s lovely and the perfect cup to sit with while wondering why every day can’t be a rainy day. For this you must not use long leaf loose tea because the chai needs to be brewed for a while. You can’t boil or brew loose leaf tea because it just becomes bitter. Get yourself some good Assam blend. I use Tata Tea Gold.

· If you’re making six cups of tea, you’ll need seven level teaspoons of tea.

· Place six cups of water and one cup of milk in a pan. Set to boil.

· While the water and milk is on the hob, add one teaspoon of freshly grated ginger, two green cardamoms that have been bashed so the skin is bruised, and a one inch stick of cinnamon. Tweak the spices to your taste (an American friend told me the taste of cardamom reminds her of soap, and it’s reminded me of soap ever since as well.) Some people even add two or three peppercorns. I don’t.

· Add the tea leaves. Stir.

· As the tea comes to the boil, turn the flame low. Let the brew simmer for five minutes.

· Take off the flame, strain and pour into individual mugs or into a thermos flask. Add sugar to taste. Otherwise add six teaspoons of sugar to the entire brew while boiling.

—— This kind of tea sounds great! She also offers one for the connoisseurs out there, which you can see on her blog here. Below is her recipe for a cup in a hurry.

For people in a hurry

If you love your tea but really can’t be bothered to brew, steep, pour and tweak, don’t worry. Buy a good brand of tea bag like Tetley or Twinings. One of my favorite mixes is with Earl Grey, which has a unique and absolutely delicious taste. However I find it too weak a liquor and too fragrant on its own, so I’ve made my own blend.

· Take a teabag of Earl Grey.

·  Take a teabag of Assam tea.

·  Place both in a tea cup.

·  Pour boiling water over the two bags and cover the cup with a saucer.

·  Leave for three to four minutes, maximum.

·  Take out the tea bags, squeeze them against a teaspoon to remove all the liquor. Chuck the bags.

·  Add a teaspoon of sugar and milk to taste (although I don’t put more than two teaspoons of milk at most.)

· Sip. And feel blissed out.

 

So that’s it! Sounds pretty easy right? Hop over to her blog and give her some love if you liked this post.

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