You’re My Cup of Tea: Tea Culture Around the World
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
― C.S. Lewis
I’m not sure I’ve ever said ‘no’ to an offer of a cup of tea in my life. (The guys in the GoCambio office can vouch for this. Thanks, by the way!). I love everything about tea; the comforting smell, the hot taste and of course, the process of picking the perfect cup – it’s a real indulgent Goldilocks moment.
One of my most favourite things about tea is the ritualistic social element of the drink. It stems from my fascination with international tea cultures and traditions; the way tea is made and consumed, how people interact with it, and the aesthetics surrounding tea drinking. Tea culture includes tea arts and ceremony, society, history, health, ethics, education, communication and media issues; a whole lot of interesting stuff in one little cup!
India is one of the world’s largest producers of tea. The majority of the tea consumed in India is black, with the three most famous regions of black tea production being Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri. Tea leaves are boiled in water while making tea, and milk is added, and should meet the criteria of strong, heavy and fragrant. One of the most popular brews, the Indian Masala Chai, is made of strong black Indian tea that is infused with milk, sugar and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, cloves and ginger.
Offering tea to visitors is the cultural norm in Indian homes, offices and places of business. Tea is often consumed at small roadside stands, where it is prepared by tea makers known as chai wallahs.
Tea was introduced to Morocco in the 18th century through trade with Europe. Morocco consumes green tea with mint rather than black tea, and is considered the first importer of green tea worldwide. A mixture of green tea and mint leaves, Moroccans drink tea heavily sweetened with sugar and poured from a height into dainty glasses.
Refusing to accept the drink when offered by a host is a mark of extreme rudeness. The Moroccan people make tea performance a special culture; the preparation of the beverage – a process referred to as atai – is part of the tradition, and is often performed in front of the guests.
Tibetan po cha, or butter tea, combines tea, salt, and yak butter.
The high-fat, energy-boosting national beverage is believed to be ideal for life in the high, cold altitudes of the Himalayas. Brewed for several hours to get an oily, bitter taste, then churned with butter and salt directly before serving, the concoction is sometimes called cha su mar, mainly in Kham, or Eastern Tibet. The tea used for po cha is a particularly potent, smoky type of black tea from Pemagul, Tibet.
Since its invention in 1980s Taiwan, bubble or ‘pearl milk tea’ has been adored worldwide. Cold tea is mixed with fruit or milk, and a spoonful of chewy tapioca balls cooked in sugar syrup are dolloped in. Originating in Taiwan, it is especially popular in Asia as well as Europe, Canada, and the United States. The unique drink is also known as black pearl tea, boba milk tea or tapioca tea.
The tea most often served in Japan is a powdered green tea called matcha, using finely ground, high-quality green tea leaves. Green tea’s traditional role in Japanese society is as a drink for special guests, special occasions and traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, centred around the preparation, serving, and drinking of matcha. Tea is also prepared for visitors coming for meetings to companies and for guests visiting Japanese homes. The strong cultural association the Japanese have with green tea has made it the most popular beverage to drink with traditional Japanese cuisine, such as sushi, sashimi, and tempura. Major tea-producing areas in Japan include Shizuoka Prefecture and the city of Uji in Kyoto Prefecture.
Tea is popular all over Pakistan and is referred to as chai. Both black and green tea are popular in Pakistan, known as sabz chai and kahwah. The popular green tea called kahwah is often served after every meal in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pashtun belt of Balochistan
But the most distinctive tea beverage is Noon Chai in the Kashmir region– a pretty pink, milky tea made with milk, pistachios, almonds and cardamom, usually served at special occasions, weddings and at kiosks during winter months. In Lahore and other cities of Punjab, this Kashmiri chai is a common drink, brought by ethnic Kashmiris in the 19th century. Traditionally, the tea is prepared with Himalayan rock salt, giving it its uniquely characteristic pink color.
According to legend, tea in Malaysia was first discovered in 2700 BC accidentally, when a few dried leaves from a camellia bush fell into Emperor Shen Nong’s boiling water. Malaysia’s signature brew is a blend of black tea, sugar, and condensed milk. What makes teh tarik, or ‘pulled tea’ different to other teas is how it’s mixed; Malaysian brewers pour the beverage back and forth between mugs, giving the drink its distinctly frothy, creamy texture.
Iced tea has become the iconic symbol of the American South and southern hospitality in popular culture. Usually made using strong-brewed Lipton or Luzianne tea and sugar, you can also add a slice of lemon as a sweetener – refreshing on a hot summer’s afternoon in the USA.
Tea production is one of the main sources of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka. It’s a hugely popular beverage among the Sri-Lankan people, and usually black tea is served with sugar and warmed milk. Ceylon Super Pekoe black tea is one of the country’s specialities; grown on numerous estates which vary in altitude and taste, it has a crisp aroma reminiscent of citrus. Ceylon green tea is mainly made from Assamese tea stock and generally has a fuller body and a more pungent, rather malty, nutty flavour, while Ceylon Silver tip tea is highly prized, and prices per kilogram are significantly higher than other teas. If you’re visiting Sri Lanka, make sure to pay a trip to the Ceylon Tea Museum, built in Hantana, Kandy in 2001.
The British are one of the largest tea consumers in the world, with each person consuming on average 1.9 kg per year. The popularity of tea dates back to the 19th century when India was part of the British Empire, and British interests controlled tea production in the subcontinent. On the whole, people in Britain favour black tea served with milk and sometimes sugar. Builder’s tea refers to strong tea served with lots of milk and often two teaspoons of sugar, usually in a mug.
Turkish tea or çay (pronounced chai) is produced on the eastern Black Sea coast. Turkish tea is typically prepared using aydanlık, an instrument especially designed for tea preparation. Water is brought to a boil in the larger lower kettle, and then some of the water is used to fill the smaller kettle on top and steep several spoons of loose tea leaves. When serving the tea, the remaining water is used to dilute the tea on an individual basis, giving each drinker the choice between strong (‘koyu’ or dark) or weak (‘açık’ or light). The hot red drink is typically served with two tiny lumps of beetroot sugar in a tulip-shaped glass on a saucer with a little spoon to show its colour.
Tea is a part of Russian culture, and widely considered to be the de facto national beverage. The traditional implement for boiling water for tea used to be the samovar; the heart is stuffed with burning charcoal, wood, or pine cones, and the boiling water dilutes the concentrated tea held in the teapot on top. A Russian tea glass-holder is a traditional way of serving and drinking tea in Russia; expensive podstakanniks are made from silver, whereas classic series are made mostly from nickel silver, cupronickel, and other alloys with nickel, silver or gold plating. It is customary to drink tea brewed separately in a teapot and diluted with freshly boiled water. Traditionally, the tea is very strong; its strength often indicates the host’s degree of hospitality, and teabags are not used in the traditional Russian tea ceremony, only loose, large-leaf black tea.
Hong Kong-style milk tea originates from British colonial rule over Hong Kong, when the British practice of tea (black tea served with milk and sugar) grew popular there. Milk tea is similar, except with evaporated or condensed milk instead of ordinary milk. It is called “milk tea” to distinguish it from “Chinese tea” which is served plain. Hong Kong milk tea is also known as ‘pantyhose tea’ or ‘silk stocking tea’, because it is traditionally brewed in a large tea sock that resembles pantyhose. It has a smooth, frothy, creamy texture and is popular at cha chaan tengs and fast food shops such as Café de Coral and Maxims Express.
Portugal was the first to introduce the practice of drinking tea to Europe (thanks to Catarina de Bragança, who introduced the custom of having tea in the late afternoon) as well as the first European country to produce tea. Currently, tea growing in Portugal takes place in the Azores, a group of islands located 1500 km west of mainland Portugal.
Egyptians are well-known for being big tea drinkers. Tea – called ‘shai’ – is the national drink in Egypt; Karkadeh tea is a sweet-sour drink of bright red color, made of dried Sudanese rose flower bracts that you can drink both hot or cold. Koshary tea, popular in Lower Egypt, is prepared using the traditional method of brewing black tea in boiled water and letting it set for a few minutes before being sweetened with cane sugar, flavored with fresh mint leaves or adding milk. Saiidi tea is common in Upper Egypt; Egyptians boil black tea with water for 5 minutes over a strong flame and sweeten it with copious amounts of cane sugar. Karkade, a tisane of hibiscus flowers, is a particularly popular beverage, Considered good for the heart, hibiscus tea is often a specialty at Egyptian weddings.
Cha-yen is Thailand’s take on iced tea, and it combines condensed milk and brewed Thai Tea Mix. Literally meaning ‘cold tea’, it’s a drink made from strongly brewed Ceylon tea, mixed with condensed milk and sugar and then topped with evaporated milk. Other ingredients may include added orange blossom water, star anise, crushed tamarind seed or red and yellow food coloring, and sometimes other spices as well. When sold from market stalls in Thailand, the drink is poured over crushed ice in a clear plastic bag or tall plastic cups. At markets, it can be seen to be mixed through pouring the tea at heights of about 4 feet back and forth.
Rooibos (or bush tea) is a popular herbal tea native to South Africa. The rooibos plant produces a bright red tea, and it is common to prepare rooibos tea in the same manner as black tea, and add milk and sugar to taste if desired. Other methods of sweetening include a slice of lemon or a drop of honey. The tea has a naturally mild and sweet flavour, and is a perfect nightcap due its lack of caffeine content. It’s also packed full of health benefits, and is often used to relieve nagging headaches, insomnia, asthma, eczema, bone weakness, hypertension and allergies.
C.E. Murphy had this to say about the culture of tea in Ireland. “You go to someone’s house, and she asks you if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you’re really just fine. She asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, really, you don’t need a thing. Except they pronounce it ting. You don’t need a ting. Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen.Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.
In America, someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no, and then you don’t get any damned tea. I liked the Irish way better.”
GoCambio’s China Country Manager Shirley explains how there are 6 different kinds of tea in China: green, oolong, red, white, yellow and black tea. Chinese people drink oolong in the autumn with 100℃ boiled water, and red in winter. “We drink green tea in the summertime; it can help balance your body. If it’s top-level quality tea, you can use 90℃ boiled water to make it, and remember don’t cover it it; if you want a nicer colour, put the water into the cup first, and then put the tea leaf in.” Shirley’s even been kind enough to let me sample Jin Jun Mei (Golden Beautiful Eyebrow) tea, a world-famous and prestigious black tea from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province in eastern China. (This tea-drinker is VERY excited to give Barry’s tea a run for its money).
Getting thirsty? Organise a caffeinated cambio with GoCambio’s resident teaholics Michelle, Caitlin, Haruka, Giulia and Tawfiqul Hasan, who even has a Bachelor’s Degree in Food Engineering & Tea Technology! We’ll stick the kettle on…