After sharing a recipe for masala chai this week, I wanted to expand a little on tea since it has such a significant place in historical events and almost every culture of the world. So pop the kettle on, grab a cuppa, and let’s dive in.
What is tea?
Tea is made by pouring hot or boiling water over leaves of the Camelia sinensis, an evergreen shrub originating in East Asia. Tea is categorised on how the leaves are processed, for example green tea is unwilted and unoxidised, oolong is wilted, bruised and partially oxidised and black tea is wilted and fully oxidised.
Te or Cha?
The Chinese character for tea is pronounced differently in the varieties of Chinese, ‘te’ in Min Chinese or ‘cha’ in Mandarin and Cantonese. The words for tea are variations of these two pronunciations which can indicate where the tea was introduced from. For example in English its tea, French thé, Spanish té, German tee etc. and in Hindi its chai, Arabic chay, Russian zhay, and Turkish çay etc.
Worldwide spread of tea
Tea originated in China and spread all over East and Central Asia through trade and Buddhism (monks drank tea to stay alert). Tea was first introduced to the west through European priests and merchants, then eventually traded through the Dutch and East India Company. Tea was popularized amongst the upper class in Britain when Catherine of Braganza (an avid tea drinker) married Charles II. It eventually became an everyday beverage over the centuries with the rise and fall of tea smuggling and taxation, and the large scale production of tea in India.
Tea and specifically its trade has had significant impact on history, such as the Tea Act which provoked the Boston Tea Party and thus the American revolution, and the opium/tea trade between Britain and China leading to the Opium Wars.
Today, tea is the most consumed drink in the world after water. It’s produced in more than 60 countries, the highest cultivator being China then India. Tea comes in many varieties and blends, and almost every culture has its own unique tea and traditions around it, like afternoon tea, tea ceremonies, tea parties, offering guests tea upon arrival and serving kawah/tea after meals.
And that’s the (very brief history of) tea ;)