Tea Culture Around the World - Legend & Tradition

“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.” ― C.E. Murphy, American Author

In many cultures tea is much more than a drink.  It is a ritual with both personal and social significance.  So how did that happen?

According to Chinese lore, tea was discovered in 2727 BC, when the Emperor Shen Nong was purifying water in the shelter of a tea tree, and several leaves blew into the pot.  He loved the flavor, color and aroma of the accidental drink and shared it with the rest of China, making it a household staple.

In India, legend says Prince Dharma, who left China to preach Buddhism, vowed not to sleep during his 9–year mission. Near the end of his third year, overtaken by fatigue, he tried chewing a few tea leaves to stay awake. The leaves gave him the stamina to stay awake for the remaining 6 years. That's some pretty strong tea!

Japan tells the story slightly differently, with the exhausted Bodi Dharma falling asleep.  When he woke he was so disappointed with himself that he tore off his eyelids and threw them on the ground.  In the place where his eyelids fell, enchanted tea shrubs sprang up.

The Chinese first used tea for medicinal purposes and later as a drink. They used it for gift giving, courtship rituals, ancestor worship, and imperial tribute taxes. Beginning in the 9th century, tea culture spread beyond China, first to Japan and Korea, then to the Middle East. For centuries China was the world’s only tea–exporter.

Iranian, Russian, South American Yerba Mate, and East Asian Tea Cups

In Japan, tea was first served in the Buddhist temples to monks, priests, and the ruling class. These temple practices were gradually adapted to incorporate other aspects of Japanese culture and the tea ceremonies were codified by the priest Sen Rikyu in the mid 1500s. He is regarded as the founder of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Matcha is the powdered tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony.  In cultured circles drinking tea became an alternative to alcohol. Beginning as a luxury, tea eventually became regarded as a necessity.

India is the largest tea exporter in the world. Most of its tea production is consumed at home. Tea is a major part of the Indian economy and therefore the culture.  While tea plants are indigenous to parts of northwestern India, tea was not a part of the Indian diet until after the British began producing tea there circa 1850. Darjeeling, known as "the Champagne of teas" grows high in the foothills of the Himalayas. They created the tea drink that we know as chai – black tea simmered with milk, sugar, and rich flavorful spices such as cardamom, ginger, clove and cinnamon. Every housewife and chaiwallah has his or her own recipe for what they call masala chai, or spice tea

Tea came to Russia via the "Great Tea Road", which was part of the Silk Road. The journey took over sixteen months to complete 11,000 miles. The average caravan included 200 to 300 camels. Russians drink mostly black tea. It is often sweetened, either with sugar, fruits or jam. Tea in Russia is always served hot, even in hot weather. One cannot imagine Russian tea without the samovar, adopted in the 17th century and inspired by Mongol kettles used since the 13th century. The samovar is a combination bubbling hot water heater and teapot. In summer the samovar is placed on a table in the garden; in the winter, inside, with a long pipe for the smoke to escape directly into the chimney of the house.

The Merchant's Wife by Boris Kustodiev, showcasing Russian tea culture

Before 1900, tea production in Iran was non-existent, but in 1895, an Iranian diplomat named Kashef Al Saltaneh decided to change that and bring tea production to Iran. At the time the English had a strict monopoly of tea production in India, with rigid rules against non-Europeans engaging in this trade. Kashef Al Saltaneh, who had studied in Paris as a young man and was fluent in French, went to India, posed as a French businessman and learned the trade, smuggling tea saplings and seeds to Iran. He is known today as the father of Iranian Tea, and his mausoleum, in the city of Lahijan, houses the tea museum. Interestingly, in Iran, Persians drink tea by first dipping rock cane sugar into their tea then drinking it. This came about because in the late 1800s, the Shah of Iran gave a sugar cube concession to a Belgium monopoly which resulted in the bazaari merchants and clergy protesting and issuing a fatwa declaring the Belgian sugar cube as "haram". The royal court swiftly had another mullah issue a rebuttal fatwa declaring that because the Iranian tea was pure and "halal", all Iranians had to do was to dip the sugar cube into the tea and purify it before drinking the tea. To this very day some Iranians do this ritual, many of them not knowing why they do it.

Via the caravan routes, tea penetrated all Mongol lands, Muslim countries and Russia, long before reaching Europe. In all of the Arab countries, tea has for centuries been the most popular drink. Regarded as indispensable for welcoming visitors in Morocco, tea is served in a very refined way. In the reception room, incense is burned and the host and guests refresh their hands with rose or orange blossom water as they take their seats. The tea is served in colorful tea glasses and pots and is hot mint tea, prepared with fresh mint and heaping spoonfuls of sugar added to green tea.

Ceylon tea, which is one of the more popular tea's in production, derives its name from the island nation of Ceylon, or present day Sri Lanka. Arab merchants and pilgrims from Yemen first brought coffee plants to Sri Lanka through India in the 17th century. The Dutch East India Trading company had defacto rule over the island and formalized its cultivation, and after coming into the hands of the British, coffee plantations were sprouting up all over the island. But 1869, coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease known as coffee leaf rust which massively devastated the crop. The death of the coffee industry led to the expansion of tea cultivation and today Sri Lanka is one of the largest exporters of Ceylon tea around the world. In Sri Lanka, tea is commonly consumed with sugary brown lumps called jaggery, a palm sugar sap concentrate that is mixed with condensed milk, coconut, and white sugar.


Tea Pickers in Sri Lanka

Tea Pickers in Sri Lanka

Muslim countries are amongst the highest per capita consumers of tea in the world. This has created all–day tea–drinking traditions, from sipping tea from ornate glasses in the traditional teahouses to samovars central in almost every home and gathering place.

One of the first French tea connoisseurs was King Louis XIV, who drank tea regularly, initially for health reasons. It was prescribed to aid his digestion, and as a preventive measure to guard against gout and cardiac disorders. After the French revolution, it lost popularity and saw only modest use until the mid–19th century.

Popularity in France has now grown to the point that there is a tea for every occasion, mood, event or even time of day. Thousands of beautiful and creative, cultural and gastronomic tearooms thrive, particularly in urban areas. It’s the French pastry which makes "the French art of tea" unique. The French have elevated pastry–making to an art form, with its popularity established long before that of tea drinking. However, its near perfect complement to tea drinking is what gives French Tea true character.

Outside of China, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are the largest per capita consumers of tea in the world. Tea was introduced to the Western world from China via the famous Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, when coffee was the drink of choice of the working class and hot chocolate the preferred beverage of the upper classes.

"Tea time" soon became an important feature of British life. Traditionally, the upper classes serve a "low" or "afternoon" tea around 4:00 PM. The tradition stems from the early nineteenth century, when a typical day’s dining for English aristocracy consisted of two meals per day – a late breakfast and a late dinner. Middle and lower classes have a "high" tea later in the day, at 5:00 or 6:00. It is a more substantial meal – essentially, it’s dinner. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the meals are served. Low tea is served on tables which we would call "coffee tables." High tea is served on higher (working) tables.

English tea standards include black tea blends, such as the well known Earl Grey and English Breakfast.

Tea is Revolutionary?

In parts of the world, tea houses have served as social gathering places for men but they have also been settings where intellectuals and revolutionaries gathered to foment revolutions. In 1911, when the Qing Dynasty fell following a nationwide strike, the spark came from the Heming teahouse in Chengdu, when Sichuanese rioted against the government’s cooperation with an English railroad company. When the Cultural Revolution began in China, the first thing the Chengdu authorities did was close all the teahouses, claiming they were a refuge for heretics and witches. Tea houses in Chengdu served as certain safe zones where anything can be discussed or addressed, a place where old men could rave about Mao, the lack of culture and soul in today’s society, the depravities of the rich, and the weakness of the younger generation.

In Iran, almost every neighbourhood has its own tea house which serves as a gathering place where local people discuss their neighbourhood, newcomers, business, society, politics. They even sometimes solve financial problems of their friends. The tea houses served local bazaars, where merchants could discuss negotiations with customers and other merchants over tea. The tea house had its own culture, which is traditionally related to generosity, benevolence, charity and helping people in need. In this regard, a tea house plays a role as a meeting place for perpetuating conventional and dominant values. Tea houses in Iran were [and still are] a male-dominated space; a place with its traditional architecture, traditional music, traditional painting, traditional cuisine, traditional smoke (hookah), tea as the only beverage and men as the only customers represents a traditional society.Tea houses have frequently played a role in fomenting Iranian movements and revolutions as they were a central meeting place for the business and intellectual classes.

The story of our nation’s independence begins with tea. At the celebrated Boston Tea Party of 1773, three shiploads of tea were dumped into the harbor in protest over high taxes on the tea being re–exported from Britain to the American colonies. In our formative years, we were a green tea–consuming culture. Until WWII, tea was the most widely consumed hot beverage in the United States.

Boston Tea Party in Boston Massachusetts

Most notably, the US has made its contribution to global tea culture by popularizing iced tea. It was first introduced at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. A group of tea producers from India had set up a booth to promote their black teas. The sweltering summer heat and humidity prompted them to serve the tea over ice, just to get people to try it. In the 100 years since then, consumption of iced tea in the US has grown to over 40 billion cups per year.

In recent years, demand for specialty premium teas in North America has risen dramatically. New tea shops and tea houses are opening weekly, making quality tea, innovative tea drinks and tea-related products readily accessible to many Americans.

The diverse tea–drinking rituals and histories remind us that tea is much more worldly than people sometimes think. Without these cultural differences, we might not think of tea as more than something to keep us warm or quench our thirst.

The ideal is to combine the practicalities of the drink with the beauty of unique and inventive serving and use methods. In doing so, we not only pay tribute to this age–old beverage, but enlighten and hopefully enliven those who consume it

Additional Links

Tea Traditions at TheTeaSpot.com