This week’s entry: Tea Culture
What it’s about: Wars have been fought over it. Political movements that aren’t quite sure what they stand for have grown up around it. For an unassuming, non-alcoholic beverage, tea has had an outsize impact. It’s consumed all over the world, and in most places, a culture has grown up around when to brew up a pot and how.
Strangest fact: Tea was once used as money. It’s unclear when the Chinese started drinking tea—some stories have Emperor Shennong discovering the drink in 2737 B.C.; some date it to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.). Whenever tea drinking began, by the time it was widespread in the 700s, it was brewed from tea bricks. Tea leaves would be dried, ground, and pressed into bricks, which would then be ground up into powder and then whisked into boiling water. The bricks were easy to store and transport, and as a result were sometimes used as currency. It was only in 1391, when the Hongwu Emperor, who founded the Ming Dynasty, insisted on loose tea leaves that the rest of the country followed suit. As leaves needed to be steeped and not whisked, this also led to the development of the teapot.
Biggest controversy: Myanmar is one of the only places in the world where tea is both a drink and a food. Lahpet is made from fermented or pickled tea leaves, and is considered Myanmar’s national delicacy. The food was traditionally a symbolic peace offering between warring kingdoms, and up until the end of colonial rule was served after a judge rendered a verdict. Scandal hit in 2009, however, when Myanmar’s Ministry Of Health announced that 43 different brands of lahpet were all using a dye, Auramine O, which had been banned for potentially causing liver and kidney damage and even cancer. Nearby countries banned the import of lahpet, and the country’s economy took a significant hit, although in Myanmar itself, it was “considered indispensable at social gatherings.” Tea in liquid form is equally indispensable, as bars and nightclubs are rare in Myanmar, but even the smallest town has several tea shops.
Thing we were happiest to learn: East Asians have elevated drinking tea to an art form. China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have variations on the tea ceremony, an elaborate ritual regarding the preparation and consumption of tea. On one level, the tea ceremony is intended to produce the best-tasting tea. But on a deeper level, the tea ceremony is a spiritual practice, akin to meditation, as the strict formality of the ceremony focuses on, “an adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday life.”
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The rest of the world is missing out on iced tea. Apart from Thailand, where Thai tea is served cold, iced tea is an American thing, with 80 percent of the tea in this country served cold. Conversely, Americans spent decades missing out on the rest of the world’s tea. Before the Second World War, black, green, and oolong teas were all popular in the U.S. But during the war, tea from China and Japan were unavailable, and nearly all of the tea consumed here was black tea from India (via the U.K.). Our exclusive consumption of black tea continued for decades after the war, and only in the last decade or two have green, oolong, white, chai, and bubble made inroads.
Also noteworthy: Tea is so essential to life in the British Isles that in the U.K. and Ireland it’s also a meal. Trouble is, there’s no consensus as to which meal. For the upper classes, tea is a light afternoon meal (served with the drink, naturally), to tide one over between lunch and a late dinner. But working-class people refer to their evening meal as tea, and their mid-day meal as dinner. Confused yet? It gets worse. “Tea time” is mealtime, not time to drink tea (although it’s often part of the meal), and in some parts of England, “dinner time” refers to lunch, and “tea time” refers to dinner. Perhaps because of these numerous overlapping meals, the U.K. and Ireland are among the biggest tea-drinkers in the world, although most tea grows halfway around the world from those countries.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While tea has long been thought to have medicinal value, it indirectly improved health in Britain in measurable ways. Because water for tea is boiled, that country’s heavy tea consumption cut down on diseases contracted from unsanitary water, including cholera, dysentery, and typhoid. (For those who have learned from experience to avoid Wikipedia’s usually graphic disease pages, the typhoid and cholera links have a fair number of photos, few of them terribly gruesome, and the dysentery page is mercifully photo-free)
Further down the wormhole: Cultures have grown up around more than one kind of tea. In the 1950s, “tea” was slang for marijuana, and cannabis culture is well established. For example, according to Emily Post, good manners dictate that one pass the dutchie on the left-hand side. While people from all walks of life have been known to toke up, pot is practically mandatory among hippies. We’ll take a look at our unwashed, jam-band-listening brethren next week.