Posted by: ktzefr | August 31, 2015

Around the World in a Teacup: history, legends, and lies


Tea has been around for nearly 5,000 years.  It all began in China…

According to legend, tea was discovered by the Emperor Shen Nung, a scholar and herbalist who drank boiled water for his health.  One day when he was resting beneath a wild tea tree a breeze stirred the branches and caused a few leaves to fall into his simmering water.  He found the resulting brew much more revitalizing than plain boiled water.

Japan…Sometime around A.D. 800 a Japanese monk who was studying in China returned home with tea seeds to plant on the grounds of his monastery.  Later, when he served this tea to Emperor Saga, the emperor ordered tea cultivation established in Japan.  (It just takes a cup to get hooked.)  The Japanese quickly turned tea drinking into ceremony involving a precise pattern of behavior designed to create a “quiet interlude” during the day for spiritual refreshment and attaining harmony with the universe.  Okakura Kakuzo wrote in 1906, “Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.”  (I agree — a cup of tea, a chunk of chocolate, and a “quiet interlude” to watch the goldfinch come to the thistle feeder.)

Europe…No one knows for sure whether it was the Dutch or the Portuguese who brought the first tea ashore, but it was early in the seventeenth century.  Supplies were then re-exported to Italy, France, and Germany.  The real tea lovers, however, were the Russians and the Brits.

The first tea came to Russia as a gift from the Chinese to Tsar Alexis.  Soon, hundreds of camels were trekking to the border at Usk Kayakhta, laden with furs to exchange for tea.  The journey from Chinese grower to Russian consumer could take up to a year and a half, and by the 1800s Russians were drinking more than 6,000 camel loads of tea every year.  With the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, however, the transport time was reduced to just over a week!

In England tea was first advertised as a cure for every known ailment.  Thomas Garraway, a merchant in London, was one of the first to offer the sell of tea by auction.  He wrote that tea “maketh the body active and lusty…it vanquisheth heavy dreams, easeth the brain and strengtheneth the memory, it overcometh superflous sleep…”  I admit that, on occasion, I have imbibed in a spot of tea to overcometh superflous sleep because I needed to keepeth going.

The British went nuts over tea and the country was soon paying exorbitant prices for it, since China had no interest in trading for cotton, the only export England had to offer.  Opium came to the rescue.  The Chinese craved it and the British East India Company started growing it in Bengal.  The Brits, via merchants in Calcutta, sold it to China for silver.  Then they used the same silver to pay the Chinese for tea.  Opium was illegal in China and there were severe penalties, but the trade continued until a Chinese official named Lin Zexu confiscated 20,000 chests of it and stacked it on the beach in Canton to let the waves wash it out to sea.  A year later, Britain declared war on China and China retaliated by placing an embargo on tea. By then, however, the Brits had found several areas in India and Ceylon where they could cultivate tea.   

Ceylon…The main crop had been coffee, but the coffee rust fungus killed the majority of plants and estate owners had to grow some other crop in order to avoid ruin.  A Scotsman named James Taylor arrived in Ceylon in the mid 1800s and was put in charge of sowing the first tea seeds.  He quickly acquired some basic knowledge of tea cultivation, used his own bungalow as the factory, and rolled the leaves by hand.  The tea was deemed delicious, and Taylor soon had a fully equipped factory. 

By the late 1800s Ceylon had become a major British tea-producing area.  The country  changed its name to Sri Lanka; the tea did not.  Today, high-grown Ceylon teas have a beautiful golden liquor and intense flavor.  (I’m lucky to have a Sri Lankan friend who brings me bags of the real deal when she goes home for holiday.  In addition to the whole leaves, a popular local drink uses tea “dust” that is made by crushing the leaves into a powder.  Tea made with dust is generally boiled the last few minutes with milk, similar to the Indian masala tea.   In general, I would never add milk to tea, but good Indian masala made with milk and cardamon is a treat.)

India… the Brahmaputra Valley is the largest black tea-producing region of the world.  It borders China, Burma, and Bangladesh and gets very high rainfall and soaring temperatures, creating an enormous natural greenhouse for producing some of the finest varieties of tea in the world (First Flush Assam, Second Flush Assam, as well as greens and blends).

My personal favorite Indian tea, however, is darjeeling.  On a clear day, at 6,000 feet above sea level, these tea pickers can see Mount Everest in the distance.  Thousands of acres of tea bushes produce the best darjeelings, often referred to as the “Champagne” of teas.  No sugar, honey, lemon, or milk with this tea.  It’s naturally infused with a wonderful floral scent.

Viet Nam…The scent of tea has always been important to tea drinkers.  During the Nguyen dynasty (mid 1800s), King Tu Duc was known for drinking lotus-scented tea.  On the day before his morning tea, he had workers row to a lotus growing lake and place a small handful of tea leaves into each lotus flower blossom and then bind the petals.  The tea would dry overnight and absorb the scent of the flowers.  The next morning it would be picked and brought to the king for his morning tea.  Nowadays, the methods for infusing tea with lotus blossoms are a bit more modern.

Africa…Several countries in Africa grow tea. Cameroon’s first bushes were planted on the slopes of an active volcano.  The Kenyan highlands produce some of the highest quality of tea in Africa.  German settlers planted the first tea in Tanzania.  And, in South Africa, locals drink 10 billion cups of tea each year.  Zulu tea from this area has become popular in Europe and the US. 

Mexico…Countries south of the border are not known for growing tea, but indigenous people served herbal tea for centuries before the Spaniards arrived.  Some varieties are purported to have medicinal benefits.  A few, however, can be toxic in large doses.  My favorite (safe to drink in any quantity) is flor de Jamaica.  Every Mexican market has these dried hibiscus flowers that make a refreshing herbal iced tea or agua fresca.  It’s deep red in color with a sweet-tart flavor, high in Vitamin C, caffeine free, and sold in many restaurants and by street vendors.  It’s best served very cold with a lot of ice.  Also, an herbal tea that I’ve enjoyed in Mexico in private homes (don’t know if it’s sold in markets) is tea brewed from the leaves of the lime trees that grow in many home gardens.

In other Latin American countries the most popular tea drink is yerba mate, an herbal variety from the mint family. 

 The U.S. —  When tea came to the colonies New York City became a tea drinker’s haven.  Quality drinking water was not always available back then, so special water pumps were installed around Manhatten.  Tea gardens became popular and tea was drunk in the same elegant fashion as in England with expensive silverware and porcelain — symbols of wealth and social status.  Families with no money, however, still drank tea as this represented breeding and good manners.  A pot was kept on the stove all day for family and visitors.  Some folks enjoyed the scented green teas from China, but the Quakers drank theirs with salt and butter!

The Boston Tea Party ended America’s teatime.  When British troops arrived and the War of Independence began, The U.S. became a coffee-drinking country.

And so it goes…







  1. I always learn something fascinating from your posts!!

    • Good!! Thanks for taking the time to read.

  2. A good read. And I gained new knowledge from the short visit. Thanks!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Shutter Bug. I always enjoy your great photos!

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