Tea, If You Want To

Our last post explored tea’s origins in China. Today, we follow the Tea Road out to Japan and Russia, and its eventual reach to Europe and North America in the modern age. Tea cultures around the world all have their own distinct traditions, and I think they’re fascinating enough to take a little virtual ramble through. 

We’ll start in Japan, where tea came in through Jiangnan on the west coast of China. Japanese tea culture is exquisite, drifting through the imaginations of tea and beauty lovers internationally. With separate traditions for sencha (Senchado) and matcha (Sado), Sado is the more widely-known - the ritual surrounding what is internationally regarded as Japanese tea culture. 

While tea was initially reserved for the upper class, Sado transitioned it to a more humble ritual. With Sado, wabi-sabi became an integral piece of the ceremony. Wabi-sabi is a difficult yet beautiful concept to try to translate. Oxford defines it as “finding beauty in imperfection, impermanence, or simplicity.” It is seeing the beauty behind the thing, making it so appropriate for the tea ceremony. The meaning behind it all. The rituals themselves exist in thousands of variations, based on the season, time of day, who is present, and the space in which the tea ceremony takes place [1].

There is intentionality and etiquette behind every movement that takes place within the tea ceremony. The matcha is prepared in a bowl with a bamboo whisk. The way things are held, served, what one wears, is all taken into consideration. In an age that seems only to rush, it is an entrancing thing to observe - so intentionally slow and thoughtful, a preservation of what is sacred and why we’re here.

In the north of China, tea traveled up to Mongolia and then to Russia. Tea is Russia’s national beverage, observed as afternoon tea and often consumed at the end of meals. Russia has a specific two-step process to their tea preparation. In the first step, tea is brewed as a concentrate in a small teapot to be shared. Each drinker adds hot water individually to allow for personalized strength. And then they add all the yummies - lemon, milk, jam. Russians love their tea, and writing about it makes me want to brew some.

And later, tea made its way in shipping containers to Europe and North America. In the UK, tea is quite obviously a big deal. Since the 17th century, the United Kingdom has been one of the world’s largest tea consumers. Similarly to the rest of the world, it started high class and worked its way into universality. The English and Irish enjoy their tea in a cup and saucer alongside a light meal, and there is high debate over milk and the way it’s introduced to the tea. The debate is along these lines: Should one pour the milk into the cup first or the tea? When in the tea experience and at what temperature, should the milk be added? It’s a hot topic. For the record, I add approximately half an inch of extra creamy oat milk to my tea, tea poured first.

So there it is, a quick dip into a few of the world’s most enthusiastic tea-drinking countries. The way this one plant has shaped cultures is certainly interesting to consider. It’s walked a successful evolutionary path, convincing humans to grow it in huge numbers and build little altars around it, poignant rituals. Whether the practice of drinking tea is seen as a comfort or a beauty, it has become - around the world - a practice to project our values onto, a ritual through which we view ourselves, and something warm to gather around. 

[1] https://gjtea.org/info/japanese-tea-information/japanese-tea-culture/

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash