Tea-drinking culture is as old as the hills. It dates a long way back- more than 5000 years. Like aging wine, tea has caught the fancy of cultures across the world. It has evolved from being a medicinal drink to a beverage that ‘tempts, lures, and attracts’. Black or green, white or yellow, there is no equal to a cup of that ‘delightful beverage that restores and rejuvenates’. Frances Harding couldn’t have put it better- ‘Tea is the magic key to the vault where my brain is kept’.
The tea-drinking culture across the world is intriguing and the way it has flourished and evolved over centuries is as miraculous as this miracle brew. Let’s restart our sojourn where we left off. Let’s wend our way through the corridors of East Asia and savor the aromas and inhale the fragrance of their teas.
Po Cha or Butter Tea
Located on the Tibetan Plateau to the north of the Himalayas, Tibet may appear to be rather remote. However, it has a unique tea-drinking culture and this extends into the many facets of daily life. Its tea drinking and tea brewing are also rather distinctive.
A soupy tea that’s quite unlike any tea that you normally come across is Tibet’s signature. Po Cha or Butter Tea is what Tibetans fortify themselves with to combat the cold. Boiling the Pu-erh teacakes in hot water is the first step. The end result is a thick, black, bitter concoction that is practically undrinkable. Adding yak butter, salt, and milk (chaku) is the next step. Churning the mixture results in a soupy consistency.
Po-cha is a great favorite in this cold, high-altitude region and is a lifeline that strengthens the bonds between family and friends. Although Tibetans love this dark, bitter liquid, tourists may not find it so pleasant.
Tea Etiquette in Tibet
If you are visiting Tibet and don’t want to land up drinking pints of that stuff, ensure that you drain your bowl just before you take leave of your guests. Just pretend to sip your tea till everyone else has drunk theirs! Tibetan etiquette forbids empty cups in front of their guests. Don’t empty your cup too quickly. Your host will refill it as fast as you empty it.
Cha Dao Chinese Tea-drinking Culture
To the Chinese, tea making is an art that is as symbolic as its tea-drinking culture. Apart from showing respect to elders, the act of pouring tea is also a way to tender an apology to a wronged person. Married couples serve tea to their parents to show their gratitude. Wedding parties meet up with each other at the tea ceremony. Drinking tea signifies acceptance- ‘not partaking by not drinking’ indicates opposition. Tea drinking is an important part of Chinese culture.
Talking of rituals and tea-making, the Chinese too believe in the ceremonial approach while entertaining guests. ‘Gong-fu-cha,’- the Chinese tea ceremony, essentially means “making tea with skills”. It consists of many intricate details and the ceremony lasts at least half an hour. The hosts primarily use Oolong or black tea.
The Actual Tea ceremony
Tongs, brewing trays, bowls, strainers, and ‘scent-cups’. Yes, you heard right- scent cups, are an important part of this ceremony. Guests inhale the fragrance of the tea before it is brewed. Washing the cups and warming them with the ‘first hot brew of tea’ is very important. After arranging the cups in a circle (with no gaps in-between), pouring the brewed tea skilfully from a height is the next maneuver. Smoothly and rhythmically, tea flows into the cups with no spillage. Tea drinking begins.
Guests take the filled cup with both hands and sip the tea while savoring it. Three sips should see them through. Lastly, savoring the lingering aroma and fragrance in the cups is important. Before leaving, the guests bend their two forefingers and tap the cup or the table as a show of gratitude.
Why Gongfu Cha is different
Although other countries like Korea and Japan too, have tea ceremonies, their focus is on modus operandi and ritual-making. Gong-fu Cha is different in that the ‘central aspect pivots around the tea itself!’ Tang Dynasty scholar and poet, Lu Yu details the kind of water to use (freshwater from a mountain stream), the way to boil it, and the way to brew tea.
Taiwan, a bubbly little country famous for its ‘bubble tea’ has a tea-drinking culture of its own. Typically this tea is a concoction of milk powder and sweet syrup with a base of iced tea. The type of tea ranges from green and black to jasmine). So where do the bubbles come in? Well, legend has it that Lin Hsiu Hui accidentally dropped a few tapioca balls from the dessert she was eating into her teacup. The balls appeared like bubbles and hence the nomenclature ‘bubble-tea.’
The incident took place at a staff meeting at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse, and it couldn’t have occurred at a better time or a better place. The teahouse began producing this ‘bubble tea,’ and it soon gained international recognition. Bubble tea houses sprung up across the world and tea drinking got a new avatar.
Chinese immigrants form a large part of the Taiwan community. The Taiwanese tea ceremony is very similar to the Chinese Gongfu Tea Ceremony and is called “Laoren Cha’ in Taiwan. Like the Chinese, Taiwanese also use Oolong and black teas. Sometimes they also use green teas.
Taiwan’s other tea ceremonies
The Wu-Wo tea ceremony has its origin in Taiwan. What is rather pertinent is that the symbol used in this ceremony is the rainbow. The seven colors blend to display a white center. Participating in this almost spiritual exercise, guests move to an elevated plane. They put aside their differences and blend as one cohesive unit.
Taiwan’s Perennial Tea Ceremony aka “Four Season Tea Ceremony” flourished for a long time before moving on to other countries. Apart from the ‘Master of Ceremonies’, four others are present- each one depicting a season of the year. Collectively, the five represent traditional Chinese elements and colors. This association augurs and implies a sense of perpetuity and continuity.
The Japanese love rituals and use every occasion to celebrate and memorialize them- from the full moon and emerging first blossoms to the changing of leaf color. Tea drinking is a formal and elegant affair. It is an ‘aesthetic experience’ where time stands still for the few moments when you just concentrate on savoring the green or Matcha tea on your tongue. This is a moment in time when harmony, tranquility, and purity prevail and the environment transcends into a spiritual experience.
The Japanese Chanoyu is a long-drawn-out affair that dates back to many weeks before the actual ceremony. The ‘way of tea’ begins with cleaning and preparing the home. It also involves deciding which guests to invite, what implements to use, how to clean and warm them. And this changes with the change in season and the time of the day. The host attends to every little detail and practices all movements and actions to perfection before the ‘big day’. Some Tea ceremonies can last for almost four hours. Powdered green tea is the dominant preference.
Guests first purify their hands and mouths at the Machai– a room designed solely for that purpose. Hosts greet guests with bows. Mixing Green tea and Matcha powder correctly with hot water is an important first step. Adding water continuously to the resulting paste and stirring the mixture with a bamboo implement is crucial to the texture of the tea.
Next comes the placing of the frothy tea in bowls or cups before the guests. At the end of the ‘tea-drinking’ ceremony, the guests stand up and the host bows them out.
Japan’s other teas
With the evolution of technology, Japan’s tea-drinking culture also changed. They now use state-of-art methods to enjoy their cup of ‘green tea’. Many vending machines offer a choice of cold and hot bottled teas. Oolong tea is very popular and black tea with milk/lemon is a common sight in cafes and restaurants. of course herbal teas and other infusions such as mugi-cha (barley tea), soba-cha (buckwheat tea) and ama-cha (hydrangea tea) do have their places.
Green tea is a popular beverage for special guests on special occasions. It goes well with traditional Japanese sushi, tempura, or even sashimi. The Japanese tea drinking ceremony is still alive and is a treat for visitors.
Hong Kong’s tea-drinking culture has its roots in the that of China, more specifically the Yum Cha traditions of Canton. It is a unique blend of British and Chinese tea culture. The much-touted ‘Hong Kong milk tea’ is a mixture of Ceylon black tea with other teas and milk.
The Hong Kong version uses ‘evaporated milk and oxidized black tea leaves. This contains about 30 percent milk and 70 percent black tea. Boiling the tea, straining and filtering it repeatedly is pretty hard work. Straining tea in a straining sock is a rigorous technique.
Old people revel in having a cup of tea along with their papers in the morning while the young catch up on the latest before going to work over that ‘energizing cup’. In fact, tea is so popular that people enjoy it at all times of the day, including mealtimes. Tea-centric diners known as ‘cha chaan teng’ are pretty popular places for meeting up and drinking tea together.
Cultural Significance of Tea
Youngsters show respect to elders by pouring out tea and offering them their cups. When youngsters want to express regret, to apologize, or to submit to authority, they take to pouring out the tea.
At weddings, the bride and groom kneel before their parents and pour out tea for them as an expression of gratitude. The parents drink a small quantity of tea and present the newly wedded couple with a red envelope for good luck. The couple also serves tea to other members of the family. Drinking the tea signifies acceptance into the family while refusing tea is not good news for it implies opposition. Tapping bent fingers on the table is a sign of appreciation.
In case you want more tea, be sure to lift the lid of your teapot and place it diagonally. Rest assured that your teapot will be well and truly filled.
The tea-drinking culture of Korea is as much an integral part as it is in many other countries around the world. However, for Koreans tea-brewing, preparing, and the ritual of tea-making and tea drinking is an experience by itself. The actual beverage is not as important as the ceremony, which targets the mind and senses.
The Korean Darye tea ceremony is not as elaborate and formal as Japan’s nor does it have the flourishes of movement that the Chinese Tea ceremony has. The Korean Darye, developed in the 1970s is a favorable blend of both.
The Focal Point of the Ceremony
The ceremony focuses on the Buddhist philosophy of meditation, purification, and spiritual awakening. It promotes peace and tranquility and is a way to attain enlightenment. In a sense, the tea ceremony is a sort of rite dedication to the ancestral gods or even Buddha. Tea finds a place in religious rituals. It is an offering that seeks to enhance understanding between the gods and human beings. It is also a medium through which worshippers can express their wishes to the family gods.
The Korean Darye
Darye (‘etiquette for tea’) tea ceremony is simple with the ceremony taking place on either a low table or on a mat. Many items come into play- bowls, tagwan (a side handled teapot), cups without handles, tea containers, kettle, dishcloths, and more. The Darye uses Green tea aka Panyaro tea.
The tea-maker transfers hot water from the kettle first into a cooling bowl, into the teapot and then into the cups to warm them. The host pours hot water from the kettle into the cooling bowl once again. He/she transfers this into the tagwan, which contains the tea leaves. Tea steeps for a couple of minutes.
The host empties the warm water from the teacups and readies them to receive tea. The host first pours himself/herself a small tasting of tea. If satisfied, the filling up of the guest cups begins- starting from the farthest cup and ending up with the nearest. Between each pour, the host pauses for a few seconds. Initially, the host fills half the cup. Remember, the strong tea is at the bottom. Hence, a second-round ensures that the taste of tea is uniform in all the cups. Filled cups and paired coasters placed on the low table. The tea-drinking begins.
Guests have to finish the tea in 3-5 sips- in the first sip they enjoy the color of the tea, in the second sip they take in the aroma, and in the third sip, they taste the tea. In the fourth sip, the guests continue tasting the tea and in the final sip, they savor the lingering aftertaste.
Korean Tea Houses
Building traditional hanoks (Korean tea houses) in natural settings that offer great views, is the norm. Doors and windows allow cross-ventilation- every item serves to emphasize man’s continued connection with nature.
Some teahouses even have springs with pure water. While making tea, only this water is used.
Mongolia- ‘No tea-No face’
You will hear this in the rural areas of Mongolia if you don’t offer your guests a cup of tea. This country is famous for the hospitality it extends towards visitors and friends. It is also known for the highly acclaimed generosity of its locals.
Primarily, there are two types of tea- milk tea and non-milk tea. However, the locals prepare tea in as many as 40 different ways, depending on the traditions and preferences of the ethnic group. All tea recipes are high in calories – this helps to ward off hunger and keep warm even in freezing temperatures.
The tea-drinking culture in Mongolia is quite different from that of its neighbors. Offering tea with the right hand and tucking the left under the right elbow is a common sight. When they serve tea, hosts maintain a clockwise direction. Ensuring that the kettle spout is not directed at the door is a big part of tea-ethics in the Mongolian tea-drinking culture.
Milk tea and milk are held in great regard and no wastage is allowed. Even if a little milk spills on the floor, the householders or locals touch the spilled milk and then put that finger to their forehead. In urban Mongolia, if family members or relatives fall sick, people take milk tea along with them when they visit the patients.
The Mongolian way of tea
Mongolians start off the day with the brewing of suutei Tsai (milk tea) in a huge cauldron on the fire. The cauldron always faces north- the place where Buddhist shrines reside in homes. A huge pat of butter goes into the cauldron. Tea leaves (black or green) accompany the melting butter. Adding water to the fried tea leaves and covering the cauldron is the first part of the lengthy exercise.
Then the boiling, stewing, and frequent stirring happen. Adding salt at this juncture and later a quart of milk is crucial to the taste and consistency. Boiling the whole mixture with the cauldron lid on and subsequent ladling and stirring enhances the texture. Once they achieve a buttery smooth appearance, ladling begins again. The more the ladling, the better the taste. Boiling and ladling goes on for some time. After that, the straining begins. Storing the tea into large tea kettles or thermoses is common. Tea drinking and brewing happen throughout the day.
Some Tea Rituals
Womenfolk use a huge wooden spoon with a ‘khadag’ (a sort of long, silk scarf) to pour out the tea. White khadags symbolize milk while blue ones represent the sky.
Early in the day, Buddha gets the first offering- the first cup of tea. Tea is sprayed outside as an offering to the sky, the mountains, the steppe, and the earth in general. Then everyone else is served sequentially- starting from old to young. Women wear on some sort of head covering while offering tea.
A Quick Look At Some of Mongolia’s Different Teas
Khiltstei Tea- Adding flour to the melting butter and subsequently brewing the tea in the usual way gives the tea a new taste.
Dumplings Tea- Dumplings are made and kept aside. Tea is brewed, flour is added and the mixture is boiled. Milk and salt are then added. After boiling and stirring for a long time, the dumplings are added and the whole mixture boiled again. The end product- a truly invigorating tea!
Bort (dried meat) Tea- Ground dried meat is fried in melting butter. Adding black tea and boiling the mixture comes next. Sometimes white or yellow rice is added. Once this is cooked, milk is added and the entire mixture re-boiled.
Many ingredients like barley, dill, nettle, and saline are also added to make the tea tastier.
Did you know that breakfast in Mongolia is always drunk? The tea that they brew is high in calories and substitutes for a solid breakfast. Most Mongolians don’t drink water. They drink a mixture of various kinds of milk got from camel, goat, sheep, yaks, and even horses.
Well known for its blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures, Macau presumably introduced tea to Europe in the 17th century. A hot cuppa is a way the locals start off the day with. The country offers many tea options- bubble tea, milky tea, fruity tea, plain tea (Chinese style), and also black tea.
Thus, the tea-drinking culture around the world is varied and amazing. Isn’t its ceremonial value astounding? No wonder that countries across the globe yearn to wake up to and savor the delicious cup of tea that invigorates and soothes!
And thus the never-ending tea journey continues- let’s catch up with more of tea-drinking culture in the next installment!