In praise of tea

Wondrous, beautiful brew, what would we do without you? How would we judge the character of another person, or bond with complete strangers, if it weren’t for your restorative deliciousness? Tea drinking came to us from China, as early as the third century AD, where it was used medicinally during the Shang dynasty. The practice of drinking tea spread from southern China upwards to the mainland, and also out to Japan, Vietnam and Korea. Tea has been used as currency, in the shape of bricks, and been named amongst the ingredients to make a mythical elixir of life by philosopher Lao Tzu. While tea was originally found in a belt that includes parts of northeast India, parts of Burma, Tibet and southwest China, the charms of tea spread through the rest of the world through the Portugese, one of the first colonising nations.

In the sixteenth century Portugese missionaries and merchants first encountered tea in China, where it was apparently called cha. It was introduced to Europe by an Italian merchant (trust an Italian to find the only real rival to coffee there is), and the rest is history. The British introduced tea plantation in India as a way to counter the monopoly the Chinese had on the market, and land in Assam was given away free to any European who would agree to cultivate tea on the land. Naturally, many enterprising men (presumably) leapt to the challenge and thus began an industry that would take over the entire country. India and then-Ceylon, now-Sri-Lanka, became the British tea suppliers at first, interestingly, using Chinese seeds and plantation methods, but gradually moving on to Assamese tea, which was found to be nearly identical to the Chinese variety. Hurrah for science!

What is fascinating is that India, and England, were not intrinsically a tea-drinking nation. A tea culture was carefully brewed, with many factors contributing to it—the marriage of King Charles II to Portugese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662, for instance, made tea-drinking fashionable in court, which dictated all the trends of the time. Another major factor was economics—the British deliberately introduced a tea culture to India and Ceylon in the nineteenth century, which, combined with a desire to be modern by Anglicised Indians, made tea much more popular with the countries that were soon producing most of the world’s tea at the time. Even now India remains the world’s largest consumer of tea, and no doubt the tea-set business has also been booming. Where would Royal Albert and Wedgwood be, one imagines, without their iconic teacups?

Tannins in tea are good for your heart, caffeine keeps you awake and the headaches away. We drink tea at happy occasions and at sad ones. We drink tea to wake up and to relax; tea was originally marketed as a tonic and we still use it like one. Everyone has their own way of brewing theirs, their own tea quirks and habits. I never drink mixed tea; another friend never lets anyone else pour her milk in case they get it wrong. Half the advertisements on television wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a sweet young thing carrying a tray of teacups into a drawing room. You will be hard-pressed to make friends at work if you don’t drink tea—the tea-break is a sacred ritual in an office, no less solemn than a Japanese ceremony, and if you aren’t a part of the office teabag and Everyday pool, you’re a bit of a pariah. In my salad days I spent some time interning in the newsroom of a newspaper office, and the kindly old reporters would ask me if I would have a cup of tea. I was sixteen and didn’t drink any, so it took me a few days to realise why they looked so puzzled and remote when I politely declined. On the fifth day I accepted the milky, sweet brew in a taamchini mug, and from that day onwards I was one of the gang.


The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

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