• Neil Padilla

Steeped to Perfection Part 5: Tea Culture

Tea affects us all. It is, after all, the second most consumed beverage at 3 billion cups a day. This further discussion will introduce you to the various tea cultures that have evolved all throughout the world.  This is your fifth lesson in tea and we’ll start with how tea was smuggled by an unassuming Scottish botanist.  Let’s begin. 

The Great Theft

It was 1848 and the British East India Company was looking for a way to cut China’s monopoly on tea. This is basically an act of corporate espionage and they chose Robert Fortune on a trip to China's interior and steal this valuable resource. 

The task required a plant hunter, a gardener, a thief, a spy,” writes Sarah Rose, in her award-winning book, For All the Tea in China (2010), which charts Fortune’s great British tea robbery.

Fortune was born at Kelloe, Berwickshire in Scotland. After completing his apprenticeship, he was employed at Moredun House, before moving to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, in early 1843 he was commissioned by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to undertake a three-year plant collection expedition to southern China.

He employed many different means to obtain plants and seedlings from local tea growers, He also took with him skilled workers to India who helped facilitate tea production in the plantations of the East India Company in Darjeeling, India. 

With the exception of a few plants which survived in established Indian gardens, most of the Chinese tea plants Fortune introduced to India perished. The technology and knowledge that was brought over from China was instrumental in the later flourishing of the Indian tea industry using Chinese varieties, especially Darjeeling tea, which continues to use Chinese strains.

From there, the Chinese monopoly on tea was broken. In the 1850s, the tea industry rapidly expanded. By the turn of the century, Assam became the leading tea-producing region in the world. Tea Drunk

Did you know that there is such a condition as being tea drunk? 

We found out earlier in this series that tea has caffeine content. The tea creation process combines this caffeine with tannins. When consumed in excess, a person can have a unique elated caffeine high that cannot be experienced from other caffeinated beverages.  You’ve had a version of this - a strong caffeine buzz. Caffeine in tea can stimulate one’s central nervous and cardiovascular system. In other words, tea is more of a stimulant than an excitant. It leaves you awake and relaxed, high and grounded at the same time, and clear-minded. This combination of uppers and downers in one plant isn’t unique at all since marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms have similar synergistic effects on the body.  All Around the World

That being said, tea evolved all around the world and each culture adapted it. Here are a few:  Tibet There are two teas only found in Tibet: butter tea and sweet milk tea

There are also many rules regarding tea drinking in Tibet. This includes an invitation to a house for tea. 

The host first pours some highland barley wine. The guest must then dip their finger in the wine and flick some away. This must be done three times to represent respect for the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The cup is then refilled twice more and on the last time it must be emptied or the host will be insulted. After this, the host will present a gift of butter tea to the guest, who should accept it without touching the rim of the bowl. The guest will then pour a glass for himself, and must finish the glass or be seen as rude. Japan

Japan is perhaps the country with the most elaborate ceremonies related to tea. 

The Japanese tea ceremony is also referred to as The Way of Tea. It is a cultural activity that involves the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha or powdered green tea which we discussed in a previous chapter. 

It can be quite confusing to the uninitiated. In Japanese, it is called sadō, while the manner in which it is performed is called temae. Zen Buddhism was a primary influence in the development of the Japanese tea ceremony. Every action in sadō from how a kettle is used, how a teacup is examined and how tea is placed in a cup is performed in a very specific way. This all began when the Buddhist monk Eichū brought some tea back to Japan on his return trip from China in the 9th century. Eichū personally prepared and served sencha for Emperor Saga who was then on an excursion in Karasaki (present Shiga Prefecture) in 815. Sencha is made by steeping tea leaves in hot water.  By 816, tea plantations began to be cultivated in regions of Japan but it failed to pick up after. 

From then on, the use of Japanese tea developed as a "transformative practice", and began to evolve its own aesthetic. This is evident in the "sabi" and "wabi" principles 

"Sabi", represents the outer, or material side of life. It originally meant "worn", "weathered", or "decayed". Understanding emptiness was considered the most effective means to spiritual awakening, and embracing imperfection was honored to remind us of our unpolished selves.  "Wabi" on the other hand represents inner, or spiritual, experiences of human lives. Its original meaning is characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry. It emphasizes simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and celebrates the mellow beauty imparted by time and care to material things.

Tea equipment are collectively called chadōgu and all the tools for tea are handled with exquisite care. They are thoroughly cleaned before and after each use and before storage. Some items like tea storage jars are so revered that they were given proper names like people.  There are many styles of temae, depending on the school, occasion, season, and many other factors. Here are a few:  1. Ryūrei In this style, the tea is prepared with the host seated at a special table with the guests also seated at tables which allows this temae to be conducted anywhere, even outdoors.  The name refers to the host's performing the first and last bows standing. There is an assistant involved who sits close to the host and moves the host's seat out of the way as needed for standing or sitting. The assistant is the one who serves the tea to the guests. This procedure was developed for serving non-Japanese guests who might be more comfortable sitting on chairs.

2. Chabako temae The chabako is so called because the equipment is removed from and then replaced into a special box known by the same name.

This tamae is developed as a convenient way to prepare the necessary equipment for making tea outdoors. The chabako contains a tea bowl, tea whisk which is kept in a separate container, a tea scoop, and a tea caddy. A linen wiping cloth is also kept in a special container, as well as a container for little sweets. Many of the items are smaller than usual, to fit in the box. 

3. Obon temae

The obon temae or bonryaku temae is a procedure for brewing usucha or thin tea.  The tea bowl, whisk, scoop, chain, and caddy are placed on a tray. The hot water is prepared in a tetsubin or kettle that is heated on a brazier. This is the first temae learned by novices and is relatively easiest to perform. It does not need specialized equipment nor much time to complete. It can be done sitting at a table or even outdoors, using a thermos pot in place of the tetsubin and portable hearth.


In India, tea is often served as masala chai with milk, sugar, and spices such as ginger, cardamom, black pepper, and cinnamon.

Tea leaves are boiled in water while making tea, and milk is added. Offering tea to visitors is usually done in Indian homes and offices. Tea is often consumed at small roadside stands.  

Libya Tea is served with peanuts in Libya.  Libyan tea uses black or green tea with foam or froth topping a small glass. It is usually sweetened with sugar and traditionally served in three rounds. mint or basil is used for flavoring and traditionally the last round is served with boiled peanuts or almonds.

Central Asia

Tea was brought to Central Asia through the Silk Road. In Kazakhstan traditional tea is black traditionally with milk, in Uzbekistan traditional tea is green. Drinking tea is particularly popular during chilla. ‘This is the hottest period in mid-summer from late June to early August.  People in different regions of Central Asia prefer different kinds of tea. Tashkenters, for example, usually drink green tea, while people in Almaty prefer black tea with milk.

In Central Asia, tea is the drink of hospitality. There are a lot of etiquette that one has to observe. Tea is offered first to every guest, and drunk from a piala which is a small bowl. Here are the steps on how to conduct oneself in relation to tea in Central Asia: 

• From a fresh pot, the first cup of tea is often poured to clean the piala and then the tea is poured out and returned twice into the pot to brew the tea.

• A half-full cup is a sign of respect &they cherish you as a guest.

• A cup filled a little way up is a compliment. This allows your host to refill it and keep its contents warm. Tea will always be refilled unless you leave some tea inside the cup.

• If you are offered a full piala of tea is a subtle message for you to leave.

• You should always pass and accept tea with the right hand; 

• It is extra polite to put the left hand over the heart as you do this

• You do not have to drink it, but you should always accept the drink.

• If your tea is too hot, don't blow on it, but swirl it gently without spilling any.  

From a humble leaf, wars were fought, lives were lost and the world’s economy and culture changed. I hope this blog series helped you understand and enjoy tea even more.

In this blog series, we got to learn more about tea and its history. Let CentrAsia Travel and Tourism Agency show you more wonders of Central Asia and the world. 


Want to choose where you want to go and when?