One cannot rush when tea is involved. A frantic pick me up tea time, is simply against the nature of the leafy beverage. Tea can become a tool assisting with stress coping by bringing more equilibrium into the fast-paced lifestyles sabotaging your health. Tea, like bread is sacred in some cultures. Tea time inspires convivial outings, brightens foggy confusions, calms the mind, sharpens focus, and when understood well, like wine, it can give enormous gourmet pleasure to the senses.
The spiritual roots of tea time
Aside from hedonism, there are many similarities between tea and wine. Both were popular choices of religious monks. Perhaps the monastic dwellings craved some gift of nature that men can take in their hands and transform into by God approved concoction. We do not know the monks’ motivation, but what we are certain about is that in a moderate consumption tea clears the mind, while wine obscures it, but both of the divine beverages relax us. For a prolonged enjoyment of each new vintage tea as well as wine need the hands of a skilled person, who preserves its qualities for years, even decades. Some teas do not age well (green, white) like some regional wines (rosé from Provence, easy-drinking fresh summer wines like the Italian Pinot Grigio), but some can improve over time (pu-erh, Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundies, Rioja…).
Finding the inner peace with tea
Still, the biggest grower and consumer of tea is its mother country – China. As with religion, tea spread from China to Japan and Korea hundreds of years ago through the paths of the Buddhist monks. These meditation practitioners used the invigorating and focus prolonging powers of tea time in their daily practice of zen. Today, the tea masters in Japan continue spreading the tea knowledge and ethics. I read a transforming book by Sen Sōshitsu, XV. generation Urasenke family tea master, whose mission was to inspire through a zen guided lifestyle supported by the balancing prowess of tea. A happy life is his Stoic promise if you follow rigorously all the principles of the way of tea.
Unlike those who adopt chado, a serious lifestyle based on finding eternal peace of mind and spreading peace through tea, you do not need to be as regimented about your own tea time, and still profit from the leafy beverage’s potential effects on your body, mind as well as on your company. I will not go into the full span of the scientifically researched facts about tea consumption on our physical health here. The science behind the health claims of habitual tea drinking is complex like the claims that drinking wine fends off cancer. Like any sole ingredient, tea is not a cure all, but there are plenty of proven potential benefits of trading in tea instead of other beverages. Its psychological effects have a much longer lasting support from the tea drinking cultures, and this is why many rituals accompany the consumption of tea.
Those practising the tea ceremony, whether codified (chanoyu in Japan, gongfu cha in China) or personalised to their own liking, gain calmness and are freed from the daily complications of life. Tea preparation takes time and requires your full attention in order to make the perfect brew, and this can be used to tame the stream of thoughts in one’s head. Unlike coffee or the stand-drink-and-go espresso, tea requires sitting down. The beneficial volatile oils in pure or naturally favoured tea are more sensitive and the plastic lid and paper cup won’t do. Such wasteful consumption goes against the philosophical foundations of finding the inner calm and respect to others that has been for centuries practiced during the tea ceremony. In China, during the gongfu cha the used leafs are shared with tea pets, small figurines (cabbage, dragon, three-legged frog, pig) that have symbolic meaning such as fortune, luck or happiness.
Watch this video to understand more about the Chinese tea pets:
Selecting your tea mindfully for each specific moment, can be therapeutical.
Brewing properly a pot of tea is like a ritual cleanse of our flickering mind. As the water bubbles in the kettle and you measure the loose leafs precisely, smell the raw leafs and observe what their scent does with you. Do you crave earthy, soil evoking and woody aromas? Does smoky fragrance cocoon your overworked soul? Or rather floral pastures of the countryside, hay and spring freshly cut grass appeal? What about a whiff of sexy exoticism in jasmine, magnolia, rose, osmanthus or other fragrant floral scent? Your cravings disclose something about you, but the moment of focusing on the unveiling reality of the brewed pure or scented Camellia Sinensis is an opportunity to reset.
Beyond China: planting tea globally
Touching on the plant, a little of botany can make the tea leaf even more alluring. Camellias are known for their gorgeous, lush flowers, but it’s the leafs that we are after in the Yunnan born Camellia Sinensis species. The bushy tea trees can grow up to 15 meters tall if left wild. For practical reasons, at the working tea plantations they are trimmed to about 1.5 m maximum hight that is convenient for a human hand to pluck the precious top bud with leafs, known as leafset. In India another varietal of Camelia Sinensis is grown in Assam. Camelia Sinensis var assamica has larger leafs and is more robust. Around Asia many wild tea trees are gown and some processed into unique teas. These are such tiny harvests that they are usually consumed within the family or sold to niche purveyors. My favourite black tea is a wild plant from Taiwan. The long practice of crossbreeding challenges the identification of other pure varietals but DNA testing helps. Beyond China, India and Indonesia, tea is grown and made also in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Away from the Asian continent in East Africa, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru in South America. In the US Hawaii grows small but superb quality tea. Off the beaten path are tea plantations on Madagascar, Mauritius, the Azores islands, Papua New Guinea, the UK (Cornwall) and New Zealand.
Ranking from the least processed to the most manipulated there are five primary types of tea: WHITE (not oxidised bud without pan roasting or steam fixing); GREEN (not oxidised); OOLONG (partially oxidised); BLACK (also known as red, oxidised); PU-ERH (aged fermented).
Next to these, scented teas emerged in Asia. Jasmine, osmanthus, chrysanthemum, in lemon or orange skin aged pu-erh, and also the eye-pleasing flowering teas are the most common. Tea blends with spices, flowers and herbs are popular particularly in the west and also make for a flavourful iced tea.
With all these options, my answer to what is your favourite tea? Well, it depends on my mood, the season, whether it is sunny outside, and the time of the day. Tea preferences are so individual and there are no boundaries to your own tea schedule but you must know what you want.
Meditative private tea time versus public tea houses
Ask: What do I want from my experience with tea?
Making a pot of tea yourself feels more like creating a miracle, whereas being served a bowl of the fresh brew politely by an expert or enthusiast breeds respect and can teach you something new. Your attention will less likely be diverted though when enjoying the beverage in private. As a form of meditation or a steady supply of focus at work, the cup becomes your aide.
Tea culture has its distinct form in each country. The Japanese reverence to tea is legible from its local name “o-cha“. Traditionally Japanese tea houses tend to be humble, and there are plenty simple tea huts in Kyoto, often near to the temples. In the creative hub of Tokyo, contemporary design infused some of its outstanding tea rooms. My favourites include the private room at Higashiya, Cha Cha No Ma run by expert tea sommelier and others that I included in my best tea rooms in Tokyo feature.
In China tea is known as “cha” in Cantonese, “ch’a” in Mandarin and is often consumed with the steamed dim sum dumplings for breakfast, Hong Kong style. Chinese Tea is everywhere, sold from large canisters to the cyclists in Beijing, at pick and go tea parlours, on trains or in sit down charming rooms of the old huttongs. The Chinese enjoy their tea all day long. One rarely finds a quite place to enjoy tea in China today though, the frantic cities are suffocating. In Hong Kong my urban refuges are Teavers and DK Cuppa tea, in London hidden behind the Bond street is the cosy Postcard Teas boutique, while in the New York’s East Village I often nest at Tea Drunk, and I cannot be in San Francisco without a mindful stopover and chat with the founder of Song Tea.
What I find confusing about the French “salon de thé” that it is usually not about tea at all, and if there is any on the menu it is the English Breakfast or some herbal infusion like chamomile or verveine. One must go to the proper tea houses such as Marriage Freres, where the art of French tea has been perfected over the centuries. Observing the French today, sadly tea is more seen as a healthy drink rather than something to be relished à la gourmandise. Nevertheless, the renaissance of tea drinking in the West and new tea rooms cropping up educate the lost fans, and convert some from coffee.
The English and Irish Afternoon Tea is not just a social outing and indulgent sipping, cake and sandwiches eating, but the tradition has encoded a certain ceremonial character. Its etiquette and rules have been summed by many books and tea manuals, but these rather entertain than guide the millennial consumer. High Tea at the Ritz in London is rather a luxurious indulgence than balancing tea time.
In India, the covert smuggling of tea by the British meant that European than any local rituals were adopted for tea time. I enjoyed some excellent Darjeeling at the Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai. Here the British tradition of luxuriating afternoon tea at lavish hotels rooted itself during the Colonial era. Ironically, the legendary Taj served a more opulent afternoon tea than most tea rooms in the UK. More a brunch than just scones and sandwiches. The splendid view towards the majestic Gate of India from the windows inspires daydreaming. One imagines the great boats of the East India Company floating in and out with exotic goods once. In Hindi “chai” generally means tea but it is also the spiced beverage served with milk that became India’s popular export. In chai, Ayurveda, the ancient India health system, pronounces itself in the warming spike of spices like cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and occasionally clove and a sprinkle of nutmeg or black pepper.
This type of spiced up sweetened black tea beverage has been adopted by some Arabic countries where “shai” is often heavily sweetened and served with milk and sipped while puffing from a hookah. The ultimate symbol of hanging out on a divan.
Even in Russia more tea than vodka is being consumed, yet like in most Western countries “chay” sipping is far from being contemplative tea time. The samovar keeps the heat constant so anyone in the household can pour a warm brew during the mostly cold days and nights there.
Still, I have nothing against of blending various tea cultures together in my tea time. My favourite combo is a Japanese tea with French pastry as I enjoy once in a while in Kyoto. The indulgent creations of the master of pastry Pierre Hermé paired with roasted houjicha make for a sublime experience, while the Month Blanc cake with chestnut accommodates sencha or matcha tea. I love the Japanese wagashi sweets too, but sometimes a cultural mix makes a wonderful pair.
One can get carried away by the sweet treats accompanying tea. Tea and food pairing is an intriguing topic, and I will resort to this new trend at some point. A teaser for the purists: tea and chocolate are seductively intriguing partners.
Today desserts, sauces, dressings and marinades are made with tea. The powdered matcha has taken the global patisseries by storm, but also the roasted houjicha and other teas are increasingly being included in the recipes of the famous chefs.
Tea time can do for us so much, and it is up to the eager expansion of your knowledge, to benefit from it.