Some of the oldest tea drinking traditions come from China. The tea ceremony is called Gongfu Cha which requires a special teaset often made of clay. Multiple small cups are used to prepare the tea by your host. The ceremony is meant to create balance as well as the act of sharing tea. The ritual caught on in England and North America and soon became an afternoon tradition that remains today. Modern afternoon tea at trendy tea salons and cafés feature a wide variety of quality teas and fine finger foods.
In Japan, Matcha, a powdered green tea is used for the ceremony called Chanoyu. There are many steps and customs in this ceremony. The host spends a lot of time and care in preparing the details which include movements and gestures. A bamboo whisk is used to stir the green tea powder until it’s frothy using special bowls. The bowl is then shared by all guests. The Japanese tea ceremony is rooted in Zen Buddhism rituals and creating harmony for the guests.
India doesn’t have a formal ceremony, but a spiced tea called masala chai is enjoyed by all. The black tea is mixed with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom. It’s cooked directly in milk and often served in clay cups, called Kulhar or Kulhads which are broken in a pile from which new cups are made again – a little bit of recycling. Chai sellers and vendors are called chaiwallahs. Their stalls, which line the streets, are a centre of gossip and news within the community.
Toareg tea or Moroccan mint tea is a combination of strong green tea from China and fresh mint leaves. The tea and mint are combined with sugar cubes in a silver teapot and served from a great height into small glasses. Pouring from a height creates bubbles in the glass, this ceremony of sorts is performed for guests and is called Atai. In Morocco tea represents friendship and kinship.
English tea or Afternoon tea is enjoyed all around the world. It started when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford in 1841 who wanted a snack between her lunch and supper. Tea is enjoyed with a variety of small sandwiches, pastries as well as scones with cream and jam. Afternoon tea is a way to celebrate good tea and good friends while having a good time. You may also hear people refer to High Tea, which was traditionally a post-work meal usually including hot food and served at a high table or counter.
A special urn called a samowar is used in Russia. A strong black tea called zavarka is made in a smaller teapot which sits on top of it. A small amount of tea is poured into glass cups in a silver holder and then diluted with hot water from the samowar. The tea can be flavoured with lemon, sugar or other herbs. Russians sometimes enjoy sweetening their tea with jam. Much like other countries, tea and hospitality are closely connected.
An unusual tradition in Tibet combines tea with butter, this is called Po Cha. This high fat, energy boosting, butter tea is perfect for drinking in the high cold altitudes of the Himalayas. Dark tea is combined with yak milk and salt and then churned until it’s thick like butter. There is a very thorough ritual for sharing mate. The server, known as cebador, pours enough water to fill the gourd. It is then passed around clockwise and guests take turns drinking the entire contents of the gourd before passing it back to the server to refill for the next person.
In Thailand a popular way to drink tea is cold. Cha Yen is a strong brewed black tea that is sweetened using condensed milk. It’s sold on the street in bags and drunk through straws. Sometimes the tea is flavoured with orange blossom, cinnamon, star anise and ground tamarind and has a rich orange colour. It’s perfect for the hot weather of Thailand as well as a good match for the spicy Thai food.
A strong black tea sweetened with condensed milk is enjoyed in Malasia. It’s poured back and forth between two large mugs – this is called ‘pulled tea’ or Teh Tarik. The objective of ‘pulling’ the tea is to combine the ingredients and the result is a thick foamy drink. It’s quite a spectacle. The tradition of Teh Tarik is also enjoyed in Singapore and Indonesia.
Samowars are also used in Iran. The tea is served very strong and sweetened in two ways. You can either put a sugar cube between your teeth and drink the tea through it or a hard candy called nabat can be stirred directly into your cup.
Street vendors in Hong Kong will strain a combination of tea and milk through what looks like a sock. Sometimes actual stockings are used which is why you’ll hear this tea referred to as silk stocking tea.
A modern invention, Taiwanese Bubble tea is made with iced tea, usually black, green, jasmine or oolong. It’s mixed with powdered milk and flavoured sugar syrup. The bubbles are small chewy tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup which you drink through a wide straw.
Popular in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and other countries in South America, an herbal leaf called Maté (ma-tay) is enjoyed using a special vessel. This vessel is called a cuilla and a bombilla. It is a hollow gourd and metal straw through which the Maté leaves are drunk steeped in hot water.