Written By Amy Hendel, Physician Assistant and Health Expert
Even if you aren’t a regular tea drinker, chances are you have experienced tea in restaurants as part of Chinese, Japanese, or Indian cuisine. Or maybe your summer travels have taken you someplace exotic, and tea was an integral part of your adventure. Around the world, tea is appreciated as an ideal beverage for any occasion. But where did our love of tea begin?
The Evolution of Tea
Tea is nearly 5,000 years old. It was discovered in 2737 B.C. by Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung, who was also known as the “Divine Healer.” The legend is that the emperor was drinking boiling water when some tea leaves accidentally blew into his drink. Thus began the tea saga. Sometime between 600 and 900 A.D., Lu Yu wrote a book called “Tea Classic,” which explored how and when to enjoy green tea. Around the year 1191, a Zen priest by the name of Eisai wrote “The Kissa Yojoki” (“Book of Tea”), which described green tea’s positive health impact on the five vital organs, including the heart.
In the 1600s tea became popular in Europe and the American colonies. Here in America, we certainly think about the infamous Boston Tea Party of 1773, when tea was dumped in the harbor by colonists to protest unreasonable import taxes.
In 1840, Anna, Duchess of Bedford, is credited with having tea and a light snack at around four in the afternoon daily, and the custom became known as afternoon tea. During the World’s Fair of 1904, when iced tea was introduced in the sweltering, humid weather of St. Louis, Missouri, it created a new beverage phenomenon.
Lu Yu’s book covered the many methods of growing and preparing tea. It also talked about Zen philosophy and the belief that tea can offer the properties of peace, balance and harmony. Lu Yu’s book was later adopted by imperial Japan. There, tea was first used as a medicine to help people stay awake. Buddhist monks, in particular, appreciated the drink, which would help them to stay awake during long hours of meditation.
In the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), tea was used as a medicinal plant. In the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.), tea became a more widely used beverage. During the Song dynasty (690-1270 A.D.), tea species expanded, and competitions were even held to judge teas based on the quality of leaves and the actual mixture. Drinking steeped tea became a way of life. Tea houses and a vast tea culture also emerged during this dynasty.
In China, drinking tea with the whole family is a popular activity, especially on holidays. When serving, it’s considered impolite to pour a full cup of tea. There are many other similar customs and details associated with tea drinking. In fact, tea is such a large part of life in China it is even used in wedding ceremonies, for making apologies, and as a sign of respect when offered to another.
In the 1600s, the Chinese ambassador to Moscow gave several chests of tea as a gift to Tsar Aleksy Mikhaylovich. This was a prelude to a trade agreement between China and Russia. Though initially an expensive commodity because of the difficult 11,000-mile passage required to transport the tea, tea prices became more reasonable in the 1700s, allowing it to permeate Russian society. Russians prefer a dark brew, sweetened with sugar, jam or honey.
Typically, different brews are prepared separately and then mixed together, with additional hot water added. The samovar allows the brews to sit atop each other, and the stacked pots keep the brews warm. For example, a dark, loose tea from India or a Chinese black tea, might be paired with a natural herbal or fruited tea.
In Russian society, tea symbolizes warmth, comfort, and hospitality, so it’s offered at every meal and special gathering. Tea is known to be the beverage that helps “sort out family issues, seal business deals, and arrange marriages.”
The East India Company started in 1833 to cultivate, produce, and trade the tea of India, known as chai. In 1841, Chinese tea seeds were brought to India and planted in a private garden, beginning the Darjeeling tea district. By 1874, there were 113 tea gardens in Darjeeling. In 1854, a man by the name of Mann was the first planter to manufacture Nilgri teas.
By 1881, there were enough tea companies for the formation of the Indian Tea Association to represent north Indian planters. By 1893, the United Planter’s Association of Southern India was set up to represent planters in the south, which included Munnar, home to the highest-grown teas in the world.
If you think of India and tea, chai has to come to mind. More accurately, it’s called Masala chai, and it is a tea that usually contains a combination of cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and star anise. These spices may have been added by native Indians to the original tea introduced by the British East India Company.
In India, tea is almost always prepared with hot milk, sometimes without water, always with a sweetener. Chai teas vary and are considered a healthier alternative to morning coffee.
Tea was introduced into Japan around the year 727 A.D., by envoys from China. Over the next several centuries, Japan developed its own tea ceremony. Green tea, considered revitalizing, is the most popular tea cultivated and consumed in Japan.
The Japanese tea ceremony is a choreographed experience of preparing and serving matcha (green tea) along with some sweets to balance the mildly bitter taste of the tea. Within the Japanese tradition, the preparation of green tea is said to be “from the heart,” and the actual tea ceremony considers guests’ needs and comforts with every movement and gesture. Serving tea, in Japan, is considered an artistic pastime with aesthetic contemplation.
Tea appeared in England in the mid-17th century. Surprisingly, it was introduced first in coffee houses, sold as either liquid tea or dried tea. By the year 1700, nearly 500 coffee houses were selling some form of tea. Due to taxation, tea was often a smuggled commodity, with local churches the designated hiding spot! Afternoon tea originated with the 7th Duchess of Bedford as a bridge to fill the gap between lunch and late dinner.
Today, nearly 165,000,000 cups of tea are consumed in the UK daily. Black tea is a favorite in England, probably because it goes well with milk and sugar. To this day, the lighthearted debate of “milk first or tea first” continues as part of the ongoing quest to make the perfect cup of tea.
Now Create Your Own Tea Service
You can now appreciate how special teatime is around the globe. I personally love to set up a tea bar with selections of different teabags and loose teas. I’ve also amassed a collection of tea pots, which I use to serve the tea or just as teatime décor. Why not draw from some of the special protocols presented here, and then add your own personal twist?
About the Author
Known as The HealthGal (www.healthgal.com), contributing health expert and blogger, Amy Hendel, is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, lifestyle expert, columnist and spokesperson. Trained as a physician assistant and nutritionist, she maintains a private practice as a health coach.
Her first book, Fat Families Thin Families (BenBella Publishers, 2008), offers a team approach to helping families cope with obesity and related health issues. The newest edition, The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, is available at bookstores and online.
Amy is a featured host of Healthination’s What’s for Lunch?, Food Rescue and Simple Smoothies. She’s been a guest on Today, Good Morning America, FOX News, The Early Show, Rachel Ray, The 700 Club, EXTRA, and national and local news and talk shows. Past producer and host of healthy home segments on HouseSmarts, Amy has also hosted Westwood One’s Good Eating Good Living, Lifetime’s Stories on the Beach, and the PBS medical talk shows HealthZone and Doctors on Call.