Just My Cup of Tea

Tea Bushes in Japan

Remember saying you wouldn’t trade something for all the tea in China? Well as it turns out, there is quite a lot of tea in China—more than a million metric tons in 2006, as a matter of fact. As impressive as that is, China now jockeys for first place with India, which sometimes pulls into the lead, but even when behind, is close to the same quantity of tea. So with the world consumption of tea just a little over 3 million metric tons per year, these two countries are clearly the biggest players—though they are by no means the only players. However, of all the countries producing tea today, China has the longest history.

Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as tea, actually originated in China. Legends place its first use somewhere around 2700 B.C.—but interestingly, the legends are so mundane that scholars think it likely they relate closely to the truth. The story goes that an early Chinese emperor instituted the practice of boiling drinking water to make it safe. Wherever he traveled in his realm, his servants would boil all the water that he and his entourage would need. At one point, in some small village, leaves blew into the boiling water, et voilà, tea was born. (An alternative version of the legend has this same health-conscious emperor intentionally adding different leaves to his boiling water, to see which ones might have medicinal properties.)

At first, tea was viewed as being a medicine. The Chinese believed that it was good for headache, stomachache, and a variety of other ailments. (Actually, as caffeine is the added ingredient in many extra-strength pain relievers, it’s entirely likely that tea did help some ailments.) It appears that, by around the third century A.D., tea was being consumed daily, at least in some areas, and intentional cultivation began.

By the end of the Tang dynasty (about the ninth century), tea had gained enough importance in China to be taxed. Ritual was being developed, and tea was available in varieties, including some with added spices. It was around this time, too, that the first seeds were carried to Japan. By the 13th century, tea was well established in Japan, and the refinements of the tea ceremony were taking shape.

By the 1600s, Dutch traders were carrying tea from China to Europe. The English were soon in the game, and it was the British who carried tea culture into India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Tea consumption continued to spread, and by the early 20th century, tea growing had spread to Russian Georgia, Sumatra, and Iran in Asia, Natal, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Tanzania, and Mozambique in Africa, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru in South America, and Queensland in Australia.

Americans are beginning to appreciate tea more, but we are still minor leaguers in this game. Tea consumption remains highest in Asia, but Russia and the UK are not far behind the Asian consumers.

Tea’s heritage is reflected in its name. Pretty much all the world’s words for tea come from the beverage’s name in two Chinese dialects: t’e and ch’a. (This certainly makes it easier to get a drink when traveling, as having a limited number of possible sounds makes it easier to remember, no matter where you go. Some version of tea, té, cha, or chai will get you the local version of this beverage.)

Black tea or oolong are the dominant teas in China, but most tea in Japan is green tea. (Black, oolong, and green refer to fermentation, not variety of tea: black is fermented; oolong is partially fermented; green tea is not fermented, just dried.)

Shizuoka Prefecture, home to Mount Fuji, is Japan’s top green tea-growing region. While visiting Shizuoka last year, I visited the Tea Museum, which traces not only the history of tea in Japan, but also the use of and traditions surrounding tea from around the world. The museum is set amid miles and miles of fields of carefully trimmed tea bushes, which roll down the mountainside like green waves. The photo at the top of this page is from one of those tea fields, with Fuji rising majestically in the distance, just visible through the autumn haze. Below is a table set for tea within the museum, with cups, tea pot, and a tin of tea at the ready. (If you find yourself in Shizuoka, and hope to visit the museum, you either need to read Japanese or know someone who does. The museum is not geared for non-Japanese tourists. Fortunately, I was traveling with a friend who lived in Shizuoka.)

Ready for Afternoon Tea

Copyright ©2009 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Language, Travel

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