by Amy Cates
Whether in a solemn and precise ritual in Japan or around an American table set with delicate snacks and hot beverages, wide-ranging traditions have sustained the longevity of tea in countries around the world. Preparation and serving styles, once culturally unique, have seeped into a shared culture—the culture of tea.
The ornate design and the imposing size of a samovar are unmistakably Russian. Tea became part of Russian culture in the early 17th century, when tea made its way from Mongolia into Eastern Europe. Members of the nobility drank tea for its health benefits, and by the 18th century, the drink had gained such public popularity that factories in the Ural and Tula regions put their rich supply of ore mines and craftsmen together to create a new industry, samovar production.
The heat source for a samovar originally was either charcoal or kerosene. Design and manufacturing progressed with industrialization, and bulk production made samovars more available. Customization did remain, however, through the creation of shapes, dimensions, and angles that are uniquely Russian in style.
The samovar, capable of preparing up to 40 cups of tea, became more commonplace in homes, and families would heat water throughout the day. Strong and highly concentrated tea was poured into a cup, and the samovar served as a water dispenser. Honey, sugar, and even jam were used to sweeten the sharp drink.
Samovar production continues today, and the vessels remain treasured works of art and prized family heirlooms.
The spices that seasoned the first cups of Indian chai (tea)—cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and cloves—created the tea's lasting trademark taste and color and widespread regard for the drink.
An everyday beverage in India, chai is prepared by chai vendors who brew the tea over an open fire and serve it in small unglazed clay cups. Black tea is boiled with milk, water, and a combination of spices and sweetened with honey or sugar.
The history of chai reaches back as far as 5,000 years, and there are variations throughout the world. Kashmiri chai, for example, is brewed with a Chinese green tea, sometimes called gunpowder tea because the rolled leaves resemble gunpowder pellets. Spices in Kashmiri chai are similar to those in traditional chai, but may also include almonds. Lemon and mint occasionally find their way into cups of chai in some cultures.
South American Bombilla and Gourd
The centuries-old practice of drinking tea from a gourd is as much about friendship and social custom as it is about enjoying the beverage. The host customarily sips first (the first sip typically being the strongest), then passes the gourd among guests.
Leaves from yerba mate, a plant native to the South American rain forests in Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and southern Brazil, rest at the bottom of a gourd or a similarly shaped cup made of high-end wood. Hot water is added for steeping, and the bombilla straw draws the tea from the bottom, its perforated bulb serving as a strainer. No stirring is required, as leaves and petals remain in place, and only the herbal tea is drawn.
In England, as in many cultures of the world, nobility established the longstanding tradition of taking tea.
Tea had been the beverage of choice in England since the 1600s, but not until the early 19th century did the term include a small midday meal. Aristocrats and nobility were the first to observe this newfound custom of eating small sandwiches, crumpets, and desserts and drinking tea to ward off hunger between breakfast and dinner. Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, is credited with instituting the European tea service in British culture, as she tired of feeling hungry and faint in late afternoon.
As word of this royal custom spread, hostesses from all classes copied the practice. The evolution of the British tea continued; high tea developed as more of a meal, and low tea preserved the delicate approach of tea and light refreshments, a practice reserved primarily for the upper class. British tea is served with milk or lemon, but the two should not be used together as the acidic lemon will curdle the milk.
Today, the British tea remains either low or high, with low tea featuring tea, scones, and sweets and high tea including tea, hearty savories, scones, sweets such as fruits, and desserts.
Green Tea with Japanese Matcha Powder
Matcha tea was once referred to as the emperor's tea since only Japanese royalty had access to this elite green tea harvested from shade trees.
It was, and still is, considered elite because of its limited availability and the extensive labor required for harvesting. According to one estimate, an ounce of matcha requires one hour of production to ensure proper grinding.
Typically, matcha tea is served as part of Japanese tea ceremonies, which are highly detailed and symbolic. Yin and yang are represented in the water and the hearth, respectively, while the jar containing the water represents purity and can be touched only by the host. Tea is poured and prepared in a tea bowl that is shared by the host and guests, who take turns raising and sipping from the cup before rotating it and passing it to the next guest.
Over the centuries, improved grinding techniques have helped make matcha more affordable and therefore more readily available to tea enthusiasts worldwide.