April - June   2008



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Tea – a drink for all times

In South Asian countries, especially India and Pakistan, tea is a merry-go-round beverage, any time is tea time. It doesn’t need an occasion - we wake up to a cup of tea, and go through the day with many rounds of the same. We celebrate our little joys over tea, and drown our sorrows in it as well. A better all-occasion, all-purpose drink was never born!

Historians believe tea was first used in prehistoric China as medicine as long ago as 2700 B.C. Legends abound around the origin of tea. China, India and Japan – the three major tea-producing/drinking nations - have their own myths, folklore, and beliefs. Chinese legend has it that the leaves of Camellia sinensis (commonly known as tea) dropped into Emperor Shen Nung’s pot of boiling water, which he then tasted and felt a feeling of well-being – and tea happened! This was 5000 years or ago. The fact that 5000 years ago was just the beginning of civilizations – leave alone Empires is a matter for academic debate and it is not within the scope of this article to challenge such assertions. According to the Indian legend, Prince Bodhi Dharma (of which kingdom, it does not say) went to China in the 6th century AD to preach Buddhism. He had vowed not to sleep for nine years – that was the time frame he gave himself to complete his mission. Towards the end of his third year of self-imposed insomnia, he actually felt drowsy with sleep – and in an act of desperation chewed the leaves of a bush that grew close by. The bush happened to be Camellia sinensis – sorry – tea! He remained awake for the remaining six years with the help of these leaves. Mission accomplished! The Japanese legend maintains that the Prince actually fell asleep after three years (around the same time as he chewed the tea leaves in the Indian story) and was so infuriated with himself at this lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelashes – and Camellia sinensis grew out of the soil where his lashes had fallen. All three legends establish one fact – that China is the birthplace of Camellia sinensis. China is where the tea travelogue begins.

Over the years tea attained a seminal status – and became the national drink of China. In fact in AD 780, a tea-scholar by the name of Lu Yu published a tea classic – still revered as the ultimate treatise on the subject. It would be another 800 years before Portuguese traders carried the precious leaf from China to the shores of Lisbon, from where Dutch ships took over the task and made it available in Europe. Tea was an elusive commodity at the time and in England the high price it commanded made it affordable and accessible only to the royalty, nobility and the elite. Many tax laws later, tea became a popular drink among the masses and has acquired a cult status in the UK.

In the New World, The Boston Tea Party did little to popularise the beverage. It took sushi bars, 200 years later, to introduce many Americans to the world of tea.

The Indian tea story unfolds in mid 19th century – when the Chinese variety was planted in the Botanical Gardens of Calcutta and later sent to Assam for cultivation, where alas, they failed to do well. BUT, a similar plant (Camellia sinensis var. assamica), indigenous to Assam, was identified as a close kin of the Chinese variety. Assam tea was born!

The never-say-die British then sent the failed Chinese variety to be tried out in the gentler environs of Darjeeling area, together with the home variety from Assam. Darjeeling soil accepted both. Chinese bushes grew better on higher elevations, while Assam bushes thrived well on the lower slopes. Darjeeling teas command the highest prices at tea auctions – unique for their subtle flavour as opposed to the punch of Assam teas.

Read all about:

Types of Tea - white tea, green tea, Oolong & black tea

The art of making tea

The reinvention of tea bag – reputation restored

The art of drinking tea

Afternoon tea – an English tradition
Palm court at the Ritz, The Savoy, The Promenade at The Dorchester, St James's Tea Room at Fortnum and Mason – all serve an extravaganza of elaborate afternoon tea but a reservation is required weeks ahead for those dainty cucumber sandwiches.

Tea Benefits

Tea – From Plucking to Brewing


Indian grades

Indian Tea

Darjeeling Tea – the amber wonder

Assam Tea

Nilgiri & Dooars

Tea Tourism in Darjeeling

Tea Trivia

... all in the South Asian Life & Times (SALT) April - June 2008 issue

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