Traveling around the world with a teapot

By Christina Kolyva • 19 May 2009 • Nessun commento

tea1With tea being zealously consumed in all corners of the world, it is not at all surprising that a huge number of tea drinking rituals and habits are followed by diverse societies and ethnicities all around the globe today.

For the Chinese, tea is considered to be one of the seven necessities of life, along with firewood, oil, rice, salt, soy sauce and vinegar. Tea is prepared and poured with great care in many special circumstances, for example by the young when they wish to pay their respects to the elder or by someone who wants to make a formal apology. Tea also plays an important role in the Chinese wedding ceremony. The bride and groom will kneel in front of their parents and pour them tea as a way of acknowledging that they owe their very existence to them. This ritual can be extended to other members of the family. In that case, the newlyweds will pour them tea and address them with their full name and title, as a way for the new couple to get to know each other’s family and become part of it.

Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony was born approximately five centuries ago. To just say that chanoyu is a ceremony during which powdered green tea is prepared and served to the guests by the tea master, would be a major understatement. Its roots lie deeply in tradition and it is an artistic activity that combines aesthetics, discipline and social interaction. The tearoom, usually the size of 4½ rice-straw tatami mats, is decorated by the host with calligraphic scrolls and flower arrangements prior to the arrival of the guests. Before entering the tearoom, the guests ritually purify themselves in a stone water basin and try to leave all thoughts of the mundane world behind. When they take their places around the hearth, sitting on the floor, the tea master will start preparing tea in silence and concentration, with prescribed and well-practised movements, which are enhanced in their gracefulness by wearing a kimono. Special schools exist in Japan today for those who wish to learn the protocol of the tea ceremony.

In Tibet, yak butter tea is part of everyday life and is drunk in abundance to provide warmth and energy at the high altitude and adverse climate. Dipping the ring finger in the tea and flicking the drops towards the sky, the air and the ground is customary for showing respect to the gods.

Hot sweet mint tea is widely consumed in Morocco. The favourite tea is Chinese gunpowder green tea, served with several teaspoons of sugar and plenty of fresh mint. It is traditionally poured from a certain height into small glasses, using silver teapots with long spouts. Wormwood, orange tree blossoms, saffron or Ras al-hanout (Moroccan spice mix) may be used instead of mint. The habit is popular in the rest of northern Africa and Arabian countries as well.

The Tuareg, nomads of the Sahara desert and famous for the indigo-coloured veil covering the face of their men, are also very particular about their tea-making rituals. Water is precious and time flows slowly in the desert, thus tea takes some time to prepare in their way and is served in shot glasses.

Masala chai is an Indian beverage, prepared by brewing tea with aromatic Indian spices and herbs; cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, ginger and nutmeg are the most popular choices.

Not to forget of course the world-famous British habit of drinking tea at four o’clock in the afternoon, sharp! Tea for the Brits is not just about a cuppa, but it can be a whole meal consisting of a freshly-brewed pot of tea, accompanied by carefully trimmed triangular sandwiches, hot scones with jam and cream, cakes, biscuits and anything else that meets your heart’s desire! For the ultimate British tea experience, why don’t you try The Ritz in London?

If you just want to enjoy a quiet cuppa at home, there is nothing complicated about preparing it, neither in the ingredients nor in the equipment, but some simple considerations are necessary if you want to send thrills of joy to your palate!

Using fresh, high-quality leaf tea is recommended. It might be more convenient using tea bags because the tea is already divided into measures, but leaf tea is of superior quality. Experienced tea tasters over the years have determined that 2 grams of tea per 180 grams of water yield the perfect cup of brewed tea.

The water you use for brewing tea should not be overlooked either. Brewed tea is 99% water, after all! To quote the Tang dynasty tea expert Lu Yu, “The best is water from mountain streams, the next best is water from rivers, the least desirable is water drawn from wells”. In practical terms, this means that you should use fresh, cold water, not from your tap but preferably bottled spring water. Lu Yu also recommends using water from the same region as the tea bush, but this is slightly more complicated to achieve!

When you have the tea and the water, the obvious questions are “What is the right water temperature?” and “What is the optimal steeping time”?

tea2Generally, teas with little oxidation need low temperatures and black teas high temperatures. More specifically, 71-77oC is recommended for white, 77-82 oC for green, 82-91 oC for oolong, 88-93 oC for black and 93-100 oC for pu-erh tea. Yellow tea is not so sensitive to brewing temperatures. If this process sounds too scientific and accurate for your taste, Chinese tea scholars have prepared a lovely description of hot water at various temperatures: ‘column of steam steadily rising’ occurs at 72-82oC, ‘fish eyes’ (large, slow bubbles breaking the surface) occur at 82-93oC, ’string of pearls’ (tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the pot to the surface) occurs at 88-93oC and ‘turbulent waters’ occur at 93-100oC.

The suitable steeping time differs from tea to tea. White tea requires 1½-2 minutes, green 2-3 minutes, oolong 1½-2 minutes, black 3-5 minutes and pu-erh 2-5 minutes. Remember that if you want your tea stronger you should add more tea leaves, not increase the steeping time. A final tip: cover the teapot or cup during steeping! Enjoy!

Christina Kolyva

Christina Kolyva lives in London and has been working as an academic researcher there since 2007. Born in Surrey, she returned to her motherland after a long detour, first in Greece, where she grew up and got her first degree in Mechanical Engineering, and then in Holland, where she obtained a Ph.D. from the Medical school of the University of Amsterdam. Provided that the bills are getting paid, she enjoys taking the ‘scenic route’ in life, relishing the extra smells, sounds and pictures she discovers on the way! She loves reading, writing, travelling, listening to opera and baroque music, singing, cooking, anything sea-related and everything animal-related, with a soft spot reserved especially for cats and dolphins.
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