Tea and Me

The Statesman: Tea and Me

Wei, a Chinese farmer hated seeing a squalid temple on the daily walk to his field in the Fujian province. He had no money for paint or masonry. He just took a broom and cleaned it thoroughly. He did it every week and, before leaving, lit incense. One night he was told in a dream that he would be rewarded for his good work: he would find a treasure in a cave behind the temple. He was to share it with his neighbours.

He found nothing but a single tea shoot in the cave. He took it home, planted and nurtured it, and, when the bush grew, he gave cuttings to all he knew. He even made money by selling the cuttings in the market. Everybody agreed it was best tea they had ever tasted, a real treasure.

The plant came to be known as Tieguanyin, the goddess of mercy. Now the goddess presides over her merciful potion in millions of home, a drink the world most consumes second only to water. Are you bored or tired? Drink some tea. Are you distressed and unhappy? Try a cup of tea. Are you happy? For Heaven’s sake, celebrate with a large pot of tea. These, at least, were the counsel of my dear father. He loved tea.

He would nevern dream of letting his wife, let alone his undiscriminating son (me), buy tea; he went to a special store and had the storekeeper mix different black teas to his specification. The day he retired from work, he even took over the ritual of making the morning tea; mother happily relinquished, for she continued to work. I gladly stayed away from their dawn debut. I did not care to leave my bed that early. In any case – now it may be revealed – I did not care for father’s strong brew.

My pedestrian palate took many years more to wake up to the charm of tea. I love even its short, simple name. The Chinese who have discovered all sorts of unpleasant things like diabetes to decimal fractions seem to have found tea as the ultimate solace. They called the stuff ‘te’ in Min Chinese and ‘cha’ in Mandarin Chinese. The Dutch took a leading role in tea trade and popularized the term ‘tea’, which entered French and Spanish with minor variation, while the Portuguese traders settled in Macau adopted the Cantonese variation ‘cha’ and brought it into Persian, Turkish, Korean and Japanese.

How did it all begin? The idea of pouring boiling water on the cured leaves of Camellia Sinensis and getting a beverageprobably started as a medicinal exercise, until the Han dynasty in China made it into an elite drink at the start of the Common Era. The Tang dynasty, which started larger cultivation in mountains, helped the practice grow.

In India’s Himalayan region too tea was extensively used as a drink with a medical value. Slowly tea became fashionable in the Netherlands, Germany and France. Catherine of Braganza brought her taste to the English court in the 17th century when she married Charles II and the British started the practice of mixing milk and sugar with tea.

Black tea soon outpaced green tea in consumption and the tea trade multiplied swiftly. To break the Chinese monopoly, the British tried several times in the 19th century to bring plants from China secretly and plant those in their Indian colony, until they found native plants in Darjeeling and Assam and in Sri Lanka.

They even offered free land to Europeans who agreed to cultivate tea. Good tea isn’t easy to cultivate. Tea plants require acidic soil, warm climate and at least fifty inches of rain. They take a long time to mature: three years to harvest and five to nine years to produce seeds. There are of course many strains, classified mainly by leaf size: the Chinese are small, the Assamese large and the Cambodian intermediate.

The plants can grow large, but they are pruned to be accessible for harvesting every two weeks. Only two inches of leaves and buds, called flushes, are picked at a time. In tea cultivation quality is paramount. Tea processing is no easier. White tea is wilted (water-extracted) but unoxidized (panroasted); popular black tea, called red tea by the Chinese, is fully wilted and oxidized; oolong tea is wilted and partly oxidized; green and yellow tea are both unwilted and unoxidized. Tastes vary, and the industry seems eager to respond with a larger variety.

All loose and bagged tea is blended, with varied tastes in mind. There is also tea to which a special flavor is added. For a change I have had tea with bergamot, as in Earl Gray, or tea with orange flavor, as in Constant Comment. Tea with mint is very common.

Tea for me is also memory. Tea is my parents sitting on the deck and sipping a morning cup before the world or childreninterrupted their peaceful hour. Tea is my college mates thrusting a stained cup at me in a smoke-filled cafeteria to celebrate an electoral victory.Tea is my favorite professor, Amlan Datta, telling me that tea is not just for taste but also for flavour and I should try jasmine tea.

Tea is the Roys passing me a steaming cup after another on a breezy terrace in Jodhpur Park. Tea is the only pathetic item I could afford when I persuaded a pretty coed in the university to join me in a restaurant. Tea, glorious tea, is what we drank in abundance when I and fellow oarsmen won a minor event in a rowing regatta. Tea, bitter tea, is what I agonizingly sipped in a hospital café when my baby daughter underwent surgery. I have had tea in tiny clay pots in Indian railways stations, in plastic cups in Colombian buses, in delicate china in Hong Kong’s legendary Peninsular Hotel, from Jane’s large Chinese teapot, from my Russian neighbor’s showy samovar, from shiny, nondescript machines in Virginia’s motels, from the tiny Vietnamese contraption a friend gave me.

I remember drinking tea with shift workers in a factory where I was an intern, with actors during break in a play I was stage-managing, with guerillas in Kathmandu, refugees in Cuba, tourists in Venice and students on a boat from Germany to Switzerland.

Through all these memories is the strongest one: mother, then a sprightly young woman, offering me my first cup ofDarjeeling tea in India. India has changed a lot since I lived there. One way it hasn’t is that people still offer a cup of tea the moment I step into a home. I never say No.

(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at

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