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Traditions & Rituals of Tea

Traditions & Rituals of Tea

To many, tea is much more than the leaves of Camellia sinensis steeped in hot water – tea is also an act, an experience. Cultures across the globe have developed myriad traditions revolving around the service of tea.  Here are just a few of the world’s tea traditions.  We know we are missing many traditions – so if you have a tradition to add, please submit your tradition!

Chinese Gong Fu Method

In China, tea is often brewed using the meditative Gong Fu method. This very formal, ritualized approach to tea preparation dates back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The term "Gong Fu" refers to skill gained through practice - expertise derived not from learning but experience. While the term "Gong Fu" could signify the serious practice of any art form, such as the martial art of related name (Kung Fu), Gong Fu Cha refers to the elaborate preparation of tea using miniature Yixing pots and cups. Yixing teaware is named for the purple clay it is made from, which hails from Yixing in China's Jiangsu province. Everything in Gong Fu service is small and delicate, placing emphasis on the elegance of the tea. Oolongs are the preferred tea in the Gong Fu ritual; they are steeped multiple times to highlight the evolution of taste as the leaves unfurl.

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Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony (cha-no-yu, chado, or sado) is a traditional ritual in which powdered green tea, called matcha, is ceremonially prepared by a skilled practitioner and served to a small group of guests in a peaceful setting. Cha-no-yu ("hot water for tea"), usually refers to a single ceremony or ritual, while sado or chado ("the way of tea") refer to the study or doctrine of tea ceremony. The Japanese tea ceremony has its roots in early Chinese tea ritual (approx. 800 AD), influenced greatly by Zen Buddhism. However, the exacting formula for the tea ceremony we know now evolved years later, in isolation from the Chinese practice of taking tea. Every element of the tea ceremony, from the greeting of guests to the arrangement of flowers, even the architecture, is rigidly prescribed, requiring the host to be knowledgeable in a broad range of arts and disciplines. Even the participants of the tea ceremony must be familiar with the proper gestures, phrases and actions required of them throughout the ceremony.

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Indian Masala Chai

Masala Chai (simply referred to as “Chai”) has been a tradition throughout India for centuries. This spicy hot beverage is a brew of Indian black tea with a unique blend of spices, typically including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and pepper, although the recipe varies region to region. Chai is consumed morning and afternoon by many Indian families, and is customarily the first thing offered to houseguests. So prevalent is the service of Chai throughout India that baristas, known as Chaiwallahs, can be found at just about every corner. These chai vendors are a staple of the community and their stands are often a source of news and gossip. So that you can enjoy this tradition at home, we’ve created a step by step guide on How to Make a Chai Latte.

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British Afternoon Tea

Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is credited with the origination of afternoon tea in the early 1800s. In Anna's day, lunch was served at noon, with dinner often put off until well into the evening. As the story goes, Anna decided that a light meal over tea in the late afternoon would be the perfect solution to her between-meal hunger pangs. Given Anna's social stature, the concept took off among the upper class, proving to be an excellent social venue. The term "high tea" is actually owed to England's working class, who transformed the afternoon tea into their primary evening meal, serving much heartier fare such as meats, cakes, bread and pies. "High" tea is a reference to the table the working class sat at while taking their tea - tall in comparison to the low, delicate tables at which the gentry took their lighter, more formal tea. Queen Victoria introduced the English to the Russian custom of adding lemon to their tea after visiting one of her daughters in Russia - before that, the English took only milk with their tea.

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Samovar and Russian Tea

Given the significant influence Asian culture has had on Russia through the years, it is no wonder that Russians are big tea drinkers. The samovar, which is somewhat of a cross between a hot water heater and teapot, is one of many examples of this influence - it is presumed to have evolved from the Tibetan hot pot. The function of this unique apparatus, and the Russian method of taking tea, is rather different than we are accustomed to in the west. Instead of heating tea water on the stove, wood or charcoal is traditionally burned within the samovar itself to accomplish this task (modern samovars often use an electric heating element, however). A small teapot sits on top of the samovar, in which a dark, concentrated brew is made, called zavarka. Hot water from the samovar is used to dilute this tea when served. Dark Indian or Chinese black teas are commonly used, often coupled with herbal or fruit teas. Russian Caravan, a blend of black teas with a slightly smoky flavor, is a favorite. To this day, samovars remain a focal point of the Russian home.

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Moroccan Mint

As with many cultures across the globe, the consumption of tea holds great significance in Moroccan life. This is demonstrated in part by the highly ornate teapots (often engraved silver), trays, and crystal glasses used in its preparation and service. Traditionally, tea is prepared in a samovar which brews strong, highly concentrated tea. Usually a gunpowder variety of green tea is used. After brewing, the tea is heavily sweetened with sugar and flavored with a touch of mint. The teapot is held high in the air while pouring the tea into the small, delicate glasses. This showy feat is made possible by the long and slender curved spout on the Moroccan teapot (and a lot of practice!). Moroccan Mint Green Tea is an excellent accompaniment to their rich and flavorful cuisine.

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Iced Tea

According to the USDA, Americans consume more than 2.2 billion gallons of tea per year, about 80 percent (around 1.75 billion gallons) of which is iced. That's an average of nearly 6.5 gallons of iced tea per person! Iced "sweet tea" has been consumed in the south for a hundred years or more, but with the rise of fast food restaurants (nearly all of which sell iced tea), America has watched its tea consumption double in the past 30 years. 

The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair offered an opportunity for merchants from around the world to show off their wares. Little did tea merchant Richard Blechynden know it would also mark the beginning of America's love affair with iced tea! In the midst of a sweltering St. Louis summer, Blechynden's efforts to promote Indian black tea at the fair were proving unsuccessful. Hot tea was the last thing on the minds of those attending the fair. So, the enterprising merchant and his staff set out to develop an apparatus in which their brewed Indian tea would flow through iced lead pipes, creating a chilled beverage that was very well-received by fairgoers. Not only was Blechynden successful in promoting Indian tea at the fair, he also uncovered America's seemingly endless thirst for iced tea - a thirst that has yet to be quenched to this day!

Can't get enough iced tea info? Check out our step by step guide on How to Make Iced Tea and our Iced Tea Tips for several fun variations on iced tea!    

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Liquid Vegetable of the Gaucho

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is a small tree native to the subtropical highlands of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. In much of South America, leaves of this plant are infused in water in a dried calabaza gourd and sipped through a filtered straw, called a "bombilla." This healthful brew is considered "the drink of the gods" by many indigenous peoples in South America, and is a staple in the diets of many South American cattlemen, or "gauchos," being a food product that can stand up to the rigors of life on the range. So prevalent is the consumption of yerba mate in South America, that mate bars are as widespread as coffee shops in the US. Traditionally, mate is often shared among close friends and family. The gourd and bombilla are passed around and around, refilling from time to time, in an act celebrating companionship.

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Earl Grey Tea: Fact and Fiction

Traditional Earl Grey is a blend of black tea flavored with the essence of Bergamot rind, though the name may also be used to refer to any tea—black or otherwise—that uses bergamot as a flavoring (such as our organic green Earl Grey, and our organic Earl Grey rooibos blends). Bergamots are small tart oranges native to southern Vietnam that research suggests are a cross between the sweet lemon, Citrus limetta, and the sour orange, C. aurantium, and the essential oils from their rinds are what give Earl Grey its characteristic flavor. Consequently, the tea often sees use in all manner of confectionary, lending a subtle, citrusy zest to chocolates (like our tea-infused truffles!), cakes, or sauces.

This famous tea is named for an English prime minister, Lord Charles Grey the second, from the 1830s who first popularized its consumption. There is a popular legend that the Earl received the tea as a gift from a grateful Mandarin after one of his men saved the Mandarin (or his son, depending on which version of the story you hear) from drowning. Charming though it is, the story has no basis in fact, because the Earl never traveled to China during his life. Beyond that, no records indicate that the Bergamot was even cultivated in China at that time, so this tea would have been a very unusual gift!

Nevertheless, the current Earl Grey, Lord Charles Grey the sixth, maintains that at the very least his ancestor was given the tea as a gift from a Chinese envoy, and he endorses Twinings of London’s recipe for the tea. Interestingly, the English teahouse Jacksons of Piccadilly also claims to be in possession of the original recipe for Earl Grey, having received it from the Earl himself in 1830.

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Pu-erh: A National Secret

Produced only in China, pu-erh processing is a closely guarded secret.  Each tea garden has a unique recipe and prides itself on its own distinctive creation.  Properly cared for, pu-erh tea is actually alive as enzymes in the tea are allowed to age, greatly enhancing the tea’s flavor over time.  This is accomplished by introducing a small amount of moisture at the end of the manufacturing process and allowing the retention of that moisture in the final tea leaf; then aging the leaf in a controlled environment.  Pu-erh is the only “aged” tea, and can be fully-oxidized like black tea or unoxidized like green tea.  Qing Cha (sometimes referred to as “raw” or “green” pu-erh) is the oldest and most famous version of pu-erh processing. Shu Cha (“ripe” or “cooked” pu-erh) is an accelerated version of Qing Cha that was developed in 1972 to help meet consumer demand. Both methods can produce an excellent tea that improves in value and taste with time, and can be finished as loose leaf tea or pressed into shapes.

Pu-erhs that have been aged for 10, 15 or even 25 years and beyond are typically unavailable outside China and served only to high ranking officials and dignitaries.

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Lung Ching Lore

There is an incredible amount of Chinese lore surrounding Lung Ching, with each tale more mystifying than the last. Recently we came across one of these stories that I thought might be particularly worth sharing. This story is translated from the work of a Chinese blog writer named 刘胜权, and it goes something like this:

A long long time ago there was an old lady who lived by a dragon well (a type of large mortar).  Near her house and the mortar grew eighteen wild tea trees of the type that usually grew in mountainous regions.  Right outside her front door ran the busiest part of a street that the NanShan farmers used to travel to Xi’Hu.  When travelers passed by, they always wanted to take a break at this spot, so the old lady set up a single table and a wooden bench for passersby.  At the same time, she thought she could use some of the wild tea leaves and water from the old mortar to brew up some tea.  It would be a great place for members of her community to rest before making the journey to Xi’Hu.  Little did she know, some day this spot would become known throughout the world.

One winter, only a few days before the new year, when the snow was falling and piling up very deeply, and the tea trees were about to be frozen through and die, there was an unending stream of travelers on their way to buy New Years gifts.  In spite of the cold, all of these people still stopped at the old woman’s door.  One elderly man, as soon as they saw the old woman instantly asked:

“Grandma, have you bought anything yet for new years?”

The old woman sighed and replied, “Don’t speak of new years.  I can’t afford to buy anything.  I only have these few tea trees, and even they are about to freeze to death.  Next year, when spring comes, I won’t even be able to give out tea anymore.”

“That is your most valuable article,” the elder said, pointing to an old, busted mortar.  “It doesn’t even have any use.  You could only benefit by selling the old thing.”

The old lady replied. “This mortar gets better the older it gets.  Now, even if I washed it, it would be worthless.  A broken mortar would never sell, and for some things, you just want to take care of them into the future.”

The elderly man dug ten silver pieces from the bottom of the mortar and offered them to her, but the old lady dare not take the money.  When she turned around the old man had vanished without a trace, so she had no choice but to keep the money herself.  A year passed, and during the second spring, tender buds and new leaves sprouted on the eighteen tea trees, and the trees grew better than before.  Even more miraculously, wherever she splashed the water from the old mortar more trees grew, and before long the trees were more numerous than ever before.  From then on, the old lady was able to happily continue brewing tea for any who passed by.  Thus goes the story of the birth of  Dragonwell Lung Ching tea.

In this story, it is implied that the old man was a wandering spirit who enjoyed the tea and the service the old lady provided.  Noticing that she was in trouble, he put her dedication to tea to the test.  Seeing that she was faithful to her brewing method, and that she cared well for the mortar and tea trees which enabled her to run her business, the spirit left her enough money to make it through the difficult winter, and blessed her mortar with the ability to grow tea trees.

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Gunpowder Green Tea

Gunpowder teas are green teas native to the Zhejiang Province of China, and have been around since the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Though Zhejiang has historically been the primary source of gunpowder teas, a number of other provinces now contribute to the production of this style, in addition to locales beyond China’s borders. Evidence of British interest in gunpowder teas can be found as early as 1771, in “Osbeck’s Voyage to China and the East Indies,” by Johann Forster. He describes a type of tea “rolled up like peas… A smaller kind is called Gunpowder Tea,” and in 1795, the British ambassador to China comments on “The shrub which bears what is called the Imperial and Gunpowder teas.”

Why Are Gunpowder Green Teas Rolled?  Rolling the leaves into little balls helps protect them from physical damage during transport and storage, and helps preserve the flavor of the tea. Traditionally, the individual leaves were rolled up by hand, and in the highest quality varieties this is still the case. The majority of commercial gunpowder teas, however, are rolled by machines these days. In some cases, the friction of the machine-rolling process will heat up the leaves, altering the flavor slightly and imparting a roasted quality.

There are several possible sources for the “gunpowder” sobriquet: 1) The rolled-up tea leaves look like little gray pellets of the stuff; 2) The pellets “explode” as they steep in hot water; 3) Teas in this style tend to have a smoky flavor, and the British are fond of puns!

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Ti Kuan Yin Lore

According to legend, the name Ti Kuan Yin came from a Qing Dynasty Emperor who became very ill, and no remedy could cure him. One day an advisor to the court (from Fujian) shared some of his homegrown oolong tea with the Emperor, who was miraculously cured. Upon his recovery, the Emperor named this tea "Ti Kuan Yin," which translates to "Iron Goddess Of Mercy". The Emperor declared that the tightly rolled and well-baked tea leaves resembled iron and had the healing powers of the Buddhist Goddess Of Mercy (Kuan Yin).

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Butter Tea from Tibet

Butter tea, known as Po cha in Tibet, is made from churning tea, salt and yak butter. The tea used is a particularly potent, smoky type of brick tea from Pemagul, Tibet. A portion of this brick tea is crumbled into water and boiled for hours to produce a smoky, bitter brew called chaku. This is then stored until used to make butter tea. To make a serving of Po cha, some of the chaku is poured in a wooden cylindrical churn called a chandong, along with a hunk of yak butter and salt and churned for a couple of minutes before serving.

Po Cha is consumed several times a day, every day, by Tibetans.  There are many benefits associated with drinking po cha, especially in high altitude areas like Tibet, because of its warming quality and high calorie count, which keeps energy levels up. The butter from the drink also helps prevent chapped lips – another valuable benefit on Tibet’s windy, exposed steppes. It is also believed that the tea used aids digestion, keeps the mind focused, and promotes a healthy cardiovascular system.

Care to give it a try?  Butter tea is not for the faint of heart, but might be just the thing for your next expedition!  The authentic ingredients used to make po cha are hard to be found outside Tibet, but you can still get a close taste using the following recipe:

Butter Tea Ingredient List:
4 cups of water
2 tablespoons of Organic Black Tea (perhaps a smoky one, like Organic Russian Caravan or Organic Lapsang Souchong)
¼ teaspoon of salt 2 tablespoons of butter
½ cup of milk or half and half
A blender

Directions for Making Butter Tea:

1) Bring the cups of water to a boil, and then turn down the heat.
2)Put the 2 spoons of tea in the water and continue to boil for a couple of minutes, then strain.
3) Combine the tea, salt, butter and milk or half and half in the blender and blend for 2-3 minutes –the longer the better.
Serve and enjoy!

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Hakka Lei Cha – Central Chinese Green Tea Soup

Tea isn't just good for drinking but can also be a versatile cooking ingredient. Soups are particularly healthy, tasty and easy to make with tea. In fact, we have a recipe for Chicken Noodle Soup with Dragonwell Tea in our Cooking with Tea section.   Here is another type of tea-based soup, popular within the Hakka community in Southeast Asia. The Hakka people or the Hakka Han migrated from the Yellow River area in central China to Southeast Asia over the last century. They brought with them strong cultural practices which have been relatively well preserved, such as their distinctive culinary expertise.

What is Lei Cha? Lei Cha literally translates to “pounded” or “crushed” tea. It is believed that Lei Cha was derived from a soup called the “Three-Raw-Ingredients Soup” consisting of tea leaves, crushed fresh ginger and rice. This soup was consumed by Hakka soldiers for rejuvenation and was brought down to Southeast Asia. The modern day Lei Cha came into existence by further enriching the original “Three-Raw-Ingredients Soup” recipe.

Lei Cha, as it is known and enjoyed today, is commonly made from oolong tea, various roasted nuts and seeds, mung beans and crushed puffed rice. It is commonly enjoyed with an array of side dishes made from leek, long beans, kale, string beans, cabbage, dried radish and aduki beans. The combination of these side dishes and Lei Cha make for an incredibly delicious and nutrition-packed meal.

You will need:
1 oz loose leaf oolong tea (such as Organic Wu Yi Oolong Tea or Shui Xian Oolong Tea)
16 oz (1 lb) peanuts
7 oz sesame seeds
2 Tbs of finely chopped mint
4 Tbs of finely chopped basil
4 Tbs of finely chopped coriander
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ tsp of salt
Cooked rice
Peanuts for garnish
Puffed rice for garnish

Steps:
1) Roast the peanuts by frying them in a pan without oil for 10-20 minutes until they turn pale brown. Set aside.
2) Do the same with the sesame seeds until they turn golden. Set aside. 3) Heat some oil in a pan and stir fry the mint, basil, coriander, garlic and salt for 2 minutes.  If you have a pestle and mortar grind this mixture with the tea until it becomes a smooth paste. If you don’t have a pestle and mortar, use a blender to grind the mixture with the tea.  Add the sesame seeds and the roasted peanuts and grind/blend further.  If needed, add small amounts of water accordingly.
4) Pour this mixture into a larger bowl and add 17 cups of boiling water while stirring.
5) Serve with cooked rice and top with peanuts and puffed rice.

There are many variations of Lei Cha out there today. Some popular variations include shrimp, pumpkin and lotus seeds or lentils in their soup. Feel free to switch things up with this simple recipe and be sure to let us know how it goes!

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Kashmiri Chai

The western world is no stranger to chai. Chai has been popularized in coffee shops all over as creamy, spiced, black tea. Kashmir’s take on chai is slightly different. There are 2 major types of tea beverages, Sheer Chai and Kahwah. Both are an important part of Kashmiris’ daily lives.

Sheer Chai
This drink also known as gulab chai or noon chai, is a lot like the famous masala chai that many associate with the term chai. It is also spiced and milky. However, with one sip, it is easy to distinguish the two; Sheer chai is salty! The other distinct feature of the drink is its pinkish color. This pink hue is a result of the chemical reaction between the tea and the baking soda, one of the ingredients.  The tea most commonly used in sheer chai is a strong green tea called ‘pahari’ tea, which can be difficult to find outside the region of Kashmir. However, a similar taste can be achieved by using a semi-oxidized tea like oolong. Here’s how you can try and get a close taste to sheer chai:

You will need :
3 cups of water
2 teaspoons of organic oolong tea (such as Organic Wu Yi Oolong Tea or Shui Xian Oolong Tea)
1 ½ cups of milk
1 teaspoon of cream (optional) Salt to taste
Pinch of baking soda
Seeds from 4 green cardamom pods
4 almonds

Instructions (makes roughly 3 servings):

1) In a small pot, bring the water to a boil.
2) Add the tea and baking soda, and steep for 5 minutes on very low heat.
3) Add the salt, milk and cream to the pot and bring to a boil.
4) Crush the cardamom seeds and almonds together to form a coarse powder.  Place ½ teaspoon of this powder in each serving cup (makes roughly 3 servings). Or add the spices directly into the pot in Step 3 and strain out with the tea leaves in Step 5.
5) Remove the tea leaves and pour the tea into each serving cup, over the powder.

Kahwah Kahwah, sometimes spelled Kehwa or Qehwa is somewhat like the sheer chai, sans milk and salt. It is a green tea enjoyed spiced and sweet. It is particularly popular among the Kashmiri Pandit community. The type of tea used for this beverage is also a particular green tea specific to the region, but its taste can be somewhat approximated by using gunpowder green tea.

You will need :
4 cups of water
3-4 teaspoons of organic gunpowder green tea
4 green cardamoms, bruised
A cinnamon stick
3 teaspoons sugar (or to taste)
6 Crushed almonds
2-4  saffron strands (or an equivalent amount of saffron powder)

Instructions (makes roughly 4 servings):

1) Bring the water, cardamoms and cinnamon to a boil.
2) Add the tea and saffron strands and let steep for about 5 minutes. If you are using saffron powder, simply dissolve the powder in some water before adding it to the water.
3) Remove the tea leaves and add sugar to taste.
4) Place a portion of the crushed almonds in each serving cup (makes roughly 4 servings).
5) Pour the tea into each serving cup, over the almonds.

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