Over the decades, my humans have looked into and written about tea traditions in various countries. Now we bring them together here:
Tea Traditions — South America
Tea Traditions — Africa
See also: 13 Tea-growing Countries in Africa.
From the early days of the British tea trade, Africa has been a key player. Their traditions with tea are, therefore, deep rooted yet rather unique. And certainly worth a bit of exploration.
Africa is a large continent with a variety of peoples and cultures. Tea is known from Egypt and Morocco in the north, to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda in the east, all the way to the southern tip.
In the 1600s, Tangier and Morocco in the northern part of Africa were under the control of the Portuguese. They were deeded to King Charles II of Britain when he met and married Catherine de Braganza as part of her dowry. (Such a thing seems unthinkable to me today, to turn over control of a whole country and its people as part of a marriage contract, but that was then.) Both Charles and Catherine were confirmed tea drinkers, making tea drinking popular in Britain when they returned there and Charles assumed the throne. It actually took a few decades for tea drinking to become popular in Morocco, despite it being under British control. The growth in trade with Europe brought tea there.
British colonies in what is now Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda not only began growing tea but adopted British tea customs, some of which linger even in these post-colonial days. Tea grown in Africa helped make it more plentiful and thus affordable, therefore making tea drinking more popular. Just as the British use the term “tea” to mean the beverage and a meal where that beverage is part of it, so in these parts of eastern Africa the term “chai” can mean both the beverage and a meal (usually, the morning meal).
Both black and green teas are popular in various areas on the continent. Some places enjoy their tea with milk and others plain with mint or other flavorings added.
Another item that comes from Africa and that often gets labeled “tea” is Rooibos (the Dutch word for red bush, a member of the acai family). It’s popularity stems in part from the frenzy that has been stirred up about caffeine, justified or not. Rooibos tends not to have caffeine in any significant amount and has a bunch of health benefits attributed to it.
Tea Traditions — Asia
To say that tea is part of Asian life is sort of like saying that football, basketball, and baseball are part of American life. The role it plays differs in various parts of Asia. For example, tea in China is part of their traditional medicine and used in Chinese cuisine, plus their approach to tea is different from Korea which is different from Japan. They’re all different from Europe (especially Britain), India, Sri Lanka, Africa, the Middle East, etc.
Asian tea traditions stretch back through the millennia. Understandable since China is reputed to be the birthplace of tea over 5000 years or so ago. The ability of the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis) to create a wonderful beverage was supposedly discovered after a few leaves fell into a pot of water that was being boiled to purify it for drinking. Since then, other varietals such as Camellia sinensis assamica were discovered and came into commercial production, adding to the palette of teas available. Those Asian traditions persist through it all.
Tea traditions encompass methods of preparation, types of teas, and teawares used. Some have become so ritualized, such as in Japan, that they have very preset bodily movements by the preparer and the guests, every movement having a particular meaning (more on that in a future article). Tasting methods and the occasions when tea is consumed are also part of these traditions.
Loose teas are far more common in Asia than Europe and the U.S., where bagged teas and even pre-made bottled teas and tea concentrates have taken over, dominating the market. This Asian loose tea preference seems to be due to their strong connection between tea and ceremony. How can you dunk a teabag in hot water in a teacup and consider that a sign of respect to your parents, a wedding acknowledgement, an apology, or a way of connecting with the many members of your family? Since tea in Asia is used for all of this and more, steeping it loose is very important.
“Loose” doesn’t necessarily mean full-leaf as in Hong Jing Luo, a tea made from the tipmost two leaves and a bud. It can be a powder as in matcha, a cake/brick/tuocha of compressed leaves as in some pu-erhs, or broken leaf pieces as in black teas like Keemun Panda.
Rather than silver and porcelain/bone china, many Asian teapots are made of Yixing (actually Zisha — “purple sand” — only found in Yixing in Jiangsu Province) clay, which has the reputation of “rounding out” the taste of the tea.
They are unglazed and, therefore, porous, absorbing the tea flavor with every steep. Households in China can have several teapots, one for each type of tea. They even found their way to Holland along with shipments of tea when that trade route opened up. Korean teawares are made of metals or ceramics, with some rare items being porcelain. They vary depending on which ceremony they are to be used in and who is using them (for example, porcelains were reserved for emperors and the most rare ones were decorated with dragons).
Neither are teapots always the preferred vessel of steepage in Asian countries. Little bowls with saucers and lids called “gaiwans” in China are one option, and open tea bowls called “chawans” are used in Japanese tea ceremonies.
Often, tea ceremonies in Asia are related to religions, especially Buddhism, and as such have been greatly affected by events that have sought to suppress those religions and emphasize various state-oriented governments. The love of tea continues, though, along with its use in medicine and cooking.
Tea Traditions — Australia
The Land Down Under is famous for many things, including the Sydney Opera House, kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee, Vegemite, and tea. Yes, tea! Their close association with Britain over the last few centuries makes this hardly surprising. Of course, the fact that tea is the second most popular beverage, after water, on the planet, makes the Aussie passion for tea seem downright normal. They’re in line with a big chunk of the world’s population.
As is true in many nations, Australians typically enjoy three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Like many European countries, they eat their evening meal late (around 6 pm or so), making that stretch between lunch around noon and that final repast of the day seem a bit overly long. Yes, tummies are usually grumbling pretty loudly when that call to dinner is sounded unless — yes, it’s tea time to the rescue!
While the habit of taking tea in mid-afternoon (actually, around 4 pm) started in Britain with one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, it was quick to spread beyond that “precious stone set in the silver sea” (as William Shakespeare called it in “King Richard II,” Act 2 scene 1) to other parts of the then-British Empire, including Australia. (Who says good news doesn’t travel fast?) These days, even school children participate in the taking of afternoon tea, having their “after-school tea time snack,” including such treats as chocolate crackles (a combination of crunchy rice cereal and a sweet chocolate coating).
The typical menu for an Aussie-style afternoon tea is pots full of tea and plenty of treats. Finger sandwiches, scones, cakes, and fresh “biscuits” (what we in the US call “cookies”) are most common. These foods satisfy, go well with the hearty black teas usually served, and carry those imbibing them through until dinner, usually the largest meal of the day (lunch is, like many modern countries, becoming more of a fast-food style event).
A blending of Aboriginal and European customs exists in Australia, just as European customs and American Indian customs (among many others) have blended here in the US. One of the items resulting from this mix is called “Billy Tea.” Europeans brought tea to that island-continent, and the Aborigines took a very straightforward approach to steeping it.
Making Billy Tea:
Start with a billy pot (just a pot with a handle, often sold at camping stores). Get your campfire going (or you can use a camp stove, but it’s not as authentic). Fill the pot about three-fourths full with water and hang it over the open fire (or place on the camp stove burner).
Heat the water to a boil, add about 2-3 tablespoons of loose tea leaves, and remove the pot from the fire (or stove). Use a clean stick (or, if you don’t want to be that authentic, a wooden spoon). Steep for a few minutes, letting the tea leaves settle to the pot’s bottom. (If you want true authenticity, you can take the pot by the handle and swing it over your head in a wide circle so that centrifugal force will settle the tea leaves. On second thought, if the leaves need a bit of help sinking, you’d be safer using the stick/wooden spoon to push them down.) Pour the tea carefully into your mug (or, if you’re in a real “roughing it” mood, just dip your mug into the pot). Sugar, honey, and milk are commonly-used enhancers there. Take your pick!
Whether roughing it with billy tea or swanking it up in a tearoom in Melbourne or Sydney, you’re sure to have a great tea time in that land down under. Don’t forget that, since they are in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed from here in the US. Our Summer is their Winter and vice versa.
Tea Traditions — Buckingham Palace Tea
Ever fantasized about a “royal teatime” at Buckingham Palace? Me, too, so I checked it out and found that the idea is not as fantastical as it sounds. It’s an annual event attended by over 24,000 lovers of tea time— wow!
Of course, my fantasy was for something a bit more intimate. Afternoon tea is usually for smaller groups of family and friends, usually up to about 10 people. More than that is not really conducive to meaningful conversation, just a lot of chatter. While this type of tea time was originally intended as a filler between the usual two-meals-a-day diet (breakfast and dinner), it soon became quite the social event, thanks to people like Anna Maria Stanhope, the Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857). Legend has it that she couldn’t quite last between those two meals, especially since fashion decreed that dinner be served later and later, so she began having tea and tidbits in her private chambers at Belvoir Castle and then inviting friends. It soon became the thing among others of her social class. As the price of tea became more affordable, afternoon tea was enjoyed by the “lower classes.”
Three years after the Duchess’ death, Queen Victoria elevated the event started by her lady-in-waiting to a grand afternoon tea party in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. It has been an annual tradition up to this day, with Queen Elizabeth II hosting as many as three parties with around 8,000 attendees each. That’s a lot of tea!
Those attendees come from all walks of life, making this a very egalitarian tea time. However, you can’t just show up and take part. Invitations are sent out, some directly and some through a Palace approved sponsor. If you receive such an invitation and accept it, come properly attired. For men, that means a suit, uniform, traditional dress (such as a Scottish kilt), or morning dress. Women wear a dress suitable for an afternoon event (other than a rock concert) with hat and/or gloves or their traditional dress (such as a sari, worn in India). You Red Hat Ladies would be real stand-outs here!
Be sure to arrive well before the 3 pm gate opening. You want to be close to the front to be sure you have plenty of time to stroll through the Royal Gardens (usually closed to the public). Then, at 4 pm you will hear the National Anthem, signaling the start of tea time and the arrival of your hosts, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, along with members of the Royal Family. They split into different paths so they can circulate among the guests, eventually ending in the Royal tent where they are joined by guests of high rank and others. The remaining guests take their tea and goodies from a buffet table that’s as long as about one and a third football fields.
What’s that table loaded with? Better question is: “What’s it not loaded with?” Here’s the menu (served by the thousands of cupfuls, glassfuls, slices, etc.):
- hot tea (Maison Lyons tea — a special blend of Darjeeling and Assam by Twinings exclusively for these events)
- chilled (iced) tea
- fruit squash (sort of like lemonade but made from different fruits)
- tea sandwiches of different kinds
- bridge rolls
- butter drop scones
- fruit tartlets
- butter cake fingers
- cakes (chocolate/lemon, Dundee, Majorca)
- chocolate/jam Swiss roll
Eat, drink, and be merry, for the fun ends at 6 pm when the National Anthem is played again while the Queen and Royal Family depart for the Palace and the tea party is therefore ended.
Not on the guest list? You may not be able to attend, but you can sure feel as if you were there by enjoying some Buckingham Palace Garden Party Tea, a special blend of Earl Grey and Jasmine. You also don’t need to be this elaborate nor hire a staff of almost 450 to prepare and serve it all. Just steep the tea, hire a caterer or have the local bakery deliver, and wait for the guests.
Oh, yeah, don’t forget to mail the invitations!
Tea Traditions — Europe
Generally speaking, we tea lovers in the U.S. have Europeans to thank. Specifically, the Dutch. Holland was thriving, with great artists like Rembrandt, a rich culture and traditions, and strong ties to areas of the world such as the Far East that supplied much sought after goods like tea. That tea was the catalyst for the development of a host of traditions.
In the early 17th century, tea first arrived in Holland from China, which had been exporting to other Asian countries, but was now expanding into a new market. From there the Dutch sold tea to other European countries, including Britain, a monopoly they held until the early 18th century. They also brought tea with them to their colonies in the “New World” (North America).
One of the biggest differences tea brought to people’s lives in most parts of Europe was an extra meal during the day. In addition to the typical breakfast and dinner, they started the tradition of “taking tea” in the afternoon to keep their “motors” running. The upper classes served a “low” or “afternoon” tea around 4 pm and the middle and lower classes had a “high” tea (more like a meal) around 5 or 6 pm. The terms “low” and “high” here refer to the height of the tables used. Low tables are what we in the U.S. call “coffee tables.” High tables are regular “sitting at” tables. Still, taking tea seems to have been a “bridge between the classes,” where everyone stopped their labors to enjoy a potful with appropriate treats.
Tea competes with coffee as the beverage of choice for break time throughout much of Europe. The type of tea preferred also varies. While Britain, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands (Holland), and non-Mediterranean parts of Europe go for black teas (especially since they are less likely to drink a lot of coffee), other European countries such as France tend toward green teas and herbal tisanes as a break from coffees.
Regardless of the type of tea or herbal tisane, tearooms (or Salon de Thé as they’re called in France) are one of the most popular ways to imbibe. That’s because “taking tea” is as much about socializing to Europeans as it is about fueling up until dinner time. A whole etiquette revolves around it. You don’t have to observe all of these things, but if you want to experience a real high-falootin’ tea time while visiting overseas, you might want to keep them in mind:
- Gloves are not quite the fashion these days, but if it’s a rather high-end (socially speaking) tea party, you can wear white gloves as long as you remove them before sitting at table. If you are going to be standing up, you can keep them on.
- Hats for outdoor teas are sensible and can be quite fashionable.
- Pinkies should definitely be kept near their companion fingers at the side of the teacup or mug, not pointing at a dangerous, possibly eye-poking angle.
- Spoons are not weapons and should not be used to “attack” the tea, but instead to fold the tea gently in a back and forth motion a few times and then placed on the saucer (never left in the teacup — again, that eye-poking hazard).
- Cups are for containing tea and sipping it, not for waving about as a way of punctuating your statements on the topics ranging from major issues in the world to some horrid TV show you got rooked into watching by an appealing promo.
- If there is only one scone, finger sandwich, muffin, or slice of buttered toast left, and you are the host of the tea party, let one of your guests have it. If you are a guest, do not yank it from the mouth of whomever grabbed it first. Good losers are always better guests.
This is just an overview. More details on tea time in various European countries will be tackled in future articles. Meanwhile, engage in your own tea time traditions. Enjoy!
Tea Traditions — The Netherlands
The Dutch were among the first to bring tea to Europe. At that time, each transport of a shipment of this precious commodity from its source in China to what soon proved to be an eager and thirsty public was fraught with hazards and took months. I, for one, am grateful for the profit motive that drove them to take those chances. Tea is more available these days, too, because of them.
The tea ball got rolling, so to speak, in 1560 A.D. when a Portuguese missionary Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz personally experienced and wrote about tea. Soon after, tea was introduced to Portugal and was shipped to Lisbon. From there, Dutch ships carried this precious cargo to Holland (The Netherlands) as well as France and the Baltic countries.
Avid tea drinkers paid as much as the equivalent of $100 per pound, confining tea drinking in a time when wealth was primarily in the hands of the aristocracy to their realm. It was an age of exploration and discovery, so tea represented the Eastern lands many of them had only heard of but never seen. The beverage was call by the Cantonese word “cha” and served mainly to men. This spread to the New World in the mid-1600s when Dutch colonies were established there.
As popularity grew over the next century, demand rose, and the cost per pound was low enough for tea to be sold in food shops in The Netherlands and France. The result: tea time became a commonplace occurrence. Dutch inns started serving tea to patrons in their restaurants. Even taverns made tea available in hot portable tea sets, enjoyed at garden tables. By the 1700s, these two countries led the pack in Europe in tea consumption, and in the early 18th century Dutch settlers established tea plantations on the island of Java and later on Sumatra and Sulawesi, where it is grown even now.
The Dutch tend to avoid milk in their tea, especially since they are fond of flavored teas such as Earl Grey, Mango, Strawberry, Cinnamon, Raspberry, Blackcurrant, and Orange. A quick tea break in the afternoon usually includes a traditional treat called a stroopwafel (syrup waffle) that is served to you on top of your teacup (leave it there until it feels warm so the caramelly filling is softened). Living in a northern clime where sunshine is not quite as plentiful as in such places as the Sahara, they tend to take advantage of even a slight uptick in temperatures when accompanied by the rays of Old Sol to take tea outdoors. Their teapots tend, therefore, to be a bit heftier than the delicate bone china kind seen in tea rooms in the UK and other European countries as well as the U.S.
Tea is readily available in restaurants and is usually served like the British do, including scones and other traditional treats. I remember a lovely time in a café in an old windmill where my tour group had afternoon tea a number or years ago. They weren’t too surprised when I asked for milk for my tea (but I think I may have heard a snicker or two when they turned away).
One way to add a “Dutch Touch” to your teatime is to include some of that shade of blue made popular by the Delft Pottery Factory in your décor, especially if your teawares, tablecloth, or other items include windmills. A vase or two of tulips in brilliant hues of yellow, red, purple, etc., will also help.
If you happen to make your way in 2012 to Amsterdam, capital city of The Netherlands, don’t miss the Coffee and Tea Museum. (It’s closed now for renovation, but should be open next year.) Admission is free. For a high-class tea, try the Hotel Sofitel (also called “The Grand”). Their clean white tablewares and linens will showcase the wonderful teas and treats that await you. The city has quite a variety of coffee and tea shops, too, to keep your tea thirst slaked during your stay there.
The Dutch also love their chocolate and in fact are world-renowned for it, so all you chocoholics will have no trouble satisfying your “urge to splurge” while visiting there. They’re also totally gaga over licorice; you might end up getting hooked!
Tea Traditions — Malta
In the blue Mediterranean lies an archipelago of islands, one of which is named Malta. Not quite the setting where you would expect tea experts and tea traditions dating back centuries. And best known as the origin of “The Maltese Falcon” — you know, that troublesome little statue that people were bumping each other off for in the classic 1941 movie.
Being in a strategic position, Malta has a long and varied history. Control changed hands many times. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French (under Napoleon), and finally the British took turns claiming sovereignty there. Each left their mark on the culture and language of the people there, with the British imparting their love of tea to the locals during their century of rule. Malta became independent in 1964 but retains the tea traditions and much more.
Importers Borg & Aquilina, established in 1916 while the British were in control, got the idea to start importing tea to Malta in the 1930s, despite coffee being the most common beverage at the time. Wooden boxes filled with loose tea bearing brand names like PG Tips, Typhoo, and others that were already British favorites began arriving on the island. In the 1960s, Borg & Aquilina started putting the tea in square bags, branding them with the name “Lion.” In the 1990s they did an upgrade of their machinery so that the process was fully automated and switched to the round teabag shape.
Of course, this growth in Borg & Aquilina meant a growth in tea consumption among the people of Malta. Coffee shops started also serving tea, tearooms opened up, and eventually herbals as well as fruit-flavored teas became available, although they along with green teas were in limited demand. Black tea ruled in Malta. With milk and sugar. Very British.
In the capital city of Valletta is Caffe Cordina, one of Malta’s oldest cafés, founded in 1837. The building it is in was damaged during World War II, but the business thrives. The founder Cesare Cordina came from Italy, starting the business as a sweets and pastry shop. A tearoom, bar, and finally an outdoor café were added. They hosted a sit-down dinner for 1,300 when Prince Phillip visited in 1964 to officially acknowledge Malta’s independence. Truly a café full of history. Today, the café is a landmark as well as a place of charm and elegance. The main hall boasts a vaulted ceiling with paintings by Maltese painter Giuseppe Cali and gilt interior with mirrored walls. They offer 12 choices of tea selections.
The Maltese seem to prefer straightforward stronger dark tea and the more sophisticated-palate-pleasing green teas, as well as light teas such as Early Grey, and of course traditional English Breakfast.
No need to chase around San Francisco or hire a private detective to find your Maltese tea connection. Just steep yourself a nice cuppa one of the above teas and stick the Bogey classic in the DVD player. Here’s looking at you, kid!
Tea Traditions — Russia
Russians took up tea drinking long before the Dutch began trading with China for it. No surprise. Russia spans two continents — Europe and Asia — and border China, the source of the tea. Caravans reached them easily on the “Great Tea Road” (part of the famous “Silk Road”), carrying that special cargo.
At first the high price made tea only available to the wealthy. As the price became more affordable around the time of Peter the Great, this hearty and warming beverage became a staple of Russian life.
Black tea (only loose, large-leaf, never teabags), usually sweetened with sugar, jams, or fruits, is the standard. It’s served hot in Winter and even in the record-breaking temperatures they experienced this past Summer. A cup of tea usually has about 1-3 teaspoons of sugar or other sweetener per cup and lemon (but not milk), and a selection of pastries (pies, crêpes, or pancakes), sweets, etc. While black tea is the most common, green tea is becoming more popular due to the impression that it is a more healthy and “Oriental” style.
Tea is available all during the day, facilitated by the samovar, an item developed in the 17th century. Its design is based on kettles used by the Mongols from as early as the 13th century. Samovars are all-in-one tea steeping centers, with a container for heating the water and a teapot for steeping. Modern ones have electric water heating compartments. Some samovars even have two teapots (one for tea type A, the other for tea type B).
Most commonly, tea in Russia is consumed after meals or in mid-afternoon to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. The affair is centered around the samovar. The family and any guests gather around it, pour tea from the teapot into their glasses set in holders, add hot water from the bottom portion of the samovar, and then sweeten it. The stronger the tea in the teapot is, the more hospitable the host is perceived to be.
Those glasses in holders are the usual drinking implement. They’re called podstakanniks (“thing under the glass”). The high-end ones are made of silver. Others are nickel silver, cupronickel, other nickel alloys, or plated with silver or gold.
If you’re planning a visit to Russia, look for a tearoom there. You’ll be able to get a true Russian tea experience, one that will remain in your memory for the rest of your life. What an adventure!