From Matcha to Chai: The Origins and Evolution of Tea
For those of us who are regular tea drinkers/enthusiasts, life without our evening brew is almost unimaginable. Our definition of it extends further than just a leaf or herb infused drink. It is more of an everyday work of art that we can’t wait to indulge in. Not only does every sip of Oolong conjure up feelings of warmth and comfort, but you also can’t help but feel just a little bit sophisticated. Like you just have your life together.
Whether you enjoy the explosive flavor of Masala or a more gentle Jasmine, we can’t deny that in the ever-dynamic fast paced world we live in today, our soothing and stagnant brew helps us feel grounded and one with our optimal state of mental/spiritual health. Top it off with some yoga, and you will emerge into what seems like eternal zen. This long tale takes us back to the time in history when the magnificent leaf was first discovered.
The diverse tea culture that we know today had fairly simple origins in Southwest China and Northern India. The exact circumstances of its first uses were difficult to trace, but they are explained through Chinese and Indian legends. The ancient Chinese legend takes us back to 2737 B.C. when the Chinese emperor during this time, Shen Nong, accidentally discovered the plant when a tea leaf from his garden fell into his boiling water. The emperor enjoyed his infused water and went on to discover the medicinal properties behind it.
The Indian legends, however, points the finger at Prince Bodhi-Dharma, a saint and preacher of Buddhism. In 520 A.D. he left India to preach Buddhism in China, and while trying to prove some zen principles, he vowed to meditate for nine years straight. At the end of the nine years, he fell asleep. Upon his awakening, he was so distressed that he ripped out his eyelids. The first tea plant first sprung up in the exact location where his bloody eyes met their demise as almost a reward for the sacrifices he had made. Or so the legend says. Regardless of whether the plant was created from the bloodshed of a saint, it was most definitely born to make history.
The Birth of a Culture
The consumption during these times was also quite different from what we might know today. In its rawest form, the leaves were simply eaten like vegetables. Only about 1500 years ago did it become a beverage, when they discovered heat and water would allow the leaf to infuse its nutrients into the water. The most conventional preparation method during this time was to heat the leaves and make them into little cakes. These cakes were later ground and put into hot water. This is what we’ve come to know as matcha.
Shortly after, a type of aesthetic began to develop around its consumption and preparation. It became more of an art and culture. Perhaps the best example of this is the Japanese tea ceremony. The growing culture was also very distinguished in its birthplace of China. It became the subject of poetry and literature as well as a favorite drink among the royals. It was even used by artists as a medium to create designs, much like espresso art today.
A Journey Abroad
A spark in the growth and production of the plant occurred in China during the Ming dynasty. China had assumed a monopoly over the world’s tea supply by this point. The way it was sold also changed dramatically during this time period as loose leaf form of preparation was popularized. Being one of China’s main exports, tea was able to make its journey around the world. It was around 1600 when Dutch traders first brought the plant to Europe. It was initially brought to Portugal where it became fairly popular.
Even though it didn’t become an overnight sensation in Great Britain, they were soon to catch on to the trend as well. It was popular initially only among British women. Then the trend was further spread when Catherine of Braganza married Britain’s own King Charles II. The world was then introduced the concept of tea time.
Expansion and Diversification
The colonization race inevitably brought the culture into North America. Soon the growth and spread of the mighty leaf would parallel Great Britain’s own influence in the world. In order to further compete with the Dutch company in production and sale, the British East India Company was formed. In order to gain power in the market, the company hired Botanist Robert Fortune to smuggle tea plants from China.
History tends to repeat itself. Therefore this motion only helped further spread the culture and aided its integration into the world of regular commodities.I’m sure we’ve all heard of the infamous event at Boston Harbor as well. Although this notion screamed the message of taxation without representation, it also revealed the extent to which the mighty leaf was integrated into the colonial culture. The culture inevitably only diversified from this point on, as it became individualized to the nations that adopted them.
The Modern Brew Culture
Although China and India are still in the lead for the global production, the beverage has definitely manifested its way into all our lives and cultures. There is a type of brew out there for everyone, whether it is your everyday chamomile or the most delicious herbal or citrusy concoctions. That is probably why it has been the second most popular drink throughout history, right after water. It will likely stay that way, mostly because as individualized as the experience is for everyone, the complexity of the mighty leaf lies in the fact that it can also bring people together and create a sense of community.
For those of you familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, as Uncle Iroh said, “Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights.” Well, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a stranger. It could be a friend or a family member. But the point that still remains is that, as you come to finish the last of your brew comes to an end, much like the long tale of the history of tea, you can’t help but feel the common love for the beverage perfectly frames the growth of a new kinship.
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