It’s kind of fitting that a teapot sang the words “tale as old as time” in Beauty and the Beast. The tale of tea in human history is almost as old as time, or at least as old as 2737 B.C.
According to a widely accepted legend, tea was first discovered by Chinese emperor Shennong when a dried leaf fell into his cup. He decided hot water tasted a lot better with a bit of extra flavor, and the rest was history.
Well, almost. It wasn’t until around the year 200 A.D. that tea found its way into the daily habits of common people. The first published account of tea cultivation methods dates back to the year 350. The tea trend washed up on the shores of Japan around the year 800, and it arrived in Europe in 1610 via the Dutch East India Company. The British brought tea culture to India in 1836, and by the end of the 19th century, tea growing had spread far and wide, ranging from Georgia in Europe to Iran in the Middle East to Mozambique in Africa to Brazil in South America — and Australia too, for good measure.
Today, tea continues to be a fairly universal cultural staple across all seven continents — even Antarctica. As it turns out, tea was a museum-worthy part of Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1912.
Today, our editorial expedition will take us around the world in 19 cups of tea — spending just enough time to take a sip of each.
India is second only to China as a top global tea producer, and much of it is consumed right at home. Though tea has only been a staple of Indian culture since the Brits brought it there in the mid-19th century, India is responsible for giving the gift of chai to the world: a black tea that’s flavored with cardamom, ginger, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and sometimes other spices, and usually mixed with milk. The origin of masala chai actually dates back thousands of years, however — it just wasn’t until colonial times that black tea was added to the mix. Today, you can find masala chai being served on the streets by vendors known as chai wallahs.
Tea originally only existed in elite circles and Buddhist temples in Japan, where it was served to monks and rulers in an elaborate ceremony. Matcha, the powdered green tea that has recently become trendy in the West, was used in Japanese tea ceremonies called Chado (“way of tea”) for centuries. Everything ranging from the way guests are invited into the home to the cleanup process is ritualized in these ceremonies (the doorway to the tea house is a crawl space that requires you to bow, and thus humble yourself, before entering). Today, matcha has found its way into everything ranging from Starbucks lattes to ice cream and Kit Kats.
Tea reached Russia in the 17th century after a long, arduous journey on camelback from China. Though it was originally only for the upper class, the Siberian Railroad made tea much more accessible in 1880, and it thus became a staple of everyday life. Many Russians drink tea every day, and usually after dinner, with sweets or dessert. The prototypical cup of tea in Russia is usually black tea that’s sweetened with sugar or jam (try placing a sugar cube in your mouth and sucking the tea through it for an even more authentic experience). Russian tea culture also brought us the samovar, a type of multi-chamber tea kettle that’s part hot water heater and part teapot. The product? A zavarka (or a “brew”), which is kind of like a tea concentrate of very strong black tea that one would then dilute with hot water.
In Iran, people sweeten their tea by dipping yellow saffron-flavored rock candy, called nabaat, into their cups first. Usually, tea is served on a silver tray, and often multiple times throughout the day. Iranians had developed a taste for tea by the 15th century, when tea exports spilled into the Middle East from the Silk Road. Tea houses known as chaikhanehs sprang up around the country, and Iran eventually came to grow its own tea in the 20th century. Because alcohol is illegal in Iran, these tea houses are the closest thing you’ll find to a club or bar in terms of public gathering places.
If you’re a guest visiting someone’s home in Morocco, it’s almost a given that you’ll be served tea. You should probably oblige, because refusing tea is generally considered very rude in Moroccan culture. Morocco’s national tea includes a mixture of mint, green tea and sugar. Traditionally, Moroccan mint tea is served in small glasses, and it’s refilled twice. There’s a proverb for this too: “The first glass is as gentle as life, the second is as strong as love, the third is as bitter as death.”
Sri Lanka was formerly known as Ceylon, and that’s where the eponymous tea gets its name. During British colonial rule, the island’s abundant coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease, and that’s when its coffee trade was replaced by the tea economy. Today, tea is often consumed with jaggery, a type of palm sugar sap, or with fresh ginger. Sri Lanka also has its own take on masala tea, with a blend of milk, cardamom, black tea (usually Ceylon), clove, ginger, vanilla and sugar.
Who could forget about the British and their tea? Back in the day, upper-class Brits would drink “low” or “afternoon” tea prior to dinner, served on low tables. Lower classes would have “high” tea slightly later on in the day, which was usually served on higher tables, hence the name. The afternoon tea tradition (served with cakes or small sandwiches) became firmly established by the 19th century, and this is largely credited to the eating habits of Ann, Duchess of Bedford. Today, the U.K. consumes over 160 million cups every day, and this usually involves black tea served plain or with milk and sugar.
America may have had a fraught relationship with tea in its early stages, but after it dumped a bunch of inventory into the Boston Harbor and successfully claimed its independence from Britain, America warmed up to tea quite nicely. America’s greatest contribution to the tea game is iced tea — more specifically sweet tea, which is a big deal in the South. Iced tea was actually popularized in St. Louis though, during the scorching 1904 World’s Fair. A group of tea producers were trying to promote their wares in the sweltering heat, so they served it over ice to make it more palatable. However, references to iced tea have been found in American cookbooks dating back to the early 1800s. To make a proper cup of sweet tea, one must pre-sweeten the tea leaf/water mixture while it’s still hot.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, tea consumption was encouraged over coffee, because coffee was imported from Yemen, and tea was easily grown within the country’s borders. Today, in Turkey, cay tea is served with every meal (and then some). Cay tea is made with a double-chambered tea pot (or a caydanlik), with one part that boils water and the other that’s filled with dry tea leaves. The tea is usually served in small bell-shaped glasses and refilled frequently.
In the high altitudes of Tibet, tea is meant to be especially caloric and fortifying. Po cha, or yak butter tea, is taken with milk, salt and yak butter, which is then churned together to create a creamy, soup-like tea. The actual tea itself is made by boiling a brick of black tea for half a day.
Yerba mate, an herbal tea with stimulating caffeine properties, is a significant cornerstone of the Argentine lifestyle. It’s typically made in a small pot or gourd and drunk through a straining straw, known as a bombilla. In group settings, the bitter tea — known simply as mate — is usually passed around and shared. It’s important to avoid moving the bombilla if it’s passed to you, as this signals to the host that they didn’t pour the mate properly.
In the country that started it all, tea is abundant and varied. There’s yellow leaf pu-erh tea, oolong, jasmine, and various types of green tea, among others. Tea has long been used as a medicinal beverage in China, and it’s codified into ritual too. The traditional Chinese tea ceremony, Gong Fu, is an elaborate ritual that involves a specific type of pot and cup, various bamboo tools, tongs, tea towels, a brewing tray, and “scent cups” for guests to smell the leaves before brewing. The cups are also heated up with the first brew, and tea is poured in a circular motion from up high until each cup is full.
Rooibos tea hails exclusively from South Africa. The rooibos plant has lots of antioxidants and other medicinal properties, but it’s also excellent as a source of comfort. Traditionally, rooibos was prepared by boiling the leaves in water (versus adding the water once it’s been boiled). This reddish tea can be served plain, or with milk. Some South Africans also add a slice of lemon. In Cape Town, cafe culture has added further innovation to the rooibos family, including rooibos cappuccinos, espressos, fruit-flavored rooibos teas and even various culinary uses for rooibos.
Black tea is mixed with evaporated or condensed milk and sugar, then boiled again, to produce a national drink known as karak in Qatar. It’s similar to Indian masala chai, except it’s generally not as spicy — the condensed milk tends to make it creamier and sweeter.
In Mauritania, mint green tea is drunk in installments of three, similar to Moroccan tradition. In this case, however, the tea starts out bitter and ends sweet, with more mint and sugar added each time. The tea is prepared by adding green tea to hot water as it boils, then pouring the mixture into a second kettle along with sugar and mint, and stirring the contents by pouring it from one glass to another.
Though Thailand didn’t originally have its own tea culture outside of Thai-Chinese communities, Thailand eventually produced its own take: Cha Yen, or Thai iced tea. Cha Yen is a blend of black tea mixed with sugar, condensed milk, and usually various spices like star anise, tamarind and orange blossom. Its signature orange color? Usually the result of food dye added to the tea leaves. Today, you can find street vendors selling Thai tea all over the country.
Boba, anyone? Taiwanese bubble tea is a fairly recent invention, and it probably deserves the most points for innovation. Bubble tea is comprised of an iced tea mixed with powdered milk and syrup, with small balls of tapioca that one sucks through a large straw. Its invention was largely an accident, but it caught on quickly. In 1988, a product development manager at a Taiwanese tea house accidentally dropped tapioca balls from her dessert into her tea, and the rest is pretty much history.
Pakistan has its own version of chai too, except here, it’s blended with pistachios, almonds, salt and milk, in addition to spices like cardamom, cinnamon and star anise. Known as Noon Chai, the Kashmiri tea is pink in color and often served with Pakistani pastries. The distinct color is derived from the aeration of the tea, which is achieved by whisking the hot water and spooning it in and out of the pot.
A signature cup of tea in Malaysia is known as teh tarik, and it includes black tea, sugar and evaporated milk, usually served with a frothy consistency. The frothiness is achieved by pouring the tea back and forth from one mug into another, and the process can be somewhat of an athletic spectacle, much in the same way as mojito-making and pizza-tossing.