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Around the world in a cup of tea

Welcome to: Turkey, India, Argentina

To walk down any bustling street in Turkey’s major city of Istanbul, or to step foot in the grand bazaars, is to see trays of steaming hot tea in tulip-shaped cups pass you by, carried along by an ever-flowing stream of delivery men. The same delicate cups can be seen empty outside shops, a remnant of a moment's break in a busy day.

No matter the shop or home you step into in India you’re likely to be offered a chai. Each presented slightly differently depending on the region or the brewer’s style, certain elements remain the same: black leaves and whole spices slow brewed in milk with a hearty dose of sugar, served warm in shot-sized cups. Taken at any time of the day and offered by chaiwalas for a handful of rupees or by welcoming hosts, the sweetly-spiced beverage reinvigorates and smoothes at the same time.

Head to Argentina and you’ll find tea is not only about the beverage but the specific way it’s drunk. Deeply rooted in years’ of history, mate tea drinking culture is still very much alive and is seen as a way to slow down, share with friends and relax. To sit with someone who calls Argentina home is to not wait long before a gourd and metal bombilla straw is produced, the dried yerba mate tea leaves deposited into the cup and hot water added. The vessel is then passed to each in the group, one by one, until the leaves are soaked and the water is gone.

The origins of tea: Where it all began

With ancient origins, tea is associated with many myths, legends and stories. Even so, many agree that as far back as 2737 BC, Chinese citizens were sipping tea. In fact, in one such origin story, it is said that Shen Nung, emperor, scholar and herbalist, was sitting with a boiling cauldron of water when some leaves fell off the tree above into his water and he was astute enough to recognise the taste and potential benefits of the boiled leaves.

By the 3rd century AD, tea was commonly used and available in what is today known as North Burma and South-East China. In these areas it was used as a medicinal drink as well as for social exchanges. In fact, one of the first known records of tea was in a medical text written by Hua Tuo, a Chinese healer and physician that worked across different practices including anaesthesia and herbal medicine.

The beverage moved into everyday life during the Chinese Tang dynasty, spreading from China to other East Asian countries. By the 8th century AD, China had begun trading tea to Tibet, the Arabs, the Turks, the nomadic tribes living in India’s Himalayas, and further into India. By the Han Dynasty it was used for formal ceremonies, and was used in Zen Buddhism to aid meditation.

Later, tea made its way across the ocean to Europe when in the 1600s Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza fell in love with it, while priests and merchants were also learning of the increasingly popular drink. Around this time, tea also found its way to the Netherlands, where it was readily imported and consumed.

The now famous tea-lovers, the British, didn’t come to know of their beloved beverage until the 17th century. It didn't take long for the country to began large scale production and commercialisation of tea, using India to grow and distribute the plant. As of 2016, China and India reportedly supplied 62% of the world’s tea.

Linked by leaves

Today, next to water, tea is said to be the most widely consumed beverage in the world. From ancient times to the present day it has taken on many forms, flavours and meanings. It has been used for medicinal purposes, as a sacred ceremony and practice, to satiate hunger, as a primary pillar of trade, and to share a break with friends or peers.

While the world is awash with varied cultures, expressions and customs it is also inexplicably linked through subtle and overt connections that carry countries over, for instance over a shared cup of tea.


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