Whether on a floor cushion, in an elaborate dining hall, or over the side of an 18th century cargo ship, the way you handle your tea can be a method of expression as well as a distinct cultural activity. If you are sipping for pleasure or for your health, drinking tea opens conversation, creates cultural connections, and caffeinates you (and who doesn’t love caffeine!?). While tea is a common cultural phenomenon in most parts of the world, it is overlooked in the majority of the United States, often replaced by coffee, which while still culturally important leaves you with bad breath and usually implies you live in the Pacific Northwest (ew).
When it comes to tea culture, the English have it covered. With a distinct time of day set out for drinking tea, the British tradition of “afternoon tea” is as important as a Spanish siesta or an American celebratory binging session (i.e. all of our major holidays). Originally imported from China or India and reserved for the wealthy, tea’s modern image has changed. Once sipped from fine china, tea has now found its way into a ceramic mug or paper cup. Today American’s can buy English tea in any local market but if you want the real deal serve it with milk (never cream) and a spoonful of sugar.
Contrary to popular belief, a cup of tea is much more popular in Turkey than it’s sludgy, syrupy cousin the “Turkish coffee”. Turkish tea often mixed with beet sugar and served in a glass called a Kyrenia to show off its caramel color. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, tea was the cheap and sustainable alternative to coffee which became increasingly expensive to import.
If you have had mate, a traditional Argentine tea, then you know calling it an “acquired taste” is an overstatement. When missionaries first visited Argentina they tried to ban yerba mate because of how addictive the plant had proven to be. However, their policies didn’t hold and to this day mate is the most popular tea in Argentina and is growing in popularity all over the world. Often served in a gourd and sipped with a silver straw called a bombilla, mate’s pungent and bitter taste leaves little doubt that it has qualities other than being tasty. In fact, like many other teas, mate is packed with vitamins and antioxidants, so pass the bombilla and sip to your heart’s content.
The South (Not a country, but they tried to be…)
Many refreshing beverages have come from the American South: mint juleps, coca cola, lemonade, but none have shaped the structure of southern culture like sweet tea. Infuse a steaming kettle of generic black tea with a heaping helping of cane sugar and you have a delicious southern delicacy. As diverse and complex in cultural tradition as any other tea, sweet tea can be served in thousands of variations but it must be served with ice and preferably while seated on a veranda.
Thought to be the birthplace of tea and tea culture, China still reveres tea practices to this day. The style, form, and function of tea in eastern countries, especially China, differs from those common in Europe. In China there are several occasions for which tea can be served: for a family celebration, to apologize, as a sign of respect, and throughout marriage ceremonies. Tea is such a staple within Chinese culture that almost every household, even those living in poverty, have a tea set.