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03 Jan 2011 20:041 Comment

A brief history of tea.

23_8910030312_L600.jpg[ feature ] I once drove east along the Caspian Sea, past the rolling hills of Lahijan, during the tea leaf-picking season. Colorfully dressed Gilaki women from the province of Gilan, baskets slung across their backs, picked what would become the sign of hospitality in nearly every Iranian household. In fact, it's hard to imagine Iranian society without it. Restaurants, mosques, homes, bazaars, offices--it seems every outing and visit is just another opportunity to serve tea, along with sugar cubes to secure between the teeth while sipping.

Words from two old Chinese dialects which are the roots of what we today know as tea from Te` in Anglo-Saxon countries, and hundreds of derivatives from Cha` used in Oriental languages and dialects. Although derivatives of Cha` are used in some eastern European countries, this could be attributed to the influence of the Ottoman Empire.

Iran isn't the only country to adopt tea as its cultural currency. Tea is the second most popular beverage worldwide, after water. Tea drinkers outnumber non-drinkers 3-1. Yet no one knows exactly where tea originated.

Written records show it was widely used by the Qin Dynasty in 200 B.C.E and from China it subsequently found its way to Korea, Japan and other far eastern civilizations.

Historians tend to believe that the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan brought tea to Persia. It's true that no love was lost between the Iranians and their previous conquerors, the Arabs. Arabs were bitter coffee-drinking tribes who forced their religion upon Iranians. But the Persians fiercely resisted Arabic traditions and habits. So what better time to switch from coffee to tea?

Today, China and India are the main growers and exporters of tea, with Kenya third. The slopes of the Himalayas -- China and India -- Tibet, Indonesia, The Golden triangle in South East Asia, the hills bordering the Black and Caspian Seas, Kenya, Uganda and Argentina are all major tea growers and exporters. Iran occupied 10th place until recently, as tea either imported or smuggled from outside has dealt its tea industry a major blow.

The best brew

There are five main varieties of tea in the world: white, yellow, green, oolong and black, otherwise known as red. Most teas are left for 2-3 years to ferment before their flavor and aromatic qualities achieve maturity.

As an Iranian approaching his 70th year of life, and as a journalist who has traveled the empires and enclaves of the world, tea I've been served in Tokyo, Shanghai or at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, Dubai, or in a back-alley coffeehouse leading to Topkapi in Istanbul, or in a tea house by the pyramids in Cairo, or in the formal parlors of British homes or in Dorchester some afternoons in the UK, will never compare to the cup brewed at the tea houses on the back roads of the Hindikush range in Afghanistan, or in the Alborz and Zagros ranges in Iran. In the old days, the ever-hospitable owner came and whispered in your ear as to whether you would like some opium to accompany your next cup of tea! You only had to nod and in no time the traditional accoutrements (for smoking opium) were laid on a Namad ( kind of carpet made of camel or goat hair) in a small side room where the consumer would stretch his body and have as many cups of tea as his heart desired. (Sweet tea compensates for the sugar that opium burns in your body).

Why on earth should this cup of tea brewed in the middle of nowhere taste superior to a cup served at a grand hotel? Believe me, the tea doesn't have to be Darjeeling or any famously expensive brand. We owe it to the Russians and perhaps the Poles for the introduction of the "Samovar."

Of course, I am referring to the those older beasts, either solid brass or chrome-plated and heated by coal or charcoal, and still used by the best tea houses. Add mountain spring water and the time needed to brew, learned only by trial and error, and you have the perfect cup of tea.

see also | The House in Shemiran

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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1 Comment

So it's true that they say you'll discover true happiness at 70. That picture reeks of pure bliss!

Ekbatana / January 4, 2011 4:17 AM