The global history of tea (and much more)..

A superb post by Maddy’s Ramblings blog. We take tea so much for granted in India, that we hardly pay any attention on how it became such an important drink for us.

Tea became a drink favored by all the Indian classes only in the 20th century and was at times associated with the working classes or certain religions. For example in Tamil Nadu, tea was considered a Mussalman’s drink while Coffee was popularized by the Brahmins according to Chalapathy’s research. What is of course interesting is that tea became a commonplace drink in India only after the arrival of the British. The routes that this simple leaf took to become a perennially favorite drink of the masses presents a remarkable story of ingenuity and single mindedness of the Englishman, perhaps in pursuit of refinements to his otherwise unsatisfactory life back in the blighty and the hope of minting more sterling. This leaf as you may recall, went on to become the symbol of national resistance back here in America when in 1773, Bostonians destroyed a good amount of British tea laden in three ships when rebelling against the tea act.

Trying to find out when and how tea drinking originated is quite difficult and there are quite a few conclusions, but most agree that it all started in South Eastern regions of today’s China, many eons ago, in any case before the advent of the Common Era. Legends and lore have also crept in such as the sprouting of the tea plant from the eyelids of the south Indian monk Bodhidharma, at Shaolin. Tea preparation and its drinking became a ritual, an art so to speak in various Chinese regions and it is rumored that the Manchurian method was what popularized the so called ‘builders cup’ or concoction with milk and sugar. It is also said that one Mme de La Sabliére, a French hostess of an influential literary salon during the 17th century, is among the first to add milk to tea.

Some others opine that milk was added to stop porcelain from cracking, or there is this story that unscrupulous employers added milk to cool down tea quickly and therefore reduce the time taken for tea breaks. Tea cups, saucers and the pots of course originated in China, so also the fine porcelain medium or bone china in their manufacture. And as time went by, the Chinese and British spent time sipping it daintily from ornate chinaware or brassware and perfecting the art of serving and drinking tea in elaborate sessions, the people of Kerala perfected the art of slurping tea from the omnipresent standard ribbed tea glass! You won’t miss it, for that is what they serve it in at any Chayakada, to date!

From those Chinese regions, tea traveled to the Middle East and the Mediterranean lands to become somewhat popular with the Arabs though coffee was their forte, till all of a sudden, they turned in the 19th century to embrace tea. The first to port tea to Europe was either the Portuguese or the Dutch, a matter still hotly debated, not really the British, but they quickly caught on, as we shall soon see. Back here in India, the EIC had by then firmly entrenched themselves in the various regions and went on to enrich themselves and Britain with trade of various goods from and to India. 

There is much more in the post and is fascinating throughout.

Global history becomes really fascinating when you track it via commodities like say cotton, coffee or tea. There are just so mnay factors, planned and unplanned which go into making these commodities the key to global affairs..

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