Once the exclusive domain of ancient medicine and religious ritual, the brew from steeped delicate tea leaves remains a potent “healer” to nurture the body and soothe the spirit.
One of the world’s oldest and widely consumed beverage next to water, all varieties of tea originate from the same plant species, Camellia Sinensis. It is the soil and weather which result in the multitudes of tastes, such as green tea, black tea and oolong tea. Every cup is a serving of culture and traditions around Asia – meant to be savoured, not rushed.
Malaysians like their tea neither shaken nor stirred but pulled. Teh tarik or “pulled tea” is a distinct national drink which has been turned it into a competitive art form.
Black tea dominates the mainstream tea drinking market, the favourite concoction being teh tarik. Young and old gather at coffee shops and 24-hour restaurants to chat or watch football over teh tarik. Essentially, the popular brew is a mixture of strong, full-bodied black tea and condensed or evaporated milk, which is transformed into a rich, frothy beverage after several rounds of ‘pulling’ of the tea which is then cooled to the optimal drinking temperature. Another common version is plain tea without milk, which is consumed with ice or warm.
The majority of tea in Malaysia is grown in Cameron Highlands, located in the central mountain range of West Malaysia, where the cool air and fertile soil are suited to tea-growing. Cameronian tea derives from Rajghur and Manipuri varietals from Assam, India.
J. A. Russell started Malaysia’s first highland tea plantation in 1929 in Cameron Highlands. His Boh (Best Of Highlands) Plantations is the country’s largest highland tea producer, followed by Bharat Group.
Blame it on Japan for making matcha fashionable. This matcha mania grew from austere beginnings as a monk’s drink for meditation to a mood-boosting superfood today. Yet Japan still holds the hallmark of regarding tea as an art form and a spiritual discipline.
Tea is readily available at high-end restaurants, convenience stores and even through vending machines. Its cultural significance is best demonstrated in a formal Japanese tea ceremony, which is rooted in Zen Buddhism. The act is aimed at the attainment of deep spiritual satisfaction through the drinking of tea and through silent contemplation. The ceremony can last up to several hours and procedures vary according to tea schools, seasons, time of day, venue and other considerations.
Green tea predominates, the highest grade being gyokuro, followed by sencha, the most common, and bancha, a lower grade. Only the highest quality leaves are used for matcha. Most of Japan’s tea is harvested by machines with Shizuoka being the leading tea growing area, followed by Kagoshima.
Tea was first introduced to Japan from China in the 700s and mainly used by priests and noblemen as medicine. Later, Eisai, the founder of Japanese Zen Buddhism, brought back from China the custom of making tea from matcha and consumed only for religious purposes.
When it comes to tea, the island of Sri Lanka is a land of superlatives. It is home to the world famous black tea – Ceylon tea – prized for its rich aroma – and the capital city Colombo hosts the world’s largest tea auction.
Sri Lankans often drink black tea with milk and sugar. In Colombo, there are innovative iterations of the old tea shops in the likes of t-Lounge by Dilmah which adds bubbly sparkling water and tea shakes. Teaeli adds to its Ceylon tea cocoa chips, chilli flakes, and caramel toffee, as well as offer helicopter transport to visit plantations.
The distinctively long and wiry leaves are hand-plucked by masterful female tea pluckers who pick only two leaves and a bud which hold the flavour and aroma. The leaves are withered, rolled and fermented, then dried and sifted, before being graded (the highest being Orange Pekoe).
Ceylon black tea is considered the cleanest tea in the world, free of harmful pesticides or additives. The different taste of the teas depends mostly on the location of the tea growing area. High-grown teas (above 1200m) from Nuwara Eliya exhibit exquisite bouquet. Middle-grown teas (600m – 1200m) in Kandy are intensely full-bodied while low-grown teas (sea-level to 600m) in Galle are full flavoured.
The first tea plants came from China in 1824 and were displayed at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Cultivation began in earnest in 1867 by Scottish coffee planter James Taylor, the pioneer of Sri Lanka’s tea industry. By 1890, Thomas Lipton arrived to purchase tea estates.
The Turks call tea “çay” (pronounced chai) and they have a folk saying: “Conversations without tea are like a night sky without the moon”. So intrinsic is the beverage to Turkish society – which equates the serving of tea to friendship and hospitality – that to decline is an affront.
The strong, full-bodied Turkish tea is served in small, slender tulip-shaped glasses called fincan (pronounced finjan), which display the brew’s clear crimson hue. The shape of the glass is designed to cool the upper part of tea fast while keeping the lower part hot. Tea is an after-meal drink and rarely taken with meals, the only occasion being at breakfast.
Generally, two small sugar cubes will accompany a serving of tea. In Erzurum and other towns in eastern Turkey, tea is taken with a lump of sugar placed between the tongue and cheek. To add milk to tea is taboo! The hub of tea drinking is at Çay Bahcesi or “tea gardens” where people gather to partake in lively conversation, smoke a nargile (hooka) or play backgammon.
To signal that you have had your fill of tea, place your teaspoon on top of the glass or inside the glass or turn on its side. But don’t turn it upside down as it means the tea was bad.
Turkey produces primarily black tea, known as Turkish tea or Rize tea (named for the region that produces it). Clippers are used to harvest the leaves which are then withered and rolled by machine for oxidation.
Although tea passed through Turkey as part of the Silk Road trade in the 1500s, it only became popular in the 20th century when Turkish Coffee became expensive after WW1.
Taiwan’s pop culture of tea is dominated by bubble tea – make no mistake, the best is shaken, not blended. It may be one of its best-known exports, but at the same time, contemporary “tea art” culture, exemplified by the proliferation of tea art houses, has revived the pride and prestige of a finely crafted cup of oolong, the country’s prized tea variety.
Tea drinking is a relaxed, social affair in Taiwan’s tea art houses. These establishments serve quality teas and impart the art of tea-making. Many are designed as serene enclaves cut off from the hectic world outside. The trend, which took off only in the 1970s, is a modernised take on traditional tea houses which were less than aesthetically pleasing and often associated with sleaze.
The high altitude, humid and misty mountains of Taiwan provide the perfect growing conditions for oolong tea. Taiwan produces two distinct leaf styles – semiball rolled and open leaf to process. Processed to be full-bodied teas, oolongs are the most labour-intensive among others. Every step aims to coax the right balance of sweetness, body, flavour and fragrance out of the leaves. The topmost grade is the High Mountain or Gao Shan Oolong. Other oolongs include Guan Yin and Oriental Beauty.
While Taiwan’s native wild teas have existed for over 300 years, Taiwan’s first cultivated tea came from Fujian province in mainland China in the late 18th century.
Words by Angela Goh