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Tea in Asia

A History of the World's Most Consumed Beverage


Tea in Asia

A tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Asian culture has been intertwined with tea since recorded history. Unlike in the West where we haphazardly drop a mass-produced bag into boiling water, tea in Asia is taken much more seriously.

Different varieties of tea are brewed at specific temperatures for exact amounts of time to achieve the perfect cup. Even the act of pouring tea has been refined into an art form which takes years to perfect.

Tea in Asia knows no limits. From the meeting rooms in Tokyo skyscrapers to the smallest huts in unnamed villages, a steaming pot of tea is probably being prepared!

Who Invented Tea?

While credit is generally given to East and South Asia -- specifically the region where India, China, and Burma meet -- no one is really sure who decided to steep the first tea leaves into water. All can agree on one thing, however: Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world.

The first written evidence of tea dates back to 200 B.C. in China. Evidence exists that tea later spread east to Korea and Japan sometime during the ninth century.

Some Interesting Facts About Tea

  • All varieties of tea come from different parts of the same plant: Camellia sinensis.
  • Turkey is the leading consumer of tea in the world per capita.
  • Asians refer to our common black tea as "red tea."
  • Tea plants will continue to grow into trees up to 50 feet tall if not continuously pruned.
  • A tea plant takes at least three years to produce leaves. Slower growing plants produce tea with more flavor.

Producing the World's Drink

Not surprisingly, China is the world's top producer of tea; over a million tons is produced annually. India comes in a close second with tea providing a whopping 4% of their national income. India alone has over 14,000 sprawling tea estates, many of which can be toured.

Tea in China

The Chinese have a fanatical love affair with tea. In fact, the formal tea ceremony is known as gong fu cha or literally the "kung fu of tea." From restaurants and shops to waiting rooms, expect to receive cup after cup of green tea -- usually for free!

Outside of formal or social settings, Chinese tea usually consists of a pinch of green tea leaves dropped directly into a cup of kai shwei (boiling water). Hot water taps for preparing tea can be found on trains, in airports, and in most public spaces.

China has developed a multitude of health teas; however, Long Jing or Dragon Well tea from Hangzhou is China's most celebrated green tea.

Tea Ceremonies in Japan

Tea was brought to Japan from China during the ninth century by way of a traveling Buddhist monk. Japan integrated the act of preparing tea with philosophy, creating the famous Japanese tea ceremony. Today, geisha train from an early age to perfect the art. Each meeting for tea is considered sacred and meticulously follows tradition, as it can never be reproduced in its exactness.

Tea in Southeast Asia

Tea has replaced alcohol as the social drink of choice in Southeast Asia's Islamic countries. Locals gather in Indian Muslim establishments known as mamak stalls to shout over soccer matches and enjoy teh tarik -- a frothy mixture of tea and milk. Achieving the perfect texture for teh tarik requires pouring the tea theatrically through the air. Annual pouring competitions are held in Malaysia, where the world's best artisans never spill a drop!

Tea has less of a following in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia where the climate makes hot drinks less appealing. Sadly, ordering tea will usually result in a sugary, processed drink in a bottle or even an American-brand teabag.

West Malaysia's Cameron Highlands are blessed with the perfect climate for growing tea. Verdant, sprawling tea plantations cling to hilly slopes as workers struggle beneath 60-pound bags of leaves. Many tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands offer free tours.

  • Read more about visiting the tea plantations near Tanah Ratah.
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