Real Food Encyclopedia | Tea

According to myth, the Chinese emperor Shennong, inventor of agriculture, was drinking boiled water when tealeaves blew into his cup. Pleased by the results, the first cup of tea was born, or so the legend says. For thousands of years, tea was more of a medicinal brew — the earliest mention of tea drinking in China dates back to the 10th Century BCE and it is referenced in 3rd Century CE medical text. During the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese began to drink tea recreationally.

For many years China had a lock on tea, but it slowly made its way across Asia to Japan and Korea via Buddhist monks in the 6th and 7th centuries and into India, too. In the 16th Century, the Portuguese discovered tea when they sailed into China and brought it back west with them. Dutch merchants introduced tea in England in 1644.

Tea quickly became the first global commodity and the British, eager to break up China’s monopoly, began growing tea in India and Sri Lanka in the 19th Century. It took a while, but commercial output rivaled China by the 20th Century and, with cheaper prices, tea became entrenched in the everyday lives of British citizens.

In the early 20th Century, a New York City tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan accidentally invented the tea bag. Depending on who is telling the story, either this was a stroke of genius or the result of dopey Americans not knowing what to do with the tea samples Sullivan sent his clients in small silk bags. When he learned that people were brewing tea with them, Sullivan switched to a cheaper gauze satchel and tea drinking was forever changed. It wasn’t until the 1940s that tea bags took on their familiar rectangular shape with string. These days, you can also find tea bags in circular and tetrahedron shapes.

<<View All Real Food Encyclopedia Entries

Fun Facts about Tea: 

  • When tea was first introduced to the west, it was known by its Cantonese name cha, the same root that lends itself to the word chai. The word tea derives from another Chinese dialect.
  • It was once common for tea to be finely ground and compressed into bricks for storage and trade. Tea was so valuable that the bricks were once an acceptable form of currency in China. Although tea bricks are not common anymore, pu-erh tea still is traditionally sold in large coin shaped discs or cakes.
  • You’d think that China would be the biggest tea drinkers on the planet. Turns out that Turkey has them beat, consuming seven pounds per person per year. Runners up are Ireland followed by the United Kingdom.

What to Look for When Buying Tea

Tea is a pretty broad category and encompasses many varieties of C. sinensis. How do you tell your green from your black, your masala chai from your herbal tea? Let’s break it down:

Black tea: Well-known varieties include Darjeeling, Ceylon and Assam, named after the regions in which they grow. Or Lapsong Souchong, a spicy black tea notable for tealeaves smoked over pine needles. Blends include Earl Gray, which is a mixture of black tea and bergamot oil, and breakfast teas like English, Scottish and Irish. The Russian Caravan blend traces its origins back to the 18th century traders who shipped the tea to Russia from China on camel.

Green tea: Originally from China, green tea has spread across the world, especially to neighboring countries like Japan. When green tea is harvested, the leaves undergo various processes, from steaming to frying, to stop the oxidation process and retain its green color. The result is known for its delicate, complex grassy flavor. Well known varieties include Longjing and gunpowder tea. In Japan you can also get your green tea in powdered form known as matcha. In northern Africa they mix green tea with mint to create a beverage that is deeply imbedded in the cultures of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

Oolong tea: Not as heavily oxidized, oolong sits somewhere in the middle between green and black tea. In Wulong, a Chinese dialect, it means “black dragon.”

Yellow tea: One of the rarest, yellow tea is a variety grown in China that is similar to green tea. After harvest the damp leaves are allowed to yellow as they dry. Allegedly the tea of the imperial court, it is known for its buttery honeysuckle taste.

White tea: The least processed of all varieties, white tea is made from the first tender buds in spring. Technically white tea can only be produced in Fujian province in China, but varieties may be grown in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Jasmine tea: Usually made from green tea, although not exclusively, jasmine tea is a blend of tea and jasmine blossoms. Cheaper varieties use jasmine extract or artificial flavors instead the aromatic flowers.

Masala chai: Just like curry, there’s no one definitive recipe for blend for masala chai, a mixture of black tea and aromatic spices that varies from region to region in India. Spices may include cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, clove and black pepper.

Red tea: Not a tea in the classical sense, but rather a tisane, or herbal infusion, made from the leaves of a South African shrub (Aspalathus linearis).

Tisanes: Also known as herbal tea, tisanes are a caffeine free alternative to regular tea. Varieties include hibiscus, sorrel, mint and rose. Other tisanes may be used for medicinal purposes.

Sustainability of Tea

Water Usage and Carbon Footprint of Tea

In the age-old tea versus coffee debate, tea really shines in terms of water and carbon usage. According to tea expert Nigel Melican, a cup of plain tea has a significantly lower carbon footprint on average — about 20 grams of carbon dioxide. But it’s important to point out that this statistic is for tea brewed from loose leaf. Tea bags, on the other hand, up your carbon footprint ten times because of all the packaging — string, box, bag, nylon, plastic wrap.

Then there’s the water footprint of tea. In your eight ounce cup of tea, there is eight gallons of virtual water (aka, the amount of water it took to grow your tea leaves). Coffee, by comparison, has 34 gallons of virtual water per cup of coffee. So if you’re looking to mind your carbon and water footprint, maybe switch your morning cup of joe out with a cup of tea — no milk, no sugar, and brewed with loose leaf tea. Check out this eco-friendly induction stove that makes sure no energy is wasted (and water, too) when making the perfect cup of tea at home.

Monoculture and Pesticide Use with Tea

But when we look at the impact of tea’s production on the land, we see a different story. In Africa, where tea is a growing business, plantations have replaced Kenyan rainforest. Monoculture leads to loss of wildlife habitats. Then there’s the use of pesticides, many of which are banned in European countries yet end up in the food chain.

Tea and Geography

Tea is an evergreen shrub native to tropical and subtropical environments and as a result they thrive in hot, humid weather with lots of rain. It grows easily in the high altitudes and rolling hills of India, China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Kenya. Tea is also grown in small quantities as far north as the UK and as far south as New Zealand.

Eating and Drinking Tea

Storing Tea

Store your tea in airtight container and it should last upwards of two years for black tea and upwards of a year for green tea.

Cooking with Tea

Pro tip: If you want to learn to make a proper cup of tea, look no further than “A Nice Cup of Tea,” George Orwell’s essay outlining eleven golden rules.

Part of tea’s popularity is how much it’s enshrined with daily rituals and culture. In the UK and commonwealth nations, tea time is a national pastime. Beyond the humble cuppa is high tea, served in the late afternoon in bone china cups alongside a towering tray of delicate sandwiches, scones, pastries, and pots of jam and clotted cream. In Asian tea ceremonies, the art of making tea reaches its apex of beauty and refinement in a ritual meant to invoke harmony and contemplation. In Russia, black tea is served from samovars, large metal urns used to heat water.

That said, there are many ways to prepare and consume tea. The most popular way is with tea bags steeped in hot water. You can also add a measure of loose tea leaf to a pot of hot water, pouring in a strainer to serve. Others add milk and sweeteners such as honey and sugar. In Tibet, you can drink your tea churned with salty yak butter. (No joke.) In northern Africa, they mix green tea with fresh mint leaves. In Thailand, it’s blended with sweetened condensed milk and served over ice. In Taiwan, add tapioca pearls and milk and you have yourself a glass of bubble tea.

Here in America, iced tea is practically synonymous with the south, served sweetened with lots of sugar, of course. Like lemonade? Try and Arnold Palmer, a half and half mixture of tea and lemonade. Although if you order a Long Island Iced Tea, you’ll get a potent brew of vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec, cola, and regret.

Tea just isn’t for drinking. Try making Chinese Tea Eggs, or you can even use the leaves to infuse cakes and cookies. Steep your chocolate ganache in aromatic Earl Grey when making truffles or add to Earl Grey or Chai to your shortbread cookies.

Tea Nutrition

Tea is a natural source of caffeine, an alkaloid and stimulant. An 8 ounce serving contains anywhere between 24 and 45 milligrams of caffeine. Additionally black tea contains oxalate, the same compound in spinach and rhubarb that makes your teeth feel funny. Although an extreme example, an Arkansas man recently was in the news for kidney failure after drinking around 16 servings of iced tea daily. The oxalate caused crystals to form in the kidneys.

There are positive benefits to tea drinking, especially as a source of antioxidants, although there is debate on whether this boost is negligible or not. Tea is also consumed for pain relief (especially chamomile), to promote calm and to relieve stomach aches (try peppermint tea).