Monday, July 01, 2013

How Wars Were Fought Over Tea

It's very brave of P to buy me books, especially books on tea from a local bookshop. There's a very high chance that I'd have already bought it. But as luck would have it, I don't. I've eyed these books, but somehow haven't gotten around to bagging them home.

Began with Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh's 'The True History of Tea'. I know I know. A good title to put anyone to sleep. But being the geek, I ploughed through the whole book in two hours, pausing at whichever page to linger over certain lines of thought. 82 awesome illustrations. Why not. It's not exactly a history book. It's more of an amalgation of stories, legends (i.e. monkey-picked oolong tea from Fujian province. Not true!) and traditions. An approximate pictorial representation of the book here.

The writers have researched extensively on not just the history of the teas, but also its economic impact, as well as the relevant quotations from the literary writers of those times. I laughed when the Prologue began with the Tea Party of 1773 in Boston. That was my first understanding of tea too. Hurhurhur. Eagerly flipped to the chapter about 'We Invented Samovar! : The Russian Caravan Tea Trade'. I was curious about the samovar, the Russian equivalent of a teapot, which kinda means 'self-boiling'. The "acqusition of the samovar is a telltale sign of a family's economic status determined by the metal employed, the fame of the craftsman, and the intricacy of the samovar's ornamentation." Found its decorative adornments and craftmanship similar to Fabergé eggs,

The origins of the samovar are somewhat obscure, but historians point to precedents such as similar Chinese and Korean food vessels, West European silver hot-water urns, English tea urns or the Russian toddy-kettle, the sbitennik. In its basic design, the samovar consists of a large metal container to hold water with a faucet at its bottom and a fuel pipe running vertically through the container's centre. Charcoal or pine cones are placed inside the fuel pipe, on top of which a teapot is used to brew the zavarka, a strong tea concentrate, is positioned. The fuel is kindled with a bellow, bringing water in the container and the zavarka in the teapot to boil, and the tea served by diluting the zavarka with the boiling water according to taste, usually at a ratio of about one to ten.

There was a lot of talk about the British East India Company too. The chapters are sorta chronological, focusing on a different country and type of tea in each. The organization of information is neat. Towards the end of the book, on the portion where it tells of how tea got to America, before the actual chapter on it, 'The Progress of this Famous Plant : Tea and the Opium Wards',  it says,

With its defeat in the Opium Wars, China's doors were forced open, opium flooded across its borders, and the country descended into more than a century of economic hardship, social disintegration, foreign invasions, civil war, revolution, and the collapse of the country's ancient tea industry. Across the Pacific ocean, some 70 years later, tea had played a key role in another event that shaped the course of modern history. The act of defiance perpetrated by a band of Bostonians on the night of 16 December, 1773, as they heaved heavy chests of Bohea tea into the sea, forged the foundation stone for the character and temper of the new republic. The tea iteself, however, was soon forgiven, and throughout the 19th century, Americans remained avid drinkers of green tea, which they imported mainly from Japan, and drank iced with fruit punches and spirits.
So really, tea, is just tea. Let us not dwell further on it most times. Seek and gain all that knowledge, but let the final happiness reside in one cup. In the words of legendary Japanese tea master, Sen Rikyū (千利休),

Tea is nought but this,
First you make the water boil,
Then prepare the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.

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