15 December 2010

Accidents: Tea, From Antiquity to Modern Times

By Jeannie Lin

There are two legends about the discovery of tea: First, that it was discovered accidentally by Shen Nung, the second Emperor of China when leaves from a tea plant accidentally fell into his cup of hot water. He tasted the brew and found that it not only tasted good, but had medicinal properties.

The second legend is more fantastic. A legend dating back to the Tang dynasty states that the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma fell asleep while meditating. When he woke up, he was so upset with himself that he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Tea plants grew where they landed, providing a beverage that would keep monks and other people refreshed and alert.

In either case, tea has a long and complex history that spans the globe and includes many happy accidents:

Tea was introduced to Europe in the 17th century by Dutch and Portuguese merchants trading in China. It was originally scarce and available only to the aristocracy.

In the 19th century, China remained the sole exporter of tea to the British empire until tea was "rediscovered" also growing naturally in the Assam region of India. In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scottish explorer traveling through, noted that the local tribespeople would brew a drink from the leaves of a local plant. He sent the leaves to botanical experts for classification and it wasn't until after his death that the verdict was returned: this was indeed a variety of the tea plant previously only found to grow in China.

Indian black tea had a stronger, darker taste than the China green tea. As a result, tea drinking habits evolved to incorporate milk and sugar.

The invention of the tea bag was itself an accident. Thomas Sullivan, a coffee merchant, sent out samples of tea in small silk sachets. He meant for the customers to open the bags and empty the contents into a teapot to steep. Instead people put the entire bag into hot water and the tea bag was born.

The tea trade influenced much of the history of East/West relations. Have you heard of any other tea "accidents" that shaped the world?

Jeannie Lin writes sweeping historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China, featuring sword play, politics, and, above all, honor. Her Golden Heart award winning debut, BUTTERFLY SWORDS, and the linked short story "THE TAMING OF MEI LIN" are currently available from Harlequin Historical.


Pamala Knight said...

Thank you for the interesting post. There is a local tea merchant/shop owner (who is an ex-doyenne at the Art Institute of Chicago) who's spoken at my local chapter meeting about the history of tea. I'm always fascinated with the details of how tea came to be so inundated into our culture.

Michelle Styles said...

I love these tea accident stories.

I know one of the legends about earl Grey tea is that the recipe was given to an envoy from England by an Emperor who was grateful for the envoy's saving his son's life when the son was in dnager of drowning. The 2nd Earl Grey though never set foot in China. But the tea is based on Chinese black tea.

Carrie Lofty said...

Being married to an Englishman means my view of tea is incredibly narrow. If it isn't black tea with milk and sugar, it's crap *g*

I actually have a tea accident story, believe it or not. Keven insists on putting the milk in the cup first, before adding the hot water. I asked if there was a reason, and he said it's just the way it's done. But that's not the case. Mine workers in the cold north of England used earthenware mugs that would crack if the hot water was poured in first. Instead they used the lukewarm milk to moderate the temperature of the mugs, then added the boiling water.

Great post, Jeannie!

Delia DeLeest said...

Well, there was that whole kerfluffle in Boston a couple hundred years back when a boatload of tea accidentally found its way into the harbor :P

Jeannie Lin said...

@Pamala - Hmmm...I also know a tea expert in Chicago. I wonder...There are books and books on tea and social history. This is just the tip of the iceberg!

@Michelle - My sister would love to hear that story. I wonder if it was a marketing ploy to make Earl Grey seem more exotic?

@Carrie - I've heard to pour the milk in first too, but never knew why.

@Delia - Of course! How could I not have thought of the Boston Tea Party? I must have been in an Old World state of mind. Thanks!

Jamie Michele said...

I'm a big tea drinker, so I had to pop right over from Twitter.

My doc recently banned me from drinking loads of black tea everyday, as was my usual way, so I've come around to the beauty of green and white teas.

It makes a huge difference to brew these more delicate teas at a lower temperature, and for less time, than black teas. Until I got my tea robot, I never had a good cup of green tea, and always needed additional flavoring to make it decent.

Miranda Neville said...

Great topic, Jeannie. I'm a food history geek. I recently read that the native Indians didn't drink tea until the 20th century when the Indian Tea Company made a concerted effort to develop a domestic market instead of exporting it all to the UK.

Carrie: I've never heard of that explanation for the "milk in first" custom. If it's a northern thing it also explains the class conflict over that habit.

Carrie Lofty said...

Miranda, do the upper class put their milk in after the tea is poured? Interesting. I think my commmie husband will like learning that distinction :)

Miranda Neville said...

Carrie: I'm sure it doesn't matter now - rather the opposite - but in the 1950s when Nancy Mitford defined U (upper class) and Non-U language and habits, putting the milk in first was a marker for Non-U. Personally, I like to put the tea in first so I can judge how much milk to add according to the color of the brew.

Jeannie Lin said...

My sister is the one who should really be having this conversation. Miranda, you and Little Sis would have a great time chatting. She's studied tea quite a bit and attended tea symposiums.

Jamie, according to Sis, the white and green teas, due to their long history of cultivation, have many subtle nuances in flavor, much like specific wine grapes. The black teas are stronger in flavor and were more geared towards mass market. I hear what you're saying about a good cup of green tea. Most of the time, I think it tastes like a bowl of boiled grass. *blech*

Maria said...

Fascinating history of tea- I drink mostly herbal right now but I do love a good cup of hot tea on a cold winter night!

librarypat said...

Thanks for the quick history of tea. Most interesting about Tea Bags. Happy accident.

Ann Stephens said...

I just came across your post and enjoyed reading about the legendary origins of tea (a beverage I can hardly live without this time of year, lol). I had never heard the one about the monk's eyelids, with may be a good thing...I will never look at my steaming mug the same again, be it black tea or green!