Ingredients from history for that perfect cup of tea

Ingredients from history for that perfect cup of tea

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 23 July, 2016
The book also features colonial India, where the English had set up the early tea plantations.
The history of tea is fraught with political rivalries and colonial ambitions, as a new book, written by three academics from the University of London, tries to argue. Anirudh Vohra takes stock.

Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World

By Markman Ellise, Richard Coulton & Matthew Mauger

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 326

Price: Rs 499

Tasseography or Tasseomancy or Tassology is a method of fortunetelling that uses the patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds, or wine sediments to predict a person’s future. A quick Google search will tell you that the first inklings of this form of fortunetelling started in medieval Europe.

While a search on “tea” will say that, as per Chinese legends, the invention of tea happened in China in the 2737 BC. Now this will make anyone wonder if the early traders along the Silk Route carried this drink, which today wears the crown of being the world’s second-most loved beverage travel (after coffee), from Asia to Europe back in the day. Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World, written by a trio of lecturers at Queen Mary, University of London, tries to answer this very question.

As per the preface of the book, “Tea has a rich and well-documented past. The beverage originated in Asia long before making its way to seventeenth-century London, where it became an exotic, highly sought after commodity. Over the subsequent two centuries, tea’s powerful psychoactive properties seduced British society, becoming popular across the nation from castle to cottage. Now the world’s most popular drink, tea was one of the first truly global products to find a mass market, with tea drinking now stereotypically associated with British identity.”

The first chapters of the book talk about how this now omnipresent beverage had the Europeans intrigued during their early encounters with the drink, while the next few chapters elaborately explain how the drink of traded from East to West. The book also features India, a British colony back then, where the English set up the early plantations in Assam. In India, as more and more tea came to be grown, the drink became cheaper and more popular and very soon it make the preferred beverage in this region too. The topic of taxation on tea and its effects (smuggling, for instance) in Britain and its colonies is also touched upon briefly. 

According to the authors, “Imported by the East India Company in increasing quantities across the eighteenth century, tea inaugurated the first regular exchange between China and Britain, both commercial and cultural. While European scientists struggled to make sense of its natural history and medicinal properties, the delicate flavour profile and hot preparation of tea inspired poets, artists and satirists. Becoming central to everyday life, tea was embroiled in controversy, from the gossip of the domestic tea table to the civil disorder occasioned by smuggling, and the political scandal of the Boston Tea Party to the violent conflict of the Anglo-Chinese Opium War. Such stories shaped the contexts for the imperial tea industry that later developed across India and Sri Lanka.”

Empire of Tea, unlike what its title suggests, is not a book about tea conquering the world but a book that looks at the history of tea, with a few chapters here and there about the influence of this drink — the business surrounding it — on countries like India, China and Britain. Still, it would have helped had the authors given more space to tell the story of those early traders who had introduced the drink to the Europeans a long time before the East India Company’s inception.

Tea has a rich and well-documented past. The beverage originated in Asia long before making its way to seventeenth-century London, where it became an exotic, highly sought after commodity. Over the subsequent two centuries, tea’s powerful psychoactive properties seduced British society, becoming popular across the nation from castle to cottage.

In a nutshell, what we get here is a quick history lesson on tea and its impact on world history. The authors shed light on other, less consequential, topics as well: like how tea came to be known as a woman’s drink regardless of having a mass appeal with the populace across social and financial divides; how there was widespread scorn towards tea bags when they were introduced by American businesses trying to enter the world of tea.

The last few chapters of the book look into the future of tea and its new herbal avatars. Although the book falls in the genre of history, it hardly feels academic or slow and is a gripping read. The accompanying visuals also help to break the monotony of the narrative in places, though the images in the present format don’t do justice to what they portray. (Do check them out online, for they are simply too good to miss out.)

In short, the book is a great read for a lazy Sunday afternoon. And the reading experience can only be enhanced further if you can somehow complement it with a few cups of hot tea.

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