Making tea is not cooking. It goes beyond brewing the hot beverage by infusing the dried leaves of Camellia sinensis in boiling water. Making tea is creating with meaning.
Nowadays tea is brewed from the leaves and leaf buds of either the C. sinensis var. sinensis or var. assamica. They originally belonged to the Thea species but were later shifted to the larger Camellia species named after the Jesuit botanist-missionary to the Philippines, Georg Kamel.
The first mention of the use of tea in Japan is from the Nihon Kõki describing the Buddhist monk, Eichu, preparing tea for the emperor after returning from China. Thus the ceremony and art of drinking tea in Japan were long associated with Buddhism, in particular, with Zen Buddhism and its aesthetic of elegance in simplicity.
The use of tea in China long antedated its use in Japan. Tea is cháhuã in pinyin. In Japan, chado (do is often translated as “way”) or way of tea is described by Sohitsu Sen XV in his slim volume, Tea Life, Tea Mind as a way of life based on “the simple act of serving tea and receiving it with gratitude.”
Drinking cha in my family was by comparison an unspectacular event. As the family was finishing supper, the help would bring in my mother’s aluminum cylindrical teapot filled with boiling water. My mother would add the dried, black leaves from the yellow-label Lipton tin, so that by the time we finished eating the tea was ready. Lipton tea was Sri Lankan black leaf tea.
When we were little, she would dilute the tea with milk to which sugar was added. Cambric tea as later I came to know the concoction is said to have been served in English nurseries for centuries. The name refers to the color of the beverage, like the white Cambric linen from the city of Cambrai in France.
My mother drank the tea without milk or sugar. We were never told why tea was served at the end of the meal. I learned later on from my mother’s mother that tea was considered good for digestion.
Back then we didn’t know about the purported dangers of consuming caffeine and other xanthine products. Theophylline is the structural and pharmacological equivalent of caffeine in tea. It was later synthesized and used to treat a variety of conditions including bronchial asthma because of its capacity to relax smooth muscle. It also increases urine output, a diuretic. It is found in smaller amounts in cocoa beans as well.
So, I was introduced to tea as a child probably from what my mother herself learned from her mother. It was not overtly promoted as a healthy habit. In those days people simply were not educated enough or articulate in what was or was not healthy for you.
It was my friend, John Anderson, whose way of infusing tea became my own, who introduced the ritual or ceremonial aspect of drinking tea. John was an African-American who fell in the cracks. His interests were catholic and inclined toward the European-American. He loved classical music, opera, and theater but retained his love for Southern cuisine.
John would fill his copper samovar with hot water from the tap while he heated water in the kettle. When the water started vigorously boiling (and not too long after that), he would empty the samovar, put in his tea and quickly fill the pot with the freshly hot water. The tea was drunk while hot.
The religious aspect of drinking tea became important to me after I began sitting in the Soto Zen tradition. I read Kakuzo Okakura‘s The Book of Tea but never understood the essence of the ritual.
Years later, a friend, Minda, brought her boyfriend, Yoichi, to my house. He introduced us to Japanese cuisine. I learned how to cook somen from Yoichi. He simply did things from what he remembered his mother doing them.
I learned to make snacks from seaweed and instant condiments by mixing mayonnaise with other household basics like ketchup and wasabi. He cooked with precision and impeccable technique. He and Minda introduced me to Japanese green tea.
After all this, today drinking tea is just drinking tea. It is no longer the art of learning gratitude or expressing precision or impeccability or discovering the essence of being human. Mountains and rivers are once again just mountains and rivers.
But oh! the difference the years have made!