Asia’s top tea-drinking nations

THE 8th century Chinese scholar Lu Yu described tea as “the sweetest dew from heaven”. Since this flowery declaration, tea has become the most widely consumed beverage in the world after water!

astonishedXpression explores the top tea-drinking nations in Asia…

China

China accounts for almost one and half million tons of annual global tea production. Legend has it that Chinese Emperor Shennong discovered tea more than 2000 years ago. He liked to drink hot water and by chance a tea leaf fell into his cup, introducing an aromatically steeped brew that tickled the thirsty leader’s fancy!

Over the centuries, tea consumption in China developed into a highly ritualised ceremony, known as the Chinese Way of Tea or Cha Dao. The ceremony is designed to weave tea, water, utensils, preparation, nature and conversation together into a lingering moment of perfection – a serene escape from the rush of daily life.

The Chinese predominantly drink loose leaf tea, separated into green, Wulong (‘black dragon’) and red tea (known as black tea in the West). This distinction has nothing to do with the colour of the tea, rather with the way in which it is processed. Green tea indicates the leaf has not been or only slightly fermented, Wulong means it is semi-fermented, while red identifies it as fully fermented. Fermentation is simply the degree to which a tea leaf is allowed to oxidise or dry out. Oxidation is stopped by pan frying or steaming the leaf.

Primarily through religious pilgrimage from other Asian countries, tea consumption began to spread beyond Chinese borders to…

Japan

kenninji temple kyoto japan shoji garden
Japanese are the preeminent green tea consumers of the world

Japan has now surpassed China as the largest consumer of green tea, celebrated as the country’s most culturally significant beverage. The Japanese tea ceremony, also known as Chanoyu, Sado or Ocha, is a highly ritualised and spiritual event.

The type of ceremony differs depending on the time of day, season, location or occasion. The preparation phase starts weeks in advance with invitations sent to guests, landscaping around the teahouse, utensil selection and replacing Shoji paper on sliding doors. During the ceremony, the Teishu or server’s every move and gesture holds special significance for the guest – from the welcome at the door, through the presentation of sweets, cleaning of utensils, whisking of the Macha (powdered green tea) to the eventual tea service. A cultural celebration steeped in centuries-old tradition!

View a Japanese tea ceremony.

Korea

The Korean tea ceremony is called darye and subject to fewer rituals than in Japan. The focus is on greater freedom for a more relaxed, more creative use of tea varieties and variations in teahouse design. However, like the Japanese, Koreans prefer green tea, complemented by chrysanthemum tea, persimmon leaf tea and mugwort tea.

Despite the more relaxed atmosphere in modern ceremonies, with guests seated around a low table, there is a growing trend in Korea to revitalise the nation’s traditional, more formal, tea culture.

View a Korean tea ceremony.

Taiwan

hue vietnam reflection pagoda lake
The Royal Court at the capital Hue refined the ancient Vietnamese tea tradition

Taiwan is the world’s primary Oolong tea destination. Separated from China politically and socially, Taiwan played a crucial role in preserving the traditional Chinese ‘Way of Tea’ through the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China. As a result of that chasm, Taiwan supplemented their traditional tea culture with a unique tea convention called Wu-Wo. This modern tea culture encourages guests to disregard social position and participate on an equal footing without prejudice.

Taiwan is also rightly celebrated as the ‘inventors’ of pearl milk tea! Bubble tea is a popular tea and milk or fruit mixture with tapioca pearls added. Pearl Milk Tea has spread across the globe and can now be found in Asian enclaves throughout Australia, Europe, Canada and the United States where it is consumed as a trendy hot or cold drink.

Vietnam

The Vietnamese, like China, Japan and Korea, boast an ancient tea culture refined during the Nguyen dynasty at the capital in Hue. Significantly, the Vietnamese Hue tradition used pots and cups with round, weighted bottoms that would sway and then right itself – a symbol of this hardy nation’s desire to survive mighty foes against all odds.

Rural Vietnamese, often toiling in emerald green rice fields, prefer their tea unflavoured and without milk. They imbibe green tea as much for its restorative properties and health benefits as for the purpose of pleasure.

India

India introduces the world to the wonders of masala chai – a black Indian tea with milk, sugar and aromatic spice to impart a very distinctive flavour. The sub-continent is the world’s largest consumer and second largest producer of tea.

Traditional masala chai is a decoction of loose leaf black tea, sweeteners and whole spices boiled in buffalo milk and water. The sweetener may be white, brown, palm or coconut sugar, syrup or honey. The spice mixture varies tremendously, but usually contains a base of ground ginger and green cardamom, with pinches of cinnamon, peppercorn, cloves, star anise or fennel seeds.

Malaysia

In Malaysia and Singapore, the wonderful teh tarik is served as a frothy topped hot Indian milk tea. The black tea, condensed and evaporated milk drink is repeatedly poured or pulled during preparation, which cools the liquid to optimal drinking temperature and leaves a delightful bubbly crown on top.

Enjoying a teh tarik in one of Kuala Lumpur’s famous hawker stalls, or sitting at a local kopitiam or mamak with a view towards the Petronas Twin Towers is as authentic as it gets! View the practice of pulled tea.

teh tahrik tea malaysia singapore hawker
Teh Tahrik is the official drink of the Malaysian national football team

Thailand

Thailand has over the last few decades delivered a revolution in tea production. While not known as a country with a rich tea heritage, government efforts in the nineties to eradicate the scourge of opium production in northern Thailand prompted hill tribes to redirect their energies into the cultivation of tea plantations.

Assisted by ethnic Chinese settlers with strong links to Taiwan, they are now producing highly acclaimed Oolong and green tea species and making inroads into black tea production. As a result, Doi Mae Salong has become a sought-after tourist destination – an organic marketing tool as travellers take high quality Thai tea back home.

View Doi Mae Salong here.

Cultural immersion while travelling is an enlightening experience, broadening understanding between people and expanding personal boundaries. As Mark Twain so aptly pointed out:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness… Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

So, tea anyone?

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7 comments

  1. I’m crazy about Thai tea, especially when it’s iced with boba bits in it. Instead of getting them at Thai restaurants or eateries, I more often seem to get it at Vietnamese donut shops or noodle restaurants. Great Asian beverage info!

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