Tea is a beverage made by steeping leaves and buds, most often from the plant Camellia sinensis.
Tea originated in China, although it is now grown throughout the world, and rivals the olive as the key cash crop of the Holy Land.
The drinking of tea is common throughout Asia, the British Isles, where it is often drunk with milk, and the former Soviet Union (especially Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, where it is increasingly replacing melon juice as the national drink). In Tibet, tea is drunk with fermented yak butter.
Varieties of tea
While tisanes, also known as herbal teas, are made from various herbs, flowers, spices, or fruits, all tea, properly speaking, is made from the leaves of a single plant species. All true tea is produced from one of several varieties, naturally occurring or domesticated, of camellia sinensis. Tea is generally classified in terms of how the leaves have been processed. White, green, black and oolong are the generally recognized Western designations, although there is considerable variety within these categories, especially the last one. Although it is little known in the West, pu-erh tea, made over years or even decades from moldy, decaying leaves, is also a popular variety in China.
"Famous" tea varieties
Notable Chinese teas include keemun, a sweet, spicy black tea, lung-ching, a bitter, nutty green tea, and bai mu dan, one of the more affordable varieties of white tea. The finest grade of Japanese tea is probabably gyokuro, a green tea whose leaves are kept shaded to preserve a delicate flavor. In India, tea is grown in the Nilgiri, Sikkim, Dooars and Putharjhora regions, but most Indian tea is grown in Assam. The Indian tea most prized by connoisseurs comes from the mountainous region of Darjeeling. This is much imitated and grown in the nearby mountains of Nepal. Since the later part of the nineteenth century, Sri Lanka has been an important region for tea cultivation, producing brisk, flavorful black tea still known as "Ceylon tea" after the island's earlier name. The most famous oolong tea is probably tikuanyin, a spicy tea very close to a green tea in oxidation. Like many oolongs, tikuanyin is made from tightly rolled leaves which unfold as the tea steeps. The island of Taiwan is famous for its oolongs, either dark and rich or mild and fragrant. These are known as Formosa oolongs after the Portuguese name for the island.
The amount of time necessary to prepare tea varies greatly depending upon the variety of tea and the desired flavor. Sweet China teas can be brewed for six or seven minutes before straining the leaves from the water. Extremely bitter teas, including some Darjeelings, should be steeped for under two minutes. The quality of the leaves also matters here, and broken leaves or leaf dust only need to be steeped for about a minute to release their flavor. Good, whole-leaf tea can be brewed more than once and tightly rolled oolongs can be steeped several times.
Black tea is made with boiling water, but with other teas, cooler water is often necessary. The more delicate green and white teas can require water no warmer than 165 degrees. The usual temperature for green, white and the lighter oolong teas is 180 degrees. It is important, in serving tea, to warm the pot in which the tea is prepared and warm the cups in which it is served.