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Tea with a Difference

Catching up with the extended family cousins who have been seriously bitten by the “travel bug” leads to often enlightening conversations and interesting accounts. In the course of discussion was their recent rove into the Tibetan lands. Asides the details of their stay and visits, what caught the curiosity of yours truly was their tea culture.

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” Muriel Barbery (author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

Interestingly the Tibetan tea culture primarily includes the butter tea and the sweet milk tea. Other varieties include the Pu’er Tea, green tea, milk tea and boiled black teas. The most favoured tea is the butter tea, known as po cha (Tibetan, Wylie: bod ja, “Tibetan tea”) or cha süma ( Eastern Tibet, Wylie: ja srub ma, “churned tea”) or suyóu chá (Mandarin Chinese) or gur gur (Ladakhi language). Made from tea leaves, yak butter, water, and salt in the traditional way, wherein the butter, milk and salt are added to the brewed tea. Although the variation today is to use the butter made from cow’s milk based on the latter’s wider availability and lower cost.Had by itself or used as an accompaniment for eating tsampa by pouring onto it or dipping the tsampa into it and mixing well.

The quality of the butter tea is enhanced by boiling the tea leaves to achieve a dark brown colour (takes almost half a day) or turns black (steep the tea leaves). One method involves skimmed the dark brown tea, pouring into a cylinder filled with fresh yak butter and salt and then the whole mix is shaken. The resulting thick liquid is then poured into tea pots or jars. Another method is to add salt to the steeped black tea, stirring the mix through the horse air (or reed) colander into the wooden butter churn with a large lump of butter then added to it. Then it is churned (or rapid stirring in wooden bowl) till the proper consistency of the tea is achieved and then transferred to copper pots kept warmed on a brazier. Modern day alternatives include tea bags, butter and blender.

Like the detailed preparation of butter tea, the Tibetan tea drinking culture has many rules. As per their custom, butter tea is drunk in separate sips. After each sip, the host refills the bowl to the brim. As a rule the guest never drains his bowl, instead it is to be constantly topped up. If the guest doesn’t wish to drink, the best thing to do is leave the tea untouched until the time comes to leave and then drain the bowl. This signifies the observance of etiquette, without any offense to the host. Another set of rules to follow is when one is invited to a house for tea. The host will first pour some highland barley wine. The guest must dip his finger in the wine and flick some away, which is done so three times to represent respect for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Then the cup will be refilled two more times and on the last time it must be emptied or the host will be insulted. After this the host will present a gift of butter tea to the guest, who will accept it without touching the rim of the bowl. The guest will then pour a glass for himself, and must finish the glass or be seen as rude.

Not just limited to drinking but also serving butter tea has it’s own special set of tea-ware. From special porcelain cups to wooden bowls set with gold, silver or copper, or made from these metals as well jade, the Tibetan tea-ware is an art by itself. Interestingly like Tibet, most of the East Asian countries have their own special tea customs, so much so that the tea culture of each country has a rich and varied history behind it. That for tea connoisseurs is the beauty of tea, in itself and being a part of rich vibrant cultures, their customs and traditions, lending the subtle depth and significance to the art and concept of tea.

“The first cup moistens the throat;
The second shatters all feelings of solitude;
The third cleans the digestion, and brings to mind the wisdom of 5,000 volumes;
The fourth induces perspiration, evaporating all of life’s trials and tribulations;
With the fifth cup, body sharpens, crisp;
And the sixth cup is the first on the road to enlightenment;
The seventh cup sits steaming – it needn’t be drunk, as from head to feet one rises to the abode of the immortals.”
–Lu Tong, 9th century

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Step back and look at the bigger picture.

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