FOOD HISTORY: Tea; Part 1 - In the beginning: China, Asia and the Middle East)

Usually I publish posts in a regular, rotating  sequence;  Things I Like, Cooking Tips, Food Trivia and Food History. My last post was about Food Trivia, thus, this post is about Food History. However, since this history concerns a very large mass of information about TEA, from  its beginnings to its spread around the world, the information is too much to put in only one post. Therefore, this post (Part 1; in the Beginning....) will be followed by three more posts about TEA. Part #2 will be about how tea and its drinking spread to  and influenced  Russia and its culture, Part #3 concerns the same  about Western Europe and Part #4 covers how tea and its drinking spread to and influenced the history of the Dutch/British colonies that eventually became the United states.

Next to water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world and has a very interesting history. According to legend, tea was discovered in China, about 2737 BC, in the mountainous areas around Sichuan and Yunnan when leaves of an unidentified tree fell into the pot of boiling water that Emperor Shen Nung was preparing to drink. Intrigued by the pleasant scent of the brew, the Emperor tasted it and found it invigorated every part of his body, Further, because it cured him of a stomach ache, he ascribed medicinal properties to it, also. He named the brew  "Ch'a", the Chinese character for, "to check", "investigate". Soon others started to drink Ch'a (tea)  believing it beneficial to their health. Being a scarce and rare product, it was only consumed by the wealthy. However, the demand of the wealthy soon outstripped the supply of wild  leaves. Therefore, farmers  began to plant and grow tea and it became more available and its popularity grew. It started to be used not only for its medicinal qualities but for refreshment and pleasure, as well.

Over the years, tea was processed by various means and drunk in different manners.  Very early, tea was made into bricks by steaming, crushing and pressing the ground green tea leaves into molds. To prepare tea, one pinched off a piece of the brick, put it into a tea bowl, added boiling water, allowed the ground tea to separate and infuse it's flavor into the water, after which it was ready to drink. People drank the tea from the same bowl in which it was prepared. However, this allowed the tea to cool quicker and drinkers had to keep refilling their bowls with hot water if they wanted to drink their tea hot. Later, during  the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), the preparation and the way tea was drunk was changed by the Emperor. He demanded that loose tea leaves, not bricks, be delivered to his court. From that point forward, tea leaves were brewed, directly, and the way tea was drunk was changed. Teapots were made to infuse the tea leaves and keep the tea hot and small cups were developed to direct the fragrant steam to the nose to get a better appreciation of the tea's flavor. While the way tea was prepared to drink had changed from bricks to leaves, bricks were still popular for ease of commerce and merchants trading tea became rich.

The Chinese Empire tightly controlled the preparation and the cultivation of the tea crop - only young women, because of their "purity" -  were allowed to handle tea leaves. Soon, tea and tea drinking evolved into an art form and books began to be written covering proper techniques to grow and brew tea. The making of artistic ceramic tea drinking bowls, pots, cups  and utensils were developed during that time, as well. By the 5th century China was exporting tea to other areas of Asia and later, the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Imperial Court established a Directorate to oversee the trading of tea. They  built an Imperial tea factory  to supply tea to other countries, as well. Tea was given as  gifts to visiting delegations, dignitaries and Buddhist monks from other countries visiting China which helped spread tea and its drinking to much of the Asian world. Further, Middle Eastern countries with large Muslim populations trading with China  started to import and drink tea to replace the stimulating properties of drinking alcohol, which was forbidden to  devout Muslims. Tea was brought to Tibet when Chinese Princess Wencheng was wed into the Tibetan Royal family, in 640. She brought tea with her, spreading tea drinking culture with her to the Tibetans. The  trade between China, for Tibetan horses, and Tibet, for Chinese tea, became  so important that the Chinese and Tibetans established a very long caravan thoroughfare  for commerce between the two countries. This trade route became known as the "Tea Horse Road" and, later, stretched from Sichuan, China  through Tibet extending trade including  tea to Nepal, Mongolia and Burma.

 In 780, the Chinese writer Liu Yu, known as "The Sage of Tea", wrote "Cha Jing", the  first definitive book on tea. This book inspired Japanese Buddhist missionaries to introduce tea into Imperial Japan; tea plants were brought from China in 1191  and planted in the Kyoto hills. Tea became an art form in Japan with the introduction of the Chanoyu Tea Ceremony during the Kamakura period in Japan (1192-1333). The Tea Ceremony is still  practiced in Japan today and tea is still the most popular drink in Japan. Tea had been drunk by people in Asia and the Middle East very long  before it was introduced into the western world. The history of tea trades to Europe, Russia, and, later, to the American continents did not begin until several centuries later. These Western World trades started in the 17th century.