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What Is Tea?

Though tea originated in Southeast Asia—according to legend, the first cup was drunk by Chinese emperor Shennong in 2,700 BCE—it has become popular all over the world. People not only drink it because it is delicious, but because many find it relaxing and soothing. It is taken at the start of the meal to “open the tastebuds” and after the meal to “settle the stomach.” Some blends are also considered to be very healthy, while some are formulated to help against insomnia or to cleanse the system.

Tea is made from dried leaves, buds and twigs from the Camellia sinensis plant. Today, other plants are used, though strictly speaking, if it does not contain camellia sinensis, it is not a tea but an herbal infusion.

Camellia sinensis flourishes in very cool and rainy weather. The best tea only uses new buds and leaves. These are then dried under the sun, then quickly roasted. Tea manufacturers can vary the way tea is fermented to bring out a range of flavors. White tea, for example, skips the fermentation process altogether. Green tea undergoes heavy fermentation. Black tea and oolong tea is the most fermented; the sharp flavor comes from the tannins in the leaves. Red tea is not a tea because it uses herbal tisane called rooibos. Another sign of a true tea is that it contains caffeine.

The flavor of tea can change according to the process by which the plant is handled; others add other ingredients. Many enjoy lavender tea, which is known for being quite calming. Orange peels add a citrus flavor, while mint can make it more robust and invigorating.

Tea can be served hot or cold. Some prefer mixing hot tea with milk, which can help soften the flavor of a very sharp tea that is high in tannin. Others like adding a little lemon or honey. Iced tea is sometimes served with lemon or orange slices.

Drinking tea has come to have great symbolic importance to some cultures, such as the Japanese tea ceremony or the British tradition of “high tea.” Tea has also come to mean a light meal that includes tea, biscuits or sandwiches.

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