It wasn’t until tea drinking in other countries around the world I really experienced the power and cultural significance of the ritual of tea drinking. We may drink it for different reasons, for our health, tradition but fundamentally in drinking tea we are taking part in the ritual and often the way in which we do so acts as a key indicator to parts of our own cultural identities.
I sure know in my own country, the UK, a cup of tea can solve all one's problems from a bad day to a bad break up, but seeing these moments of connection in other parts of the world really allowed me to experience that tea is more than a drink, it's the ritual we make around it that creates these moments of togetherness and connection.
Somewhere in the middle ground, of ‘popping on the kettle’, preparing the leaves and moments shared between slurping, has created a space of warmth and hospitality. This small act that I would simply do on autopilot is the foundation to building or sometimes healing a relationship. It's the words unspoken in a difficult conversation or the gathering and connection of friends, family and strangers alike.
Often we may take this ritual for granted or perhaps not even recognise it as such, yet this ritual represents so much more in our approach to everyday life.
My experiences of these rituals around the world have given me insight into a culture or acceptance/opening into a gathering where I have not known the language or customs.
My top 3, recalled from my memory of the experience. Therefore the intricacies come with a disclaimer...
In Argentina, it’s all about the Yerba Mate Ritual. “If you know, you know.” If you don’t, you will spend your time wondering why all the locals are carrying around small hand-carved and intricate cups with metal straws and a bag with a hot water flask and Tupperware box of tea leaves everywhere they go. Leaving the house without these items is like leaving the house without your trousers on.
The history of the ritual resembles the American Indian’s Peace Pipe Ceremony. In the mate ritual, the cup is also passed around. There are a series of unwritten rules, such as the cup, also known as the gourd, always being passed in one direction, and the mouthpiece known as the bombilla always pointing in the direction of which it is travelling around the circle. It’s considered offensive to wipe the bombilla before drinking and it should not be touched or rearranged.
Whoever started the mate off must be the one continuing to refill the gourd and the one taking control of the serving, making the first taste until the end when the yerba has lost its flavour. The household kettle even has a mate setting to ensure the right temperature of water for the perfect brew.
The Argentines take this ritual seriously, it’s social, ceremonious and brings about togetherness. It also tastes really delicious and is stimulating and packed full of vitamins and antioxidants.
It’s not only in Argentina but in Brasil, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia and Uruguay the locals drink this way.
Japan is a country full of tradition and etiquette, and, Japanese tea ceremonies are very much a part of this.
The preparation of the powdered green tea, matcha is an art form. My formal experience of a tea ceremony was in Kyoto in a purpose-built chashitsu tea house. From the moment I walked through the door the ritual had commenced. Our tea master was dressed in a beautiful and colourful kimono and we followed her lead.
We removed our shoes and sat in a waiting room before being welcomed by the host with a warm and gentle bow. We were asked to wash our hands and rinse our mouths before going into the ceremony room. Everything feels very calm and soothing, and the other ‘tourists’ alongside me also took to this tone with ease, following the social queues from the host. We sat in a kneeling position and our host began cleaning each utensil before preparing the tea and sharing the matcha into a bowl to be shared with the room, we took a sip and bowed to the tea master to show our gratitude and enjoyment.
The roots of Japanese tea ceremonies are steeped in Zen Buddhism and learning this came about as no surprise as the whole ceremony is very peaceful, intentional and calming almost meditative.
This ritual felt like everything in Japanese culture, peaceful and harmonious.
I love everything about drinking tea in Morocco. They keep it simple with gunpowder green tea leaves, mint and sugar and the Moroccan ritual is all about creating hospitality and friendship.
The tea is poured from an intricate teapot at a height of at least 12 inches into small glasses, and pouring from this height it creates a foamy layer on top. No foam means it’s not ready to drink and should be steeped for a bit longer, so back into the pot it goes.
The theatre and skill of the pour makes it all the more exciting, releasing the steam, the aromas and enhancing the ritual in doing so.
The tradition and ritual would be to serve the tea at the end of a meal however it is definitely served all through the day, from a shop you’re browsing, hotel entrance and of course if visiting any friend, you will be welcomed with sweet mint tea deliciousness.
After drinking the tea, part of the ritual is a reflection on the wishes and meanings of life, love and death.
The first pour is described as being as “gentle as life”, the second, “as strong as love” and the third “as bitter as death”.
What I take away from all of these rituals is our connection with nature and the earth and our connection with one another as humans.
In taking part in ritualising tea we offer gratitude to the plants from which the leaves have grown. Gratitude to one another to those we share it with or upon ourselves. Ritualising tea in this way creates reciprocity to the plants, a circle of meaning and gratitude making the moments cherishable and meaningful because they are created with intention and purpose through the ritual.
There has always been tea, and there will always be tea!
I believe this ritual to be so deep-rooted in us in day to day life we may take it for granted but how we drink tea serves me as a metaphor for life.
Let there be tea.