x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Tea, many things to many people

From a hot drink to a meal, tea can mean many things to many people.

More geographically diffuse than wheat or rice, tea is like the Type O-positive of human experiences. If bread is the staff of life, then tea is the hearth, or at least the head of human resources. Tea is the common marrow that has bound continents together, a universal force in the world's majlises, gardens and kitchens. Tea connects billions of people to an omnipresent samovar that's always hot, never empty, and could probably be hired to promote world peace.

"Tea" can refer to a number of different meals, depending on a country's dining habits and tea-related traditions. However, throughout most of the former British Empire, tea is defined as the main meal of the day, whenever it takes place, whether midday or evening; the US equivalent of this term is "dinner", which, like tea, can occur at any time (as opposed to "supper", which is always an evening event, and "lunch", which loosely denotes midday).

High tea (otherwise known as meat tea) is a substantial meal typically eaten in late afternoon and followed later in the evening by a lighter meal. However, to a farmer or a labourer, there's only one tea, and it's high: a traditional hearty meal taken after dark and eaten at a (high) table, hence the name.

If you're confused, it might be because "high tea" has mutated into a term for a ritualised, elaborate afternoon affair replete with tiered china, Victorian-sounding serving utensils, and all the strawberries you can eat without busting out of your Sunday best (usually referred to as "afternoon tea"). But this usage of the term "high tea", associated with high society and high formality, is actually not a British usage but an American one, and even American etiquette experts share the opinion that the terminology is crude, inappropriate and best limited to commercial use.

It's thought that the Arab world and India most likely got their tea cultures from Cantonese or southwestern Mandarin linguistics ("cha"), whereas the Russians got theirs ("teh") from the northern Mandarin speakers. The word we use for tea, "chai", has become a woefully misapplied household term in American marketing, often used to describe a flavour combination of cream, ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. This began after coffee houses popularised super-sweet and super-redundant chai tea lattés, a ubiquitous coffee shop offering that has remained conspicuously absent on the beverage menus of their Emirati counterparts.

Masala chai, or spiced tea, is tea boiled with milk and warming, aromatic spices. Meanwhile, "chai" has become an American obsession, plastered embarrassingly on ice cream cartons and chocolate bar wrappers. A chai tea latté is essentially a grande cup of Masala chai with some foam on top and a venti price tag. Masala chai, or spiced tea, is tea boiled with milk and warming, aromatic spices. Like chai karak (milk tea) and zaffrani chai (milk tea with saffron), also introduced to the Gulf through the Indian subcontinent, masala chai is available everywhere in the UAE, and would be a hard sell as a luxury item.

The tea selection at an upscale market in Boston is a dizzying display of sleek cylinders and shiny compacts, as irresistible and untouchable as an edible make-up installation. Tea marketing makes coffee marketing look like an amateur sport, and the seasonal array of teas sounds more like a pastry case than a tea selection, with flavours such as sugar cookie, sugar plum spice, coconut chai and vanilla apricot. I haven't been this captivated since I first visited the cheese counter at Dean and DeLuca, where my sizeable purchase was stalled by a necessary jaunt to an ATM. Bread and coffee are hardy stock, but tea and cheese can break a bank.

The Tea Forté Tea Chest Collection of 40 "silken tea infusers" (tea bags to the rest of us) can be purchased directly from the company; each bag costs more than Dh4 apiece. Though there's no denying that they are very pretty, for that price, I half expect to be able to wear the tea bag when I'm done with it. Eventually, I met my downfall in Kusmi Tea, a line of Russian-style tea blends established in St Petersburg in 1867 (but based in Paris since 1917). The world's first tea bags were made from hand-sewn silk muslin bags; Kusmi's bags are still made of muslin. I'm not going to lie; it was a combination of gorgeous packaging and captivating descriptions that first compelled me to splurge on a tin of Bouquet of Flowers no. 108, a blend created in 1880 by Kusmi's founder, and drunk daily by Tsar Nicholas II until the revolution. Heady with citrus and lavender, it smelled like an early edition of Anna Karenina stored in a drawer of bad potpourri.

White (not fermented), green (partially fermented) and black tea (fully fermented) come from the same plant, the tea plant Camellia sinensis. Like any healthy family, its members seem to be engaged in a never-ending battle, hurling studies and competing antioxidants at each other through a flurry of free radicals. Honeybush or its cousin rooibos? If rooibos, do you go with the raw green stuff or the oxidised red stuff? According to some studies, rooibos has more health benefits than green tea; by the same standards, white tea trumps green. One study claims that a cup of white tea contains approximately 12 times as many antioxidants as a glass of fresh orange juice, an idiotic comparison in a world where, as far as I can tell, white tea is not yet readily available as an orange juice substitute.

Tea cultivation began in Sri Lanka as an experiment, but didn't turn into a massive export product until 1869, when a fungus wiped out almost all the coffee plantations. Shrouded in mist, Nuwara Eliya is the emerald jewel of Sri Lanka's lush central hill country, 2,000 metres above sea level. While there in 2005, I sipped Ceylon tea all day, hiked around tea plantations, and felt transformed. But it wasn't the tea (Dilmah brand Ceylon tea available in every Emirati grocery store) that was transformative; it was the place. Many find the new year to be a just opportunity for transformation. Maybe a clean calendar really is the next best thing to a clean slate. January is National Hot Tea Month in the US, and if you didn't previously know that such an occasion existed, then that makes two of us.