A cup of tea is a cup of peace.
– Tea Master, Soshitsu Sen XV
I caught up with Sameer and his lovely wife Jen over tea recently. It was their suggestion that we go to tea drunk – a tea house in East Village (NYC). We are shown our table and asked to pick a pet for the table from a variety of ceramic animals displayed on a little ledge. We picked a tortoise or a turtle, I can’t really tell. We choose our poison from the six or seven page menu, both sides printed and place our order.
While we waited on our tea, a quick search on Google showed us that tea originated in China, where it is called Cha. It was traded with Europe, and was popularized in Britain by the Spanish Princess Catherine, bride of the English King, Henry VIII. Sameer and I exclaim in unison, “This must be the same princess who got Bombay as her dowry! ”
I can hear my 7th grade history teacher’s indignant voice in my head ” Can you imagine children, Spanish gave the British our Bombay as dowry!” First giving dowry, and on top of that one set of foreigners giving away Indian land to another! If *Miss Pinto had her way (and a **TARDIS) all parties involved would thrown in jail and flogged.
Our tea arrives. The hostess does a little ceremony. An uncle of mine once told mum and me that the Chinese don’t just boil their tea the way we Indians do. They first brew it, then they swirl it and toss it out. That is called the first wash. They then add some more water and brew it, swish and throw again. The tea is brewed for the third time and this third wash is finally considered fit for consumption. It’s almost an art. Sure enough, our hostess pours the first wash over our pet. The second wash though, she pours into our cups. (See video on our Instagram account)
Sameer demonstrates the British style of drinking tea – pinky finger out.
Sameer and Jen tell me that the owner of this tea house backpacks alone through China to get the teas. We confirm this with our hostess. It’s true; the owner travels to China once a year to buy tea straight from the farmers, often backpacking to areas which not accessible by motor vehicles. Somewhere in this story, I had simply assumed the owner was a man, but it turns out the owner is a woman. I guess it goes to show how deeply gender roles are ingrained in our subconscious.
The British started tea cultivation in India as climatic conditions were favourable for tea growing. While tea gained popularity, Princess Catherine did not share its happy fate. Before she married Henry, she was married to his brother Arthur who died shortly afterwards. She was then engaged to Henry, who at that time was too young to marry. By the time Henry came of age, his father Henry VII was not as keen on a Spanish alliance, but was not averse to keeping the dowry. While she waited in the wings, her dowry was re-negotiated. It was only after Henry VII died, did she finally get married to Henry VIII. She bore Henry six children, but all of them died except their daughter, Mary (later Mary I). Her marriage began to fail. Henry had an affair with her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn, and desperate for a male heir,tried to get their marriage annulled so that he could marry his mistress. Catherine refused to give in and fought for her own rights and the rights of her daughter. You go Princess!
When Anne became pregnant with the King’s child, the couple secretly got married. Henry then passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring that he was the head of the English church. He appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, who in return annulled his marriage to Catherine. Poor Catherine was forced to leave the court and was also denied access to her child. (Sad as it is, I’m sure Miss Pinto would call it karma.)
When we finished our pot of tea, the hostess came over and poured some more water over the same leaves. There is no limit to how long you can stay here drinking tea. Chinese often brew the same leaves over and over, all day long. We decided to stop at three or four pots.With each fresh brew, we could tell the tea was getting lighter. Some people say tea leaves can be read to tell your future, but our brew brought back beautiful memories from the past.
Tea Drunk also sells teas. They have a second location in Beijing. They are steep on the pocket, but like I pointed out earlier, there is no limit to the amount of time you can spend in their tea house or number of cuppas you can drink. Get a pao/ounce and spend the afternoon. If only they had a little garden at the back!
* When we were in school all women teachers were addressed as Miss. This was not an indication of their marital status.
**TARDIS – The TARDIS