Miss Chu was the first person I talked to on my initial walkabout in Xiamen, when I moved to China. She had a small stand from which she sold tea from different parts of the country. I was a stranger to the town, and Miss Chu was friendly and eager to practice her English. “It’s tradition to tap on the serving board to show your thanks,” she said matter-of-factly pouring the fragrant liquid into tiny, shell-thin white cups. As I dutifully tapped my appreciation, my thoughts wandered to my first real memory of the beverage. At my grandmother’s house in Calicut, Kerala, tea was an afternoon affair. It was boiled with loose leaves, strained and mixed with sugar and condensed milk, and served in a well-worn white tea pot bordered with decorative bamboo leaves and shoots. It felt proper and British with the fancy crockery, and no doubt it was a holdover from colonial times. But the sides of spicy mixture, spirals of murukku, and my grandfather’s habit of slurping the tea from the saucer were all distinctly Indian.
In this Chinese city too, old men enjoyed slurping their delicately coloured water, but from fragile bowls, as they sat outdoors on fold-out chairs, chatting with each other in the summer heat.
A legend about the origin of tea has it that a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma travelled to China, where he became disgruntled with the lack of discipline among the disciples he found. He retreated to a cave to meditate, ignoring the many who came to entreat him for advice. When he began to nod off, he tore off his eyelids in disgust, throwing them behind him, where tea trees miraculously sprang forth. Chewing on the leaves, he found they cleared his mind, sharpening it for spiritual resolve.
Though tea is of Chinese origin, it is now ubiquitous across the world. In Argentina, Welsh settlers, who fled their motherland fearing persecution, brought the ritual of teatime with them. Over the years, the daily reminder of a faraway home evolved into an affair for the elite. In the ritzy Recoleta district of Buenos Aires, the Park Hyatt Duhau Palace for instance, offers a selection of teas paired with fantastically rich sweets. Older women come to hotels like this for tea dressed in furs and jackets and the waiters wear white gloves. The accompanying dulce de leche (caramelised sweetened milk) confections that arrive on tiered cake stands are a distinctly South American accoutrement.
Far away, on the lonely steppe of Mongolia, while journeying hours on dirt paths in rickety jeeps, tea was a humble thing, symbolising welcome respite from a dusty day of travel. It is a guest’s right that is not just tradition, but a necessity in a land so remote that you never know when you need refuge. During my trip to the edges of Gobi desert, when the day ended and the desert became chilly, meeting my hosts in their family ger was like remembering warmth again. The iron stove was lit, there were smiles all around, and a bit of meaty broth followed by a cup of tea with camel milk was all it took to send me well on my way to sleep. In a place of stark minimalism, simple things matter most.
Back at home in Houston, Texas, my mother slips into Malayalam when she asks me “Chaya veno? (Do you want tea?)”. Tea is a welcome part of my morning writing regimen. Like with the fierce monk from long ago, it helps me focus on my quest. But sometimes, mother sits next to me with a cup of her own; my work is interrupted by conversation as I reminisce about my travels.
My mother’s brew is laced with condensed milk and sugar, while mine is plain. I’ve had it with yak butter in Tibet and with clotted cream and scones in England; from Oolong to green, it changes from place to place. So why can’t it mean more than one thing? Tea isn’t just focus. On my travels it’s been warmth in the cold, shelter, a memory of friends old and new. And today, sitting with my mother, tea is home.