Put the kettle on

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 26 Mar 2024


It is a love story that has only grown in intensity and unquenchable desire throughout the ages. This intoxicating brew of amber hue knows no bounds or boundaries. It has been relished for centuries, exuding sensory pleasures and bodily enjoyment.

Often referred to as the elixir of life, the love affair between mankind and the dulcet, sweet-smelling evergreen plant Camellia sinensis is nothing short of phenomenal. It keeps growing in popularity, defying all restrictions of taste, race, colour, or creed.

No wonder tea ranks as the most popular drink in the world after water.

In cold, temperate or warm weather, tea soothes the ruffled brow of care. When upset or anxious, tea reduces stress, improves creativity and enhances focus.

“Tea is to the body as music is to the mind.”

During the Ramadan fast, nothing is more desirable after a sumptuous Iftar meal, than a warm, sweet cup of tea.

Egyptians have been enjoying this magical beverage since its arrival in the 16th century. Its consumption has been embedded in the culture since. It is an everyday necessity, served with every meal, and enjoyed by every social class.

The story of man and tea goes back to ancient China. Legend has it that Chinese emperor Shen Nung, meaning divine healer, (2736-2647 BC), had decreed that all drinking water should be boiled as a hygienic precaution. One windy summer day, 5,000 years ago, some dried leaves from a nearby bush, fell into the emperor’s boiling water, creating a brown liquid. The emperor drank some of it and found it very refreshing and satisfying, and so, the legendary cup of tea was born.

Tea was brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks around 593 AD. By the 16th century it had been elevated to an art form resulting in the creation of the “tea ceremony” — Cha-no-yu or ”hot water for tea”, a tradition requiring years of training and practice.

“The supremely important matter is that the act be performed in the most perfect, most polite, most graceful, most charming manner.” Tea houses still exist today, particularly in Kyoto, the ancient capital that is still the centre of Japan’s traditional culture.

While tea was at its highest level of development in China and Japan, information concerning this unknown beverage began to filter back to Europe. The powerful fleets of Portugal and Holland developed the trade with China and shipped tea to France, Holland, and the Baltics.

As the craze for things oriental swept through Europe, tea became part of life by 1675. The French added milk to their tasse de the.

Britain was the last of the sea-faring nations to break into the China trade route. Tea quickly became popular in Britain, replacing ale as the national drink. Today Britain consumes 160 million cups of tea, daily.

As they stop their routine for afternoon tea, all Brits should thank their dear Anne, duchess of Bedford, (1785-1861), for starting this much revered tradition.

The elegant duchess usually experienced a “sinking feeling” by late afternoon and was in need of sustenance. Adopting a European format of polish and grace, the duchess invited a few friends to join her for a mini meal at 5pm. The menu centred around talk primarily, laced with delectable, savoury tidbits of small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, honeyed candies with assorted sweets, washed down by a hot cup of citron tea.

Sweetened by Scottish scones and English crumpets, by tales of love and scandal, this summer practice became an instant success.

Tea became the main drink served in coffee houses, eclipsing coffee which had reached Europe a few years earlier.

Worth more than its weight in gold tea was responsible for wars and revolutions. In the 19th century the British tried to trade Opium in exchange for Chinese tea, but the Chinese outlawed he import of opium, resulting in the Opium Wars, 1839-1842, followed by a second opium war, 1856-1860. China lost both wars.

In the New World, American colonists resisted the high tax for tea imposed by the British in 1773. Hundreds of pounds of tea were dumped in Boston Harbour. Known as the Boston Tea Party, it triggered the American Revolution for independence from British rule.

India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, yet it was only introduced by the British in the 19th century in order to overcome the monopoly of Chinese production. The British stole Camellia sinensis saplings from China and planted them in India.

Black tea is the most popular of the five kinds of teas — white, green, yellow, and oolong (red). Studies show that all plain teas have about the same levels of polyphenols. Consumption of two to three cups daily is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and premature death.

This gilded liquid that pleases all palates is light yet vigorous, with only one calorie per 100 grams. It is a vibrant, refreshing brew that “fills one with blissful rapture, soothing, softening, cheering and comforting”.

British clergyman and essayist Sydney Smith wondered how the world had existed without his favourite beverage. “I am glad I was not born before tea,” he wrote. So are we.

So put the kettle on and fill another cup of tea the way you please, with sugar, lemon, honey, vanilla, cinnamon or plain.

Now is always the right time for this magnificent potion, that warming cup of tea.


“In the embrace of tea, I find respite from the chaos of life.”

Kakuzo Okakura (1863-1913)            


* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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