Monday, May 31, 2010

Tea Week: Did You Know?

Welcome to the First Official Tea Week at Mission: Food!  What better way to kick it off than with a little history on tea, its benefits, and some current tea trends!  I really hope you will follow me this week through this wonderful exploration of tea, learn to appreciate it more, and take part in the contest and giveaway that I will be announcing at the end of the week!  Welcome to Tea Week, y'all :)

Growing up, I believed all of the stereotypes about tea regarding who predominately drank it (British and Asian people for the most part) and was acutely aware of the tradition of tea parties, as I had my own little porcelain set with which I would serve room temperature water and invisible foods to myself and my dolls. I also believed that all tea came in tea bags with labels like “Lipton,” and that all tea tasted the same. It wasn't until I was an adult that I started trying other types of tea leaves such as green or white, and even discovered the magic behind loose-leaf teas. In addition to coffee shops, tea shops started sprouting up all over cities in which I lived. Tealuxe was probably the first I tried, impressed by the variety of teas that were available. At first I stuck with the simple, tried and true teas before I ventured out for some unique blends and flavors. Every cup of tea I enjoyed was sweetened with honey. I couldn't stand the somewhat bitter flavor of unsweetened tea.

That is until I attended a very special private tea tasting with Cynthia Gold, the tea sommelier at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel last summer, which honestly changed my life and my outlook on tea. I had liked tea a lot before this experience, but learned to really love and appreciate it through the tasting and lessons that I learned. I left that tea tasting with excitement in my heart, and a desire to learn more about tea. I purchased a grown-up tea set, along with several high quality loose-leaf teas that I have had the pleasure of enjoying since that special day, and also learned how to properly brew teas at various temperatures and for various lengths of time depending on the leaf. There is so much to learn about tea, and having a proper tea education can help elevate the tea offerings of any restaurant, be it through a more extensive after-dinner drink menu, or even using tea in cooking.

Back in the Day
Historically speaking, tea is believed to have come to exist by accident. Supposedly, around 2737 BC, the emperor of China was enjoying a cup of hot water when a few leaves from a nearby tree blew into his cup. The color of his water changed, and upon tasting what was in his cup, he was surprised and pleased with his discovery. Soon thereafter, tea became more prevalent and an immediate status symbol in Asian culture. Tea did not make a mark in Western culture until many centuries passed. In the late sixteenth century, the Dutch adopted tea after discovering it in their trade routes in the Far East and decided to ship it back to Europe. From Holland, it spread to other parts of Europe, and was eventually introduced to England in 1662. Tea immediately became a fashionable beverage in England, as the royal family enjoyed it and thus set this precedent for the rest of the culture to adopt. Tea was too expensive to be enjoyed by all of society, and thus was enjoyed more by the upper classes. Taxation of tea made it even more expensive to acquire and led to smuggling. Eventually, the tax was lowered and tea became affordable again. The practice of afternoon tea was established around 1840. Stories suggest that “Anna Maria, the seventh duchess of Bedford… was feeling a bit hungry late one afternoon… she asked her maid to bring tea and a tray of bread-and-butter sandwiches to her room. Anna Maria enjoyed the ‘taking of tea’ so much that she started inviting her friends to join her” thus beginning the tradition of afternoon teas among the highest in British society (Tea and Crumpets).

It's Good For You!
At the time, the medical benefits of tea were only understood by the Asians who had been enjoying this beverage for centuries. They had used it as antidotes and remedies for all kinds of ailments. More recently, other beneficial elements of tea have surfaced, which have led to widespread consumption of tea by consumers across the world. In his book The Ultimate Tea Diet, Mark Ukra discusses how tea can boost the metabolism, shrink appetite and thus lead to weight loss. He points out three “secret ingredients” in tea which when combined make tea a healthy and natural weight loss “drug.” The first is caffeine, which is a “natural stimulant that has been shown to boost the process known as thermogenesis, or the generation of heat in the body. This process is at the center of weight loss; it is the way in which fat molecules are ‘burned.’” He goes on to explain that studies have shown that “the consumption of [green] tea will increase the burning of calories and promote weight loss without increasing your heart rate.” This suggests that green tea can be used as a substitute for stimulant-based diet drugs because it lacks the adverse effects of an increased heart rate for obese individuals with heart problems. The reason for this comes from the next two “secret ingredients” in tea. L-Theanine is a non-protein based amino acid found in tea which produces a “relaxed and effortless alertness, thus canceling out the harmful effects of caffeine,” and allowing tea-drinkers to get the boosting effects of caffeine without the jitters associated with other caffeine drinks. It is also considered to be a natural way to relieve stress, anxiety and tension. Stress usually leads to more eating, and thus when lowering the amount of stress in the body, the desire to eat will go along with it. The third “secret ingredient” is highly advertised by tea purveyors. EGCG is basically an antioxidant, which is responsible for ridding the body of free radicals, which are cells that can cause damage to other cells. This leaves the body healthier, and when combined with caffeine and L-Theanine, it makes tea the perfect weight-loss drink. Tea also offers many other health benefits outside of its ability to help drinkers lose weight. The EGCG also helps the body's immunity and helps prevent inflammation and arthritis. Tea helps lower blood pressure and has even been showed to decrease the risk of getting cancer in some individuals.

It's Trendy
Although tea is a very ancient drink and remedy, it has found a very modern, health-conscious, and trendy home in the world today. It is more than just a hot drink to start the day, drink in the afternoon or even after dinner, it is an excellent source of antioxidants, it prevents and helps cure many diseases and ailments, and in growing in popularity, more people are leaving their personal Lipton prisons to try different types and qualities of tea, both in their own homes and in many restaurants and cafes which are now much more tea friendly. Not only are entire diet books being written advertising the benefits of tea, but even those who care less about health concerns are still finding enjoyment in this more popular drink. New York City, home to the best restaurants in the country is also home to many places that are offering tea in a trendier setting. There is even a small chain of restaurants in the city called Alice’s Tea Cup, inspired by Alice in Wonderland and offering Wonderland-themed tea specials, just like in the book with the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Stores like Teavana are opening up all over the country offering teapots and loose-leaf teas of all kinds for consumers who are jumping on the bandwagon. Look around, and you will see tea everywhere, even at Starbucks with more and more popularity.

Personally, I have learned to truly love and appreciate this ancient beverage over the past year of my life. Through all of this research, I have also come to discover more reasons to continue my pilgrimage to find the best teas and tea houses around, starting with my tasting in Boston, and everywhere else I can find great quality teas and maybe even a tea sandwich and a scone to much on, or perhaps some dim sum will do the trick. Either way, tea can and should be enjoyed with food, just like any other beverage. It can easily be enjoyed on its own, but as a compliment to a meal it adds something very special. Even more so if you include the tea in your food, it brings yet another element to the table. I hope that more and more Americans will continue to jump on the tea bandwagon as Europeans did centuries ago, and learn to appreciate what the emperor of China did, purely by accident. Sometimes the greatest pleasures in life are never planned, but they manage to affect our lives just the same.


TheChocolatePriestess said...

I really like that you provided us with all this solid historical information. You've pleased the historian in me.

Now a more important question: Can one celebrate tea week with tea-infused chocolates?

Victoria K. said...

You absolutely can!! I've actually infused Earl Grey tea in heavy cream and used it to make truffles in the past and they were delicious. I also know that at Jacques Torres in NYC they have an Earl Grey chocolate and also a Chocolate Mint Tea one as well. Tea-infused chocolates are actually some of my favorites :)

Lazaro Cooks! said...

I am not a tea drinker and I enjoyed reading this post. Well-written and informative.


Victoria K. said...

Thank you! I'm glad you found it informative! I hope you'll check back for more tea fun throughout the week :)

Lucine said...

You rock, my dear! I learned a lot about tea today that I never knew! It does make me appreciate it more - in fact, I'm off to go make myself a cup right now! =)

Cinnamon-Girl said...

Great post! I love tea - drinking a cup right now - Oolong - my favorite!

Victoria K. said...

Enjoy your Oolong! Don't forget to check back later this week to see how you can win a beautiful tea pot in which to brew your Oolong :)

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