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Masticating upon the origins of tea


The other day chef-at-large Anthony Bourdain was munching on lahpet tuk, Burmese salad of fermented tea leaves. While for Bourdain it may be yet another weird/exotic (depending upon your point of view) dish to uncover, for us tea lovers this salad contains the earliest connection of humans with tea.


Studies show that the plant camellia sinensis was native to hilly region bordering north east India, northern Burma, northern Thailand and south west China. The region today famously contributes Assam (north east India) and puerh (south west China) to the tea world. But the earliest records indicate that tea was eaten and not drunk by human beings.

Alan Macfarlane in The Empire of Tea notes: “...some of the earliest accounts we have of tea consumption among forest dwellers in the regions of northern Thailand, Burma, Assam and south-west China describe how they eat rather than drink tea. In Burma, northern Thailand and Yunan, the tribal peoples still use wild tea tree leaves to make small bundles of steamed and fermented tea for chewing.


“Early explorers who described the customs of the people living in the area give hints of the diverse ways in which the forest peoples may have consumed tea. The Shans of Northern Siam steamed or boiled the leaves of the miang, or wild tea tree, and molded them into balls to be eaten with salt, oil, garlic, pig fat and dried fish - a custom still followed by their descendants.”


The closest I have come to “eating” tea is having sauteed tea flowers. The tea bushes blossom around October and some of the tribes in the Terai (a tea growing region in the plains of north Bengal adjoining Darjeeling) stir fry them and have it as a side dish with their meals. I remember it being bitter, perhaps the reason why I never tried it again. Maybe that is why I can never be a Anthony Bourdain.

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