Burmese Tea And Tea Shops

When writing and/or speaking about tea in Burma, or any other country for that matter, it is inevitable to depart on the journey into the realm of tea in China – in south-west China to be precise – for that is as I will explain in the following definitely from where tea is originally coming from.

The discussion on whether or not the history of Burmese tea and the drinking of tea in Burma have originated in China has probably more to do with at least some Bamars’/Burmans’ reluctance to admit that the origin of tea is China and that the drinking of tea was adopted by them later from the Shan, than with tea, tea drinking and tea culture itself. The facts are that tea both as plant and beverage was discovered and had become important part of Chinese and later Shan culture already at a time when no Bamar/Burman had ever set foot into what is nowadays Burma (since 1989 also called Myanmar).

In other words the first kingdom of the Bamar the ‘kingdom of Pagan’ (that was actually founded by the Pyu, and while we are at it, Anawrahta, the 42nd king of Pagan who is by the Bamar/Burman considered the founder of the 1st Burman kingdom was a Pyu, not a Bamar/Burman) did back then not exist what is already the definite answer to the question of the origin of tea, tea drinking and tea culture in Burma; Burma or any predecessor of it simply didn’t exist in or during the era in question, period. But why are there still people (not so many of them, though) who in the face of all facts and logic say that Burmese tea, tea drinking and tea culture are not originated in China? Short answer: Because the area that was in pre-Bamar time inhabited by the Shan is now laying partly within the far north east of Burma. However, that these areas are nowadays located within Burma’s boundaries does not necessarily mean that the exact area in which Camellia sinensis was initially found and from where it then spread to India, through all of south-east Asia and, finally, throughout the world lies within north-east Burma. It is possible but it is also possible that Camellia sinensis – translated from Latin into English the name means ‘Tea flower’ (camellia) ‘from China’ (sinensis) – has at a later point in time extended into the area now covered by the north-eastern part of Burma.

The book of tea is a book with many pages and chapters starting shrouded in the mist of myth and legend some time back in 3000 BC. There is even the concrete date 2725 BC mentioned what is linking the (accidental) discovery and the later drinking of tea to the Chinese emperor Shen Nung about who I will tell you more a bit later. No one really knows when it was that the drinking of tea (what back then was always green tea because it was unfermented also called unoxidised) began to become part of Chinese culture. That is why it cannot be within the scope of this article to (as interesting as this may be) deal with related myths, legends and folklore in order to reveal tea history’s secret of when and where this was and how it happened. The answer to this question will never be found anyway what means that it will for always remain hidden behind the curtain of legend. Therefore we have to find facts in the form of written records and archaeological finds that will give us tea related information we are looking for. And as far as that is concerned we do not have to search for long.

We are given the first reliable information in a Chinese encyclopaedia that was started to be compiled and written during the Han Dynasty sometime around 325 BC and further expanded from then on: its name is Erya also spelled Erh-ya. The author of the Erya is unknown but it is among scholars accepted that this have been disciples of Confucius. Here we find records letting us know that tea was already known and drunken at least at the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty in 1046 BC, probably earlier. However, it is not specified whether it was tea brewed from camellia sinensis leaves and drunken for pleasure or some herbal probably not very delicious tea drunken for medical purposes only.

From later records we know that brewing and drinking tea was already part of the Chinese people’s everyday life at the beginning of the Han Dynasty in 206 B.C. or even earlier. That the drinking of tea has so relatively quick permeated the Chinese culture would certainly not have been possible without Buddhist monks. It was the Buddhist monk orders that have not only spread the drinking of tea among the population but that had also taken over the planting and processing of tea. Soon after tea as beverage had been introduced during the Han Dynasty, Buddhism was associated with tea. The Buddhist monks have very early recognised that tea was a cheap and refreshing beverage with good taste and fragrance that kept them awake.

From the by Lu Yu during the Tang Dynasty written and at about 760 AD published book ‘The Classic of Tea’ (Cha Jing in Chinese) we can take that green tea was known and drunken throughout all of China for pleasure from 618 AD, or earlier on. For Lu Yu tea was the symbol of harmony and mysterious unity of the Universe from which we can see how highly he thought of tea.

A sensational discovery would (at the time of this writing in 2016) 1255 years later prove Lu Yun wrong in so far as green tea was already a popular beverage in south and west China earlier than 141 BC. The a.m. sensational discovery was that it was proven that leaves found in the tomb of the 6th Emperor of the western Han Dynasty, Emperor Jin of Han (Liu Qi), where actual (Camellia sinensis) tea leaves that were given him along with thousands of clay soldiers and many other things as grave good for the journey into his afterlife. To avoid confusion, the emperor’s tomb was already discovered in the 1990s during road construction work, which in itself (not the road construction but the discovery of the Emperor’s tomb) was a world sensation. However, with respect to the contents of this article the finding of the tea leaves was even more sensational because these tea leaves are the most ancient and finest tea leaves ever discovered what has earned them an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘The world’s oldest tea leaves’.

As with so many other things the beginning of drinking tea is steeped in legend. There are different stories about how the first chapter of the book of tea begins and having read them I have come to the conclusion that 99.99 percent of them belong into the realm of legends. One of the most popular Chinese legends is the with great pleasure again and again told legend about an emperor’s pot of hot water that happened to be placed exactly under a tea tree where tea leaves were sure to drop into the pot. Naturally, oh wonder (how could it be any different) tea leaves fell into the pot with boiling water whereupon the emperor took out of curiosity a sip of the previously unknown now slightly yellowish-brown coloured water. He was, as the legend goes, so excited about the fragrance and taste that from then on he made tea his favourite beverage and the drinking of tea became part of Chinese culture. The emperor in this legend is the mythological emperor Shen Nung also spelled Shannong, Shen Nong who is by the Chinese worshipped as the ‘Divine Farmer’ and the ‘Father of Chinese Herbal Medicine’. He was what is nowadays called ‘pharmacologist’, and it is believed that he has ‘lived’ 140 years, from 2838 BC to 2698 BC. This is no doubt all pure legend but its origin might be seen against the backdrop of the fact that Shen Nung was herbalist and that tea was at the beginning used as herbal medicine in both solid (as vegetable or salad) and/or liquid form (as tea).

What is tea and where is it originated? Briefly put, tea is a beverage commonly comprising of water and natural (uncured) and cured tea leaves of the species camellia sinensis. This is, as previously said, an evergreen shrub native to Asia that can when it remains untouched grow in the wilderness into a tree with a height of some 55 ft/ 17 m. By the way, why do we call tea, tea? Let me briefly explain where the name ‘tea’ originated and from where it spread around the world. The name ‘tea’ has its origin in China where 2 names are used for the same beverage. It is called ‘Cha’ in Mandarin dialect and ‘Tay’ in Xiamenese dialect. In 1644 the British established a trading post in Xiamen and anglicised the Xiamenese ‘tay’ what, subsequently, became ‘tea’ a name that in the following time quickly spread through and was accepted by the English speaking world.

Where exactly is Camellia sinensis originated? As unbelievable as it sounds and whatever we might think about it, extensive and detailed research has led to the result that this tea plant – the Camellia sinensis – was not a plant that had or could have evolved and grown independently in several parts of the world but astonishingly enough only within a relatively small area located in and confined to a region that does include parts of what is nowadays the Shan state (as north and north-eastern part of the back then not existing Burma) and the Chinese provinces Yunnan and Sichuan.

But whether ‘Burmese’ tea has its origin in China (what it has) or not, or whether or not the drinking of tea became part of the Burman’s culture only after it was introduced to them by the Shan (what it was) or whether or not the famous ‘Burmese milk tea is actually Indian tea introduced by the Indian – and NOT British – people during British colonial times (what it was and is) does really not matter much – if anything at all – because the fact remains that ‘tea’ has over time (trough all the Bamar/Burman kingdoms, the British colonial times and the past-independence time) developed into an integral part of the so-called ‘Burmese drink and food culture’ what it remains to be to this day and will always be wherewith I have now ‘beamed’ us from the ancient past into the present.

Prior to our arrival at one of the many Burmese tea shops in Yangon – no joke, they are literally at every corner, what is true for every place with more than two houses in all of Burma – to enjoy a cup or two of the famous ‘Burmese Milk Tea’ and one of the delicious Burmese tea leave salads called ‘Lahpet Thoke’ at the end of this article let us start at the beginning, by briefly answering questions such as, where tea is growing within the boundaries of present-day Burma, what kind of tea it is, how it is processed after being plugged, of what quality Burmese tea is compared to the qualities of e.g. China, India and other Asian countries, and so on.

Where is tea grown in Burma?

In Burma more than 80 percent of the cultivated tea is grown in the Shan state located in north-eastern and eastern part of Burma. Namhsan, Kyaukme, Namkham, Kutkai, Kalaw, Yatsouth, Mong Hsu and Mong Tone townships in Shan State are the major tea growing areas.

What kind of tea is grown in Burma?

In Burma are almost exclusively grown Camellia sinensis, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia var. assamica. Camellia assamica is extending into Burma from Assam/India in the west and Camellia sinensis from south-west and east China.

Quite recently I have read somewhere in a magazine an article that was as far as I can remember promoting Burmese tea in the context of which ‘Camellia irrawadiensis’ was mentioned as a tea species native to and grown in Burma. In case you should also read something like that I want you to know that ‘Camellia irrawadiensis’ with its blossoms comprising of white petals, a yellow centre (pretty much like ‘giant’ buttercup flowers) and dark green leaves may be nice to look at in the garden but it is nothing for the tea cup because ‘Camellia irrawadiensis’ Is a so-called ‘Non-tea’ tea. This means that the total absence of caffeine in ‘Camellia irrawadiensis’ and a very unfavourable biochemical composition does not allow the plant to produce any liquid that comes even near a quality that would pass as tea.

What is plugged from the tea plants and when is it done?

Tea harvesting time is roughly from April to November. However, the leaves plucked in the first 2 weeks of April are of best quality. This because in April the harvesting time is beginning and the first leaves known as ‘spring tea’ (in Burmese ‘shwe phi oo’) are those fetching the highest prices.

As far as plucking also called picking is concerned there are two methods, which are ‘fine plucking’ and ‘rough plucking’. Fine plucking means that only two leaves and the bud, what is called a ‘flush,’ are plucked and in rough plucking an entire sprig with between 2 and 5 leaves. The average amount a tea plucker is plucking and placing in his/her basket is about 25 kg. After being plucked the tea leaves are collected and partly dried and left unoxidised as green tea and partly send to the tea factory for being processed into black tea. Most of the produced tea in Burma is sold as green tea and consumed domestically.

How is the Burmese tea processed after being plugged?

Once the tea has arrived in the tea factory the tea leaves are processed into oolong (withered and partly oxidised) and black tea (withered and fully oxidised) in the following order: withering, rolling, roll-breaking and the final step is oxidisation.

Of what quality is Burmese tea compared to the qualities of other Asian countries?

Compared to the quality of the tea grown in other countries such as China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India Burmese tea is of lesser quality although other countries are using more fertiliser and pesticides.

What role does Burma play in the global tea production and trade?

The Burmese tea industry is by and large a cottage industry. This means large areas of tea plantations are distributed among a large number of tea growers often in areas of about 50 hectare/125-acre that are owned by families since many generations. The local tea industry is poorly organised and the tea growers’ and workers’ professional expertises are rather low. Additionally, the infrastructure is very poor and machinery and technical equipment of tea factories are hopelessly outdated and storage facilities are extremely unsuitable for tea. As if this would not be bad enough many areas are strewn with land mines and cannot be crossed because of heavy fighting between ethnic armed groups and the tatmadaw (Burma’s army) so that tea farmers and workers are exposed to great danger. In consequence of the deplorable overall situation the country’s tea production is low and steadily declining and the tea export is of negligible quantity. In the global tea production and trade Burma does therefore presently not play any role at all. See for yourself. Burma had in 2015 a total tea production of some 60.000 tons. Of these were exported 2.800 tons. Here are the tea export figures from neighbouring tea producing and exporting countries: India (900,094 tons), China (1,000,130 tons), Sri Lanka (295,830 tons), Vietnam (116,780 tons). I think these figures speak for themselves.

However, there is huge potential for Burma’s tea in the international tea producing and trade market once quantities, qualities and global tea promotion are improved and the civil war has ended what will conservatively estimated take at the very least 4 to 5 more years. Personally, I fear it will be at least about 10 years till there will be real, constant peace in all tea growing border regions, which by the by would also contribute greatly to the solving of the drug problem in which more than just a few tea grower are involved because they are growing poppy at least on the side as source of additional income; but that is a different story.

Where did present day Burma’s milk tea recipe originate?

Burma’s milk tea recipes are of Indian origin.

Where did present day Burma’s tea salad ‘Lahpet Thoke’ recipe originate?

Burma’s famous pickled tea leave salad (Lahpet Thoke) may have its origin in what is now Burma but this cannot be said without any doubt because in China tea leaves were already eaten as salad or vegetable in 2000 B.C.

So, as promised we will from the historical as well as growing and processing part of the story of tea enter tomorrow morning into Yangon’s tea shop scene and enjoy a cup or two of the famous ‘Burmese Milk Tea’ and one of the delicious Burmese tea leaf salads called ‘Lahpet Thoke’ within the unique atmosphere of Burmese tea shops. See you tomorrow morning.

OK, it’s 08:00 am, the employees who make paratha, samosa, nambia, etc. are about to stop frying and the shop is still bustling with guests. But do not worry they have prepared enough on stock to be sold later; we will not need to starve.

After a good night’s sleep we are here now, seated on the for authentic Burmese tea shops so typical low plastic chairs at the equally low plastic tables with a hole for the post of a sunshade (umbrella for outside use) in its centre and placed next to it a plastic container with a role of tissue paper, a plastic bowl with a bit of water and three or four small tea cups in it and a small plastic container with single cigarettes. Additionally, there are small electrical fans fastened to the wall as well as slowly whirling colonial style ceiling fans. All of this is tea shop standard in all of Burma and that what makes up the ‘Burmese tea shop style’.

As you can see, there is nothing in the way of fancy about a tea shop; it never is. Always the same more or less old and/or clean furniture, often old placards with landscape and pagoda motives accompanied by beer advertisements taped to the in turquoise painted walls, a Buddha statue accompanied by fresh water and food offerings, flowers and joss sticks in a glass showcase attached to the wall at a height of about 8 ft/2.6 m and sometimes a small wastepaper basket at each table.

Like practically all tea shops this one too is family owned and it is now operated in the second generation with the third one already in waiting. Let’s order our tea, and whatever you may desire to eat. You can choose between e.g. e char kway (fried Chinese bread sticks), thayar paratha (thin and flat multi layer bread with sugar, origin India), pe-byohk paratha (thin and flat multi layer bread with steamed or boiled peas, origin India), samosa (a paper-thin deep fried dough sheet filled with mashed or finely chopped potato, green peas, onions, cumin and coriander powder, cumin seed, masala and – if not for vegetarian – with different kinds of minced meat (chicken, pork, beef, etc. that is folded into a for samosa very typical triangular shape to cover the filling, origin India), spring rolls (rolled deep-fried paper-thin wrapper made from wheat flour filled with a mixture of finely chopped bean curt, onions, shrimps, beans, carrots and spices, origin China) and some sweet pastry such as buns with sweet red or yellow bean paste filling. You can also have fried rice (thamin kyaw) or fried noodles (kaukswe kyaw); up to you, make your pick.

As for tea you can now take some of the thin Chinese green tea (Yay nui yea) from that thermo on the table (it’s free; the tea, not the thermo) and then order a cup of the famous Burmese tea lahpet yea cho (strong black tea with condensed milk (no si) and sugar (thayar). By the by, the ‘professional’ way of drinking the thin Chinese tea is to pour a bit of tea from the thermo into the cup, swirl it two, three times around inside the cup and then to pour it on the ground. Does this help to clean the cup? I suggest you take additionally a piece of the tissue paper and clean the brim and inside of the cup properly, that will do the job. With our fermented tea leaf salad (Lahpet) we will have to wait because that is not served so early in the morning. I will later go and ask. So having ordered and been served it’s time to start our breakfast.

While we are sitting, drinking tea and eating let me tell you a bit more about this tea shop, in particular, and other tea shops in general. After all this is not a fast food restaurant but a tea shop (more properly phrased tea and food shop) and here you need time to enjoy the typical taste of strong black tea, water, evaporated and/or condensed milk and sugar combined, the delicious food and the wonderful atmosphere to the full; back home you do not have something like this.

This shop is like most other authentic and traditional Burmese tea and food shops open from 06:00 am to 10:00 pm but preparation work in the kitchen starts already at 04:00 am. Business is buzzing from about 07:00 am to 09:00 am at breakfast time and from about 06:00 pm to a few minutes after 10:00 pm when the shop is closing. During breakfast time and in the evening the shop is always crowded, especially when there are interesting football games. Burmese are football crazy. During office hours the shop is – with exception of lunchtime (from about 11:00 am to 12:00 noon) when employees from companies in the neighbourhood are coming – almost empty.

I know tea shops from all over the country. There are, of course, differences in e.g. size, numbers of tables and range of food items offered. Some are just bamboo huts (in suburbs and country side) and some are in the ground floor apartments of better stone/brick buildings (larger villages, towns and cities) but they are all tea shops with the same atmosphere; it’s like you know one you know them all. Well, and I like to sit in them from the time of my arrival in this beautiful country 26 years ago. I love the many different sounds from the shop and the exterior environment that mingle into the cacophony I call typical ‘tea shop’ sound. It always reminds me on one of the Neil Diamond songs I grew up with: ‘What a beautiful noise’.

During the 26 years I am regularly visiting my favourite and (depending on where I am) other tea shops nothing that is of significance has change on the part of the tea shops; they do now than ever look basically the same, offer basically the same food and beverages as well as cigarettes and have the same important social function in and for the life of communities. There is a lot of chatter, gossip, exchanging of information, breaking news, dealing, haggling, laughing and fun. And it is the typical tea shop ambience that draws the people into the tea shops; the drinking of tea is of subordinated significance. And, by the way, tea is mostly drunk for breakfast and in lesser quantities during daytime; in the evening it’s mostly beer and liquor that the tea shop guests are drinking. That is why I say that in my opinion Burma has more a ‘tea shop’ culture than a ‘tea culture’. At home or work the people do not drink much tea. There they drink mostly plain drinking water, soft drinks, and instant coffee.

We have now also finished our tasty lahpet thoke and leave the tea shop. Hope you have enjoyed the article and that I have succeeded in bringing the world of Burmese tea and tea shops a bit closer to you.

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