In an earlier blog post, we witnessed the beauty of tea rituals outside of China. Today, we continue to explore the path of cha in near and distant lands. In today’s post, we’ll set on a journey to the vast Russian planes, climb the remote mountains in Iran, roaming all the way to Turkey, to discover more customs around drinking tea that bring people together.
Tea drinking in Russia
Russia’s connection to Chinese tea is ingrained into the local culture in a way so profound few other countries can compare to it. As its territory changed through the ages, so did the cultural landscape, influenced by the lands and people the empire included during its different periods. Chinese tea was ubiquitous to the point of being considered a national drink in pre-Soviet Russia. Its history started with the establishment the Silk road and has been ongoing ever since.
How tea entered Russia
Tea entered Central Asia planes (incl. today’s Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) as early as the 9-10th century. There, it created a rich, diverse culture that was passed on to the next generations. Later, these lands became part of the Russian empire before joining the former Soviet Union. Moving further North, tea reached the Siberian regions around the 12-14th century. By that time, the Russians already enjoyed a variety of brews and drinks. For example, the „взвар“ (vzvar) – a herbal brew people made of edible or medicinal herb (today, we call this “tisane”).
The 17th century was the first time tea got officially introduced in the Russian Tzardom (The then-Russian kingdom). A Russian ambassador brought about 65kg of tea as a gift from the Mongol Khan to the Russian sovereign ruler. At first, the latter wasn’t quite impressed by the blackish leaves and the somewhat bitter-tasting drink they infused. Then, another ambassador brought some more tea as a gift from China. Before long, in 1679, the Russians made a contract for dry tea supply with China. That marked the beginning of regular trips of tea caravans from the Great Wall all the way north to Moscow.
With its establishment at the beginning of the 18th century, the Russian empire encompassed an immense territory of almost 23 million square kilometers. It’s no wonder it comprised its own coffee and tea-drinking regions. For example, the lands of Crimea, the Baltics, and today’s Poland and Finland were deemed coffee lovers, that got their coffee from Turkey. At the same time, the regions around St Petersburg and Moscow preferred tea as a drink. In late 19th century and during the Soviet times Russian Empire had its own tea-growing regions such as Georgia and Krasnodar.
During the Tsar era, individual farmers, enthusiastic about tea and good commerce, were importing technologies and specialists from China, working hard on developing good quality tea in the mountains of Georgia and Krasnodar. However, in the Soviet era, in the government-controlled economy, quality was sacrificed to produce low-quality tea in large quantities and harvest it as many times a year as possible. As a result, the entire tea industry is now in shambles, with only a handful of enthusiasts trying to revive it.
Tea – a drink or a medicine
When tea entered the European parts of the Russian empire, it had a status of an elite drink due to its price and inaccessibility. Doctors prescribed it as a medicine for gastrointestinal problems mostly. The fashion of treating different malaises with tea changed with time, along with the list of ailments to be treated.
Starting from the 9th century, Russia adopted and drank exclusively Chinese tea for a good ten centuries period. Pretty much all of the existing customs in tea drinking were based solely on Chinese tea. The tea varied by time period and social group. For example, Pu-erh was a tea of choice for military men and travelers. Its shape was compact and sturdy, making it easy to carry. The Emperor and the noblemen favored green tea (Mao Feng). Chinese transported it into tin or lead cans, reserved only for the highest-graded teas (At that time, no one was aware of the dangers of lead leaking onto food or drinks). Alternatively, they stacked the lower-graded tea bricks into leather or canvas bags. They then loaded them onto the backs of the transporting animals without any additional protection for the months-long journey ahead.
Tea drinking preferences in Russia
Different regions drank different teas. For example, Central Asia planes favored green tea. In Siberia, people drank green (predominantly Mao Feng and Long Jing), white, pu-erh, and lower quality green tea pressed into bricks. Closer to Moscow (a city of major importance for the empire), the more people drank more refined tea types like green and white tea – and, from the 19th century onwards, red tea.
Tea came to Russia both by sea and by land. The sea freight usually contained cheaper, lower grade tea. The one transported by land was of higher quality.
“Чaeпитие” (Chaepitiye) – the Russian way of drinking tea
As with most cultures that have a connection with tea, the Russian tea tradition is more than just sipping some herbal drink. It is a true expression of hospitality, a way for people to connect, or a universal remedy for a troubled soul. It eliminates stress, cures sadness, dissipates tension, and alleviates social awkwardness. „In China and Japan, the tea itself is the purpose of the tea ceremony. In Russia, tea is an excuse for a long conversation”, says Olga Yurkina, curator of an exhibit dedicated to tea and samovars.
“Самовар“ (Samovar) – the unique Russian tea utensil
The samovar is a unique cultural tradition and a tea utensil. The credit for its invention goes to the city of Tula, around mid 18th century. The name translates as “self-brewer,” and that’s what it does – bring the water to a boil and then maintain the right temperature for the “заварка“ (zavarka) – a small kettle with a high ratio of tea leaves to water. The Zavarka can be put on top of the samovar or directly distributed in the teacups and diluted with boiling water from the samovar.
Traditionally, the samovar had a piece of charcoal put in the middle to keep the water boiling (or hot enough to add to the Zavarka). People would also add wood and pine cones. Today, most of the samovars are electric.
The traditional way of drinking tea with samovar
In Russia, some traditionalists still prefer their tea this way. A small teapot is put atop the samovar to keep warm. It contains concentrated tea (Zavarka), with lots of tea leaves and little water. Everyone gets a little bit of the Zavarka, that they can dilute to their own taste with the appropriate amount of water from the samovar. The host will then give sugar cubes to the guests. They will sip tea and take small bites from the lump. Or, they will drip the cube in tea and put it between their teeth. This custom is still practiced in rural Russian areas today.
Saucer – the Russian teacup?
Don’t be surprised if, at a Samovar tea party, you notice people sipping tea directly from the saucers. Since water from the samovar is usually boiling hot, pouring it in a saucer allows for a limited amount only, that is quicker to cool down. It prevents tea guests from burning their lips while sipping the hot beverage.
Russian style tea food
In Russia, it is uncommon to serve tea without any accompanying food. Other than the sugar lumps, tea foods include a whole variety of sweetbread, candy, different pastries, biscuits and cookies. A teatime can turn into a genuine feast, where plateaus with sweets are put one after another in front of the tea drinking guests. The host would distribute the food around the samovar that proudly stands at the center of the table.
Сушки (Sushki) are small and crunchy bread-like rings whose name translates as “dried”. Similar ring-like sweetbreads are Бублики (Bubliki) and Баранки (Baranki). Their hard, sweet, and crunchy texture ideally complements the intensive, slightly bitter tea taste.
Another traditional accompaniment to Russian tea is a specific fruit preserve, or Варенье (varenye). It is essentially a fruit jam in loose form with whole fruits and lots of syrup. Guests would put a spoonful of jam in their mouth and sip tea through it. The whole fruits slowly melt under the heat and release sweetness and fruity aroma.
Some of the greatest works of Russian art and literature – including Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov – from the 19th and 20th centuries contain unforgettable depictions of teatime, with the entire family gathered around the samovar. It has become a living symbol of the Russian culture and turned teatime into a distinctive local custom.