Wednesday August 16, 2006 | 0 comments
Tea can remove worry as well as thirst. Tibetan saying
One sweltering hot summer, bored to tears with my eighth-grade life, I escaped Dayton, Ohio by reading James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. I was enchanted by the tale of stranded travelers who found sanctuary at a hidden Himalayan monastery, called Shangri-La. Years later, I discovered that the first novel published in paperback had been made into a movie directed by Frank Capra. Munching popcorn in a darkened theatre on Manhattanâ€™s upper West Side, captivated by a revival of the classic, I never dreamed that Iâ€™d ever visit Tibet.
But last spring, a friendly Boston-based importer, whom Iâ€™d met on a tea tour of Darjeeling and Assam, told me about a China Tea tour hosted by Dan Robertson, owner of The Tea House in Naperville, Illinois. Delighted to discover that the tour included a side trip to the legendary â€œLand of the Snows,â€ as well as an opportunity to sip butter tea with a local family, I signed up.
Tibet shares a border with Sichuan and Yunnan, two Chinese provinces that cultivated tea as early as the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). Although Tibetan troops had captured tea, and other luxury goods, in numerous border wars, legend tells that tea from Sichuan was introduced, along with medicine, vegetable seeds, textiles, and the calendar in the Tang Dynasty, when Princess Wencheng married Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo (617-650 AD). The dainty Chinese bride supposedly drank tea to dilute the powerful taste of yak milk. Later, she mixed tea and milk adding pine nuts, and ghee (clarified butter) to make a nutritious drink.
Tibetans traditionally ate meat and dairy products because the cold climate and thin air of the â€œroof of the worldâ€ made it difficult to grow fruits and vegetables. Princess Wenchengâ€™s new beverage acted as a stimulant and fortified nomadic mountain dwellers against the fierce cold. Tea also aided digestion adding much-needed vitamins and minerals to their spartan diet.
Getting tea to Tibet proved to be a problem, however. Under pain of death, the Chinese Royal Court ordered that no tea plants, seeds, or even processed leaves mixed with seeds could be exported to other countries. Eventually, a network of trails was laid out over the treacherous, icy mountains. Caravans of Tibetan horses, medicinal herbs, wool, fur, feathers, and turquoise were traded for highly taxed â€œborder tea.â€
The processed tea leaves, especially those that came from Yunnan, were pressed into bricks to make them easy to transport. People broke the bricks, soaking crumbled, dried leaves overnight in water. Next day, the infused tea was churned in a wooden cylinder with salt, yak butter, and sometimes goat milk. The salt helped prevent dehydration; yak butter, with twice the fat of cowâ€™s milk, provided energy. This buttery broth-like brew, called bocha, was poured into a copper or silver teapot kept on a low fire til ready to serve. After the tea was drunk, the butter residue, left behind in the cup, was spread on chapped skin.
The Tang Dynasty, and all the Chinese governments thereafter, used tea to control the border countries until 1949 when the policy came to an end. In 1951, The Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army invaded Tibet forcing the ruling Dalai Lama to flee to India. Once the region was firmly under Chinese control, tea seeds and plants were shipped to the territory and technicians helped develop tea cultivation. Today, Tibetans grow their own organic green tea and also drink black Nepalese tea or puâ€™erh.