Having spent nearly five years as T Ching’s Managing Editor, I harbored no great expectations when I broke open Dr. Keith Souter’s The Tea Cyclopedia. Had I not already read everything that could be written about tea? Apparently not.
Dr. Souter’s eclectic 200-page ode to all things tea moves effortlessly from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. Starting at as good a place as any – with the origins of tea’s name, Dr. Souter begins with something I did not know about tea, namely that although the written character for tea is the same in both standard Mandarin and the Amoy dialect (which is spoken in both the Fujian province and Taiwan), its pronunciation in the two are different. In Mandarin, the character for tea is pronounced cha, whereas in the Amoy dialect, it is pronounced tay. Depending upon the route taken by tea to reach its destination in its early days, its name in the destination’s language was based on the cha form or the tay form. In Turkey, tea became cay (pronounced chai) from the cha form, whereas in Germany, tea became tee from the tay form.
In the third chapter, Dr. Souter introduces his readers to the classic written texts on tea. Although many books on tea mention one or more of the texts cited here, this is a fairly comprehensive summary, particularly given the book’s length. Besides Lu Yu’s ever-popular The Classic of Tea and Kabuzo Okakura’s oft-cited The Book of Tea, there are lesser-known references as well, including Myoan Eisai’s Treatise on Tea Drinking for Health.
The chapter on tea tasting, though short, offers clear definitions of the descriptors used commonly by tea tasters to characterize teas. And Dr. Souter’s discussion of afternoon tea includes yummy recipes, which also abound in the chapter on tea cocktails. As one might expect, Dr. Souter includes a lengthy chapter on the health benefits of tea, but then moves on to two quirky chapters on experiments with tea, the first of which is designed to prove that tea is an antioxidant powerhouse, and how tea might be put to use in first aid and as a household odor and dirt remover. The book ends with an extensive chapter on tasseography, or tea cup fortune telling.
Besides the topics mentioned above, Dr. Souter tackles the obligatory discussions of the origins of tea, the history of the tea trade, tea rituals, and the many wars and other conflicts sparked by tea. But even these subjects offer fresh insights (at least to me), such as the surprising fact that by the end of the 17th Century, the American colonists were drinking more tea than the British in England. Then there is the plethora of superstitions around tea, such as the Scottish belief that if a single tea leaf floats to the surface of the tea, a stranger will enter one’s life.
Of course, no book is perfect. On the downside, the book’s editor missed a couple of typos, the term “fermented” was used interchangeably with “oxidized,” and Dr. Souter need not have gone on as long as he did with his description of the murderous activities of The Hawkhurst Gang. In addition, if you are looking for information on tisanes, look elsewhere – this book’s focus is on “true” tea. On the whole, though, the book is a quick, informative, and entertaining read.
Image provided by the author.