Serving Tea

Serving Tea

Tea Customs

Every country serves tea in a manner that expresses its own culture. In China a cup of tea is a customary way to welcome a guest, In Morocco, shopkeepers still. greet prospective customers with a glass of sweet, mint-flavored green tea. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, tea is a welcome pick-me-up at eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon.

In Russia, tea was served with a slice of lemon, a dollop of raspberry jam, or a lump of sugar to be held between the teeth, as a comforting supplement to the one large, daily meal served in traditional Russian households. To make certain that there was a constant supply of freshly brewed tea available, the Russians developed their own way of brewing, using a samovar. The large boiler, or giant kettle, kept water hot all day long. A small teapot filled with tea concentrate rested on its crown, so that a cup of hot tea was available anytime by mixing a small amount of concentrate with hot water.

It was the British or, to be more precise, Anna, the seventh duchess of Bedford, who introduced the delectable custom of afternoon tea to the Western world. The nineteenth-century practice of eating an early breakfast and a late dinner made afternoons long and lean, and Anna solved this dilemma by serving tea with a tantalizing tray of gourmet goodies. Today, this tradition continues to fortify and delight thirty-something power brokers as well as the after-school nursery tea set.

By far the most remarkable tea custom is the Japanese tea ceremony. Known as Chanoyu, this ritual has become an important part of Japanese culture since tea was introduced to Japan more than five hundred years ago by Zen monks traveling from China. Once reserved exclusively for men, it is now a ritual that both men and women are welcome to study and share. The Japanese consider the tea ceremony a refuge in which spirit, man, and nature come together, where serenity allows knowledge to become wisdom.

Whether the ceremony takes place in a home or in a separate teahouse, there are guidelines to nurture every aspect, from the selection of guests to the choice of food, utensils, and topics of conversation. The sprinkling of water around a host's entry gate informs guests that preparations are complete and they are welcome to come in. As they remove their coats and shoes, slip into sandals, and walk down the garden path to the teahouse, they leave behind the outside world.

Although different schools of theory govern the ceremony, every gesture by the host and his guests is part of a prescribed ritual. Guided by centuries-old customs, the host or hostess places a small amount of powdered tea, called Matcha, into a tea bowl and, using a bamboo whisk and water, whips it into a light green froth. The tea is reverently poured, offered, and sipped. In this simple and elaborate ceremony, host and guests acknowledge the four principles of an enlightened life-purity, harmony, respect, and tranquillity.

Tea Implements

As these various traditions suggest, serving tea can be as simple as handing your friend a steaming cup over the breakfast table or as intimidating as taking tea with the queen. Whatever the occasion, there are several implements that will make your task easier. Here is a survey of the basic essentials, with suggestions about how to choose the right one.


For more than three thousand years, tea drinkers brewed and tasted their tea simply by adding compressed or powdered tea to a kettle or cup. It wasn't until the Ming dynasty (a.d. 1368-1644) that a teapot was considered necessary. As the Chinese began to use dried leaves to make tea, they found that they required a container to hold the steeping concoctions. Wine and water vessels were used for a time, but they often cracked from the heat of the boiling water, and their narrow spouts clogged.

In the early 1500s, in China’s Jiangsu province, a potter named Gong Chun created unglazed red and brown stoneware teapots, known as Yixing pots. He used a time-consuming process of drying the clay, pounding it into powder, reconstituting it with cool water, and then drying, pounding, and reconstituting it again to form a smooth clay without any air pockets. This technique enabled the finished teapots to withstand high temperatures and be very durable.

The teapots' unglazed interiors, seasoned with constant use, added new flavor notes with each infusion. Except for their diminutive size-about as big as a woman's clenched fist-these early teapots closely resembled today's teapot. Even the whimsical shapes of fruits and animals that we associate with fashionable boutique dinnerware found their way into the first Asian teapot designs.

To make tea using a Yixing pot, each drinker fills his or her own tiny, hand-molded vessel with tea leaves, replenishing the pot with boiling water after each thimble-sized cupful is poured. Yixing pots continue to be made in the traditional way, and while antique teapots cost thousands of dollars, you can buy a new one on the Internet for around $35. By the way, the clay used in the common English Brown Betty teapot is almost identical to that used in the Yixing pots, and although the Brown Betty is glazed, it possesses the same sturdy, heat-retentive qualities.

As tea found its way to seventeenth-century Europe, so did the teapot. Before long, European potters were using domestic clays to imitate Chinese designs. At first, the Dutch tried to adapt their traditional delftware but found that the teapots often broke if they weren't prewarmed.

The British made teapots of sterling, silverplate, or other metals, which solved the breakage problem, but because metal is a superb heat conductor, did not keep the tea hot for long. (We've all met those odious metal teapots with cafe counter tea.) In 1693, the discovery in Staffordshire, England, of a clay suitable for making delicate and heat-resistant stoneware solved a practical problem, but the results were not aesthetic. What European tea drinkers desired was the delicate yet hardy Chinese porcelain first described to them by Marco Polo in 1477. It was not until early in the eighteenth century that the British discovered the materials and techniques required to reproduce the fine Chinese porcelains they so admired.

In the last four hundred years, the design and function of teapots has changed very little. The same principles apply to a priceless Ming teapot as to your favorite worn and chipped china pot. When buying a teapot, make sure the lid is secure and won't fall off when you pour. (It wasn't until the nineteenth century that someone wisely manufactured a lid with a small protrusion, or tongue, to slip under the pot's lip.) Check out the teapot's spout, and, if possible, try it out. There's nothing more maddening than a drippy spout. Hold the pot by its handle to see if it feels right in your hand. There should be enough room between your fingers and the handle so that your knuckles don't get pinched.

With a multitude of teapots from which to choose, from automatic models to teapots with built-in infusers, take the time to see which one best suits your needs and your personality. And while you're at it, check out the tea cozy. These padded covers come in any number of patterns and shapes and help insulate the teapot and keep its contents hot.


Teacups were originally tea bowls, much like the ones you might find in an Asian restaurant today. Eighth-century Chinese writer Lu Yu describes the tea bowl in great detail, down to the glaze that looks best with a particular tea. He was fond of a blue glaze that turned red tea jade green. (Today, green tea enthusiasts still favor white or celadon cups for highlighting the slight differences in green teas' various hues.) The Japanese further adapted the bowl's design to reflect different seasons and aspects of their elaborate tea ceremonies.

In eighteenth-century England, British tea drinkers were enchanted with the shallow, handleless cups used to serve Asian tea, but it wasn't long before hot fingertips and the affordable price of tea convinced people to switch to a larger, handled version. Following the fashion of those drinking coffee and possets (a warm alcoholic drink made with milk), tea drinkers adopted a single-handled cup version, letting the double handle remain with hot chocolate enthusiasts. Choosing your own teacup is a matter of personal taste. The most important thing is that it feels good in your hand and is pleasing to your eye.


While you can boil your water in any saucepan or soup pot, a teakettle is a handy investment. Most kettles are made out of metal, and the best have a chromium-plated copper body. The same principles you use in choosing a teapot apply to the choice of a kettle. My favorite everyday kettle is a Russell Hobbs. Automatic and electric, this sturdy brand can go anywhere there is an electrical outlet. I keep mine on the small table next to my computer.

Infusers and Strainers

When you use a tea bag, the intricate world of tea infusers and strainers is lost to you. To some, this may be a relief, but I find an infuser part of the reassuring ritual of tea.

A tea infuser is a perforated receptacle in which a measured amount of loose tea is placed. Known as a tea egg or ball, this metal container is placed in the teapot before the boiling water is added. It's important not to fill your infuser too full. Half full is best, because the leaves need room to expand as they absorb water. If you do decide to make a large amount of tea, don't overstuff your egg; instead, use two. If you are using loose tea or a teapot with a built-in infuser instead of a tea ball, a tea strainer will come in handy to catch stragglers and give you a clear cup of tea.

Many foods have been created as traditional complements to tea. In the following chapters, you will find recipes to accompany your tea, whether it's hot, iced, spiced, or spiked. You also will find sweet and savory recipes that use tea as an essential ingredient. And, for a pause that refreshes, there are recipes for making a tempting array of delicious tea drinks.