The art of sweet tea

It's easy to be humbled by the richly detailed art, science and performance of the tea ceremony.

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Like all forms of fortune-telling, tasseography, or the study of tea-leaf detritus in an effort to divine the future, is only as convincing or as creepy as the grandma performing it. Some think it's an art form, some say it's a science; I've always thought of it as a party trick for fatalists. We all know this much: the future is unknowable. And like sneaking a peek into someone else's lunchbox, sometimes the graphic blandness of reality can't compete with its veiled fantasy counterpart.

The past holds a different kind of mystery from the future, and we've devised ways to preserve it using everything from plant pectin and museum glass to folklore and cryonics. Some people keep journals to document their stories; others hold on to photo albums or yearbooks. The only thing I collect is memories, and mine usually involve food and hot drinks. I have friends who can reference hairdos or diet regimes as life markers, but the bookmarks in mine are more likely to be cups. They tell the story of my life; obsessions, rituals and habits, and thus, my chronological narrative, which could never be mistaken for anyone else's.

There were the reckless years of soya latté abuse, before my mucho grande morning fix was muddied by health concerns over the controversial soya bean. There were the hyper-manic cleansing months of caffeine teetotalling, involving bottomless thermoses of bancha-twig and licorice-root teas. There was a year of conspicuous yerba maté consumption toward the end of Chinese medicine school, when I wore a glow of "holistic" superiority so smug that I want to reach back in time just to smack the hollow gourd of hot brew on to my Birkenstock-clad feet. There's been a consistent flow of tepid black coffee, quite a few almond-milk Earl Grey steamers, the occasional hot chocolate, and many chapters of oolong tea with palm sugar and a squeeze of lime.

Most of all, there's been tea, and specifically, PG Tips and milk. In the highest form of Taiwanese-style ceremony, tea is first poured into the tea jug, and then into snifter cups so that guests can enjoy the delicate aromas, which are considered to be an integral part of the tea-drinking experience. To someone like me, whose palate has probably been corroded by years of addiction to strong, milky, black tea, it's easy to be humbled by the richly detailed art, science and performance of the tea ceremony. But I'm also appreciative of the mere 30 seconds required to prepare my perfect morning mugful.

PG Tips Pyramid Bags are a registered trademark, and 35 million of them are steeped daily in the UK alone (though the Irish are purportedly the world's most highly caffeine-pumped people). Introduced in 1996, the unique, tetrahedron-shaped bags give the tea leaves lots of room to swell up and swim about, resulting in an exceptionally rich and thorough brew. Strong, mahogany-hued black tea is an integral part of many cultures. Turkey and India trump the UK in global tea consumption, with Turkey on top at an estimated 20 cups daily per person. Like the ones traditionally used in the Gulf, Turkish tea cups are delicate, tulip-shaped glasses, nothing like the clunky ceramic mugs I'm known to hoard. In a style sometimes referred to throughout India and the Gulf region as Sulaimani, Turkish tea, like many others, is never served with milk.

Ways to prepare, taste and serve tea differ greatly in international tea culture. As with milk, the sweetening of tea is forbidden in some cultures and a social standard in others. The Erzurmulus in eastern Turkey are said to drink up to 30 glasses of tea using only one cube of sugar apiece, by secreting it under the tongue so that the warmth of the tea slowly melts it away. In Russia, tea gets a spoonful of honey infused with wild cherry preserves; a scarlet stain that looks beautiful in the liquid amber. The traditional Japanese tea ceremony requires guests to observe essential protocols around the correct way to eat the sweets that are served to counter the tea's bitterness. Sweetened tea is also served during the Chinese wedding tea ceremony to symbolise a sweet union; the tea set used is a part of the dowry paid for by the bride's parents.

Cross-culturally, the socio-economic implications of adding milk and sugar to tea are wildly varied. Sugar is added to tea before serving in many parts of the world, including places such as the UAE and the American Deep South, where Lipton stocks rise every time more than four people are gathered together in a room. Order "tea" anywhere in the South, and what you'll get will be sweet and served over ice. Irani chai, or Iranian tea, brought to India by Persian immigrant traders in the 19th century, is a blend of boiled milk, brewed tea leaves and sweetened condensed milk, available at roadside cafés and often served with sweet and salty biscuits. A particular type of Iranian chai called "tea of upright spoon" is named for the gravity-defying effects of its extra thick and sugar-saturated consistency. Thai iced-tea, which tends to be quite sweet with condensed milk as well, contains additional sweet aromatics such as star anise and orange blossom water.

So what, besides the tea bush (Camellia sinensis), constitutes "tea"? In Amsterdam's Vondelpark, I watched a group of octogenarians order a dozen "mint teas"; what arrived looked like the Amazon rainforest on a tray: twelve tumblers stuffed to the gills with viridian mint leaves over which steaming water had been poured to make an inexpensive, aromatic tisane (herbal tea).

Next week, we'll look at some of properties and health benefits of different types of tea and demystify the badly misunderstood notion of "high tea".