Tea Culture and Tea Traditions of Sri Lanka


Tea Drinking Culture in Sri Lanka
Tea History of Sri Lanka
Most of the Asian colonies were introduced to tea by the British. They first started growing coffee in the island as the soil and the climate was deemed quite favourable for it. But in 1870 whole plantations were destroyed by a leaf-blight called “Devastating Emily”. British planters were already in Sri Lanka to cultivate coffee and make a business out of it; they had invested money and bought plantations, and were desperately looking for a way out of this situation. It was then they met James Taylor, a Scottish planter who knew about tea. The first tea bush, planted by him still exists in the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Garden in the Central province. When the results of this experiment was successful, the English planters moved from coffee to tea, and so did the natives who drank it.
Types of Tea consumed in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankans prefer black tea. The finest black tea comes from the upcountry plantations, and they are of many categories and grades. Black tea is mainly used as loose leaf tea, but tea bags are fast becoming a trend.
Green tea is more of an herbal tea variety and is consumed for its health properties. It can be seen marketed as “slim tea” to “lose one’s weight”.
Specialty teas such as fruit flavoured and spiced teas are also present, but not to a larger extent. They are mostly in the tea bag version, and are consumed by an urban few.
70% of Sri Lankan population who live in rural areas have a “plain tea” to start work, during work and in the evenings. Some take tea with milk but a plain, black tea, at times infused with ginger is quite popular.
Most of the urban population can afford and use milk with tea. In tea shops many types of teas, including plain black tea, ginger tea, milk tea or tea with milk, and added a malt drink in powdered form are available. Unlike in India, shops which sell just tea, or “chaiwallas” are not a common sight in Sri Lanka. Although if there are men who sell tea in trains, although not common.
Iced tea infused with fruity flavours, green tea and spiced tea are limited to cities.
Tea Customs of Sri Lanka
Sri Lankans are known to be pleasant and hospitable, and tea plays a major role in this part of their lives. Whoever steps into a house, is offered a tea and it is customary to accept. Even in the hot days, a tea is something you cannot say no to. Most of the time, tea will come coupled with biscuits or some other sweetmeat.
In the rural areas, people gather at a tea shop, “thé kadé” to have a chat over tea. Some prefer to have just the tea, without sugar and eat a piece of jaggery simultaneously. Plain tea is the one with sugar in it. Milk tea is available but in countryside the flavour and taste of pure black tea is preferred.
Capital Colombo and a few more main cities have the comparatively new-found “coffee shops”, which also offer tea. One can order iced tea and other specialty tea types at a coffee shop.
Tea is a must for breakfast. Similar to India and Pakistan, Sri Lankans start the day with a tea, and drink yet another with breakfast. This practice varies from family to family rather than region to region. The afternoon tea time, no doubt inherited from the British when Sri Lanka was a colony, is still observed. Families gather in the kitchen or living room to nibble on a biscuit or two, and have a tea. Other events such as New Year celebrations are joyous times which many sweetmeats will be prepared to adorn the tea table such as oil cake (“Kevum”/ “Athirasa”), Kokis, Aluwa, Walithalapa, Aasmi and so much more.
Tea ceremonies in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist country; nonetheless unlike some other Buddhist countries such as Japan, China and Korea, tea ceremonies are not performed as a religious rite. It is a practice to offer tea to Lord Buddha as a part of the Buddha “pooja” or offer, with flowers, oil lamp, incense sticks, food and water.
Tea’s relationship with the religion ends there. Monks do consume tea and it is offered as a beverage to them, but it’s more due to hospitality than a religious rite.
Tea is considered in the same capacity as a main meal; people are invited for lunch, dinner, or tea. It is a common practice to be invited for tea, when one is visiting a prospective spouse as arranged marriages still exists in the country.
High tea occurs more in the cities. Main hotels and high-end restaurants offer high tea with an array of food items, not only sweet but also spicy and savoury. It could be buffet style or à la carte. In most places one can see other options of beverages such as iced coffee, or even iced tea and soft drinks.
Tea is served and accepted at all celebrations; for the New Year (in April, as per the Sinhalese calendar) an elaborate tea table with many sweetmeats is arranged. During weddings, a “tea table” is prepared to welcome the groom and his family.
Teaware of Sri Lanka
Popular teaware are the cups and saucers inherited from the British. The fine bone china sets are taken out for special occasions, and mugs are used informally. Each member of the family has a dedicated mug, however unlike in the UK, guests are not offered tea in them. For them, the cups, saucers and teapot are used.
Tea boiling is done in a copper or metal kettle on the stove, although electric kettles are now more popular. In contrast to neighbouring India and Pakistan, milk is not added to the same pot. Water is boiled, taken off of the stove, and poured in to a jug where there are lose tea leaves or a tea bag.
In the early days especially in the countryside, cleaned and tempered coconut shells were used to drink tea. It is used even now fashionably to drink “kahata” i.e. tea with no sugar with a piece of jaggery.
Tea cups and saucers are made in porcelain. They are decorated with various colours and designs, and the sets made with a signature clay found in the central province are held in high regard and expensively priced.
Rural tea shops use a boiler to heat water. It will be turned on all the time as tea is served 24*7. The practice of drinking tea from a small glass with o handle is absent in Sri Lanka.