Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Though it has lent its name to many other infusions, tea—from the Chinese word cha—is a drink prepared from the green leaves of a kind of camellia. Young tea leaves turn out to be as packed with interesting defensive chemicals as any spice. Beginning in southwest China around 2,000 years ago, people learned how to use physical pressure, mild heat, and time to coax a number of different flavors and colors from the tea leaf. Tea became a staple of the Chinese diet around 1000 CE. In 12th-century Japan, Buddhist monks who valued tea as an aid to long hours of study found that tea itself was worthy of their contemplation. They developed the formal tea ceremony, which remains remarkable for the attention it pays to the simplest of preparations, an infusion of leaves in water.