Tea in China

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The tea tree, Camellia sinensis, is native to Southeast Asia and southern China, and its caffeine-rich, tender young leaves were probably chewed raw long before recorded history. The preparation of tea leaves for infusion in water evolved slowly. There’s evidence that by the 3rd century CE the leaves were boiled and then dried for later use, and that by the 8th century they were also stir-fried before drying. These techniques would give green or yellow-green leaves and infusions, and mild but bitter and astringent flavor. More strongly flavored and orange-red teas like modern oolongs were developed around the 17th century, probably beginning with the accidental observation that the leaves develop a distinctive aroma and color when they’re allowed to wilt or are pressed before being dried. It was around this time that China began to trade extensively with Europe and Russia, and the new, more complex style of tea conquered England, where consumption rose from 20,000 pounds in 1700 to 20 million in 1800. The strong “black” tea that’s most familiar in the West today is a relatively recent invention, the result of intensive pressing; the Chinese developed it in the 1840s specifically for export to the West.