The history of Tea is the story of the most ubiquitous and popular Indian street food of all, and it is no exaggeration to declare it to be one of the great engines which drove globalisation of the world’s economy, as well as causing wars, boosting the slave and drug trades, and being enjoyed in every country on Earth.
Tea was brought to England from India, and it is from there that its global popularity came. In India, it is known as chai, the Hindi word for tea, but the root of the word and the plant comes from elsewhere; China.
The Chinese had been drinking tea for millennia, and it was one of the first goods brought back by Dutch merchants on trips to the Far East as far back as the start of the 1600s. The drink became popular originally as a medicine, and then as an exotic newcomer to the menus of coffee shops across Europe and even in New Amsterdam (now New York).
For a century, tea remained a bitter yet fragrant expensive treat, enjoyed by the elite only.
Sugar had been around in Europe since the Tudors, but was a very rare treat. However, the Spanish and Portuguese changed everything by bringing sugar cane to the New World. Huge plantations, worked by slaves, began to produce sugar on a large scale, and for the first time sugar was plentiful – and cheap – in Europe.
How to consume this delicious new product? Mix a spoonful into a cup of tea.
Soon it became popular to add milk, too, and all of a sudden, a drink for connoisseurs became something everyone could enjoy.
This domestication of the exotic treat led to a popularity explosion, but England didn’t have anything to trade with China to get more of it – until they discovered opium.
India grew opium, encouraged by the British East India Company, then the Company sold it to China for tea. China became a nation of addicts, and the Emperor protested, and then confiscated 20,000 chests of opium in 1839.
Britain sent a small army to engage with this ‘act of war’, and then ‘negotiated’ a humiliating peace with China, forcing them to open up ports to British trade in everything, including opium, and to give Hong Kong to Britain.
Meanwhile, the East India Company established tea estates in India, using indentured workers – essentially slaves, despite the banning of slavery in 1833 – to work the farms.
Tea got cheap, and Britain was hooked, but somehow its favourite drink’s dark past was forgotten in a haze of vicarage lawns and bunting.