Ceylon Tea & Its Beginnings

Lush, sprawling hills of vibrant green leaves, blended and dried, hand-crafted to black, rich aromatic dust – the subject in question, that which you’re pondering and ruminating, and imagining is tea. Sipped between stimulating conversations or enjoyed over enlightening literature, tea has been around for decades. The popular drink, is not only gratifying but greatly favourable among many regions spanning from across East Asia, South Asia and Britain. In fact, Sri Lanka is the fourth largest Tea producer in the world and the world's largest tea exporter in year 2013. It is not an altogether new-fangled truth that Sri Lanka is a land of multicultural communities, its societies influenced throughout time by diverse groups of ethnicities and people. From the era of Sri Lankan kings to colonial rule, the pearl shaped island has had many trade routes and one of the most popular products brought form the colonial influence is the discovery of tea plantations among the highlands of the nation. Tea, we find, is an object the culinary field that carries a rich, cultural and informative history. How is it significant to the landscape of Sri Lankan culture and its people? We travel across the timeline of Ceylon’s existence as we discover the origin of tea and tea plantations and its influence and distribution across the world.

But, why is tea important to the Sri Lankan people and how significant is it to the culture? The event of drinking tea around a group of individuals, known or unknown, is synonymous to the idea of hospitality. It is synonymous to the concept of sharing ideas and reminiscing on old memories. Even the effort of offering tea, the attempt to ‘make some tea’, is synonymous to the concept of offering an olive branch. Drinking tea is ingrained into the Sri Lankan culture and has been throughout and across decades for its capacity to exist in a space that brings people together, and thus is the significance by which tea is representative of. It is emblematic to the Sri Lankan sense of hospitality and generosity. Recently, Sri Lankan-born Kevin Wilson gained much popularity for the way he demonstrated how to truly brew a cup of tea. In his feature on Bon Apepetit, Kevin explained the importance and vitality of sharing the authentic tea experience. Kevin migrated to Oman when he was twelve, where he shared many cups of chai with his Indian and Pakistani friends. In 2008, he moved to California. It was here that Kevin understood how tea had been inaccurately comprehended, proclaiming that it was a classic example of cultural appropriation. He continued to explain the significance of embracing the South Asian culture and its authentic nature, from his sarongs to his aromatic tea blends, each feature was intrinsic to his identity. We find, the aspects of fabric and food allow one to feel connected to their home, despite living in a foreign land, and it is in this connection that Kevin found his place.

Interestingly, the introduction of the tea plant to Sri Lanka, began through coffee. It is recorded that Scottish coffee planter James Taylor planted 19 acres of tea near Kandy in 1867. It was later discovered that the coffee plant had been infected by a fungi and the production of tea gained more popularity. Ceylon Tea, as it has been more commonly known as, begins in the year 1824 during the British colony when Chine brought a plant to the land of Ceylon. It was to be planted at the Botanical Garden in Peradeniya for non-commercial purposes. After the fall of coffee and its diseased plantations in 1869, experiments done on the tea plant gained more traction and thus, the production of tea grew. Renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was noted to have said, "The tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo." The beginning of the tea industry in Ceylon laid the groundwork to a critical export market to the nation and now, find it a staple among every household, brewed through traditional techniques and practices passed down through generations of Sri Lankan tea drinkers. 

When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘“Some people will tell you there is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea,” and Henry James proclaimed, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” perhaps, they were speaking of the solace and quiet peace observed over a cup of tea, or perhaps, the rich blend and stimulative flavours were the root to thought-provoking conversation. We uncover through our research and reading of tea’s great potential to coexist within the walls of creative stimulation and enlightening discussions, probing questions of greater causes – much like a work of art. The rich heritage of Sri Lanka allows its societies to consume this aromatic beverage liberally, its practice infused seamlessly within the lives of individuals. Consumed with varying, distinct flavours, tea can be found anywhere, across the cold hills and summer shores of Sri Lanka, be it during the dawn of a new day or the moments before sunset; such is the significance of tea in this era, its timeless blend prevalent among the Sri Lankans and the landscape of the country, its rich soil symbolic to the growth of Sri Lanka and its rich culture. 

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14th December, 2021 Culinary Art