As is my wont, I’m going to tackle this contentious subject a bit obliquely, and ignore it for a few minutes.
A quick word to the urban warriors among you who are seeking enlightenment. The world does not stop on its axis if there’s not a Starbucks in town. The world is not about to end. Anyway, I get confused if I go into a coffee shop. So much choice, and much of it a choice I do not understand. Espresso, yes, I can grasp that. I know an Americano is an espresso with hot water. Cappuccino is frothy milky espresso. Then we get to mocha, mochaccino, frappaccino…
Whoa! I’ll have a filter coffee with milk , thanks. Yes, a large one please. No, thank you, I do not want whipped cream, cinnamon, chocolate sprinkles, or a shot of vanilla or pomegranate syrup. I want a white coffee. No, I do not want non-dairy creamer, or I’d have asked for it. I want milk. No, I do not want decaff. I need the caffeine jag, that’s why I’m having a coffee. Just bring me the coffee will you?
Despite the bewildering number of variants, all coffees have one thing in common. They’re made with coffee. Somewhere along the line, the dried and ground beans of the coffee bush Coffea sp. have encountered some boiling water, and made themselves into coffee. The coffee cherries may have been eaten buy Asian palm civets, and the beans excreted in the faeces and used to make kopi luwak, or by elephants in northern Thailand to produce Black Ivory beans, but it’s still coffee beans that are involved. Even instant coffee, even the cheapest of the cheap, lists ‘Powdered dried solids of coffee’ as one of the ingredients. Easy. Coffee+boiling water=coffee.
The same applies to making a cup of tea. There are only two basic ingredients: the dried leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, and boiling water. The leaves may be simply dried, and hence still green, or may have been crushed before drying, in which case they ferment slightly and produce black tea. Chai, which just about scrapes into the definition, is a mixture of black tea and herbs and spices. It’s still got C. sinensis in it.
To make a cup of tea you need tea. You do not need any of the following ingredients, and this list is by no means exhaustive:
Not only do you not need them, you cannot make tea with them. You can make a tisane, an infusion, a decoction at a push, but you cannot make tea without tea. It amazes me that nations and individuals who vaunt their coffee making skills to the high heavens can miss this simple requirement and be so cavalier in their approach to making tea. I mean, if you asked for a cup of coffee and the barista said, ‘Certainly. Would you like chicory, dandelion, or acorn coffee?’ you’d be taken aback wouldn’t you? All of those have been used to make coffee substitutes, but they sure as eggs are not coffee.
Similarly you cannot make tea with hot or tepid water. This is a mistake that is made pretty well the world over. You need boiling water. In the UK, we understand this. Certain other countries also get how to make tea. Turkey is good at it. India, not surprisingly. Sri Lanka. They make a cup of tea that is one stage short of nectar. China, they know what they’re doing there. They invented the samovar in Russia. But the rest of the world? Pah! Not a clue.
I’m afraid the US is a major offender here. You can’t make tea with a glass cup of tepid water and a teabag in the saucer. You can’t. Most of Europe falls into the same trap, France being particularly bad, but nowhere near as bad as the Netherlands.
The other thing is that people who are unused to the concept of tea don’t realise there’s good tea and bad tea. I have no objection at all to the concept of teabags, though you do get a better result with loose tea. I do, however, get the major hump with poor quality teabags. These are ubiquitous abroad, and are sold by a bunch of fraudsters called Liptons. Their bloody teabags are all over the place and they are rubbish. The UK has the highest per capita consumption of tea in the world, so you can safely assume we know what we’re doing here. Nobody, but nobody here uses Liptons teabags unless they’re running a bijou tearooms with the aim of ripping off gullible tourists by serving them tepid barely-amber liquid in a glass teacup to make them feel at home.
So, tea+boiling water=tea. What could be simpler? No need either to go overboard on things to go with it. Whipped cream, cinnamon, chocolate… Nope. You need one, perhaps two, but definitely not all three of the following.
Sugar (ideally cubes, but don’t sweat the details)
Or if you are in Sri Lanka, this is good. Finely chopped fresh root ginger, and a wedge of lime. In China you don’t need anything at all. Green tea, and its beautiful derivative jasmine tea (real tea with jasmine flowers added after drying) are sublime just on their own. You don’t need them with Earl Grey either, but in an ideal world there is no Earl Grey. It’s flavoured with bergamot oil. Bergamot oil is quite a good sunscreen. Perhaps not surprisingly, Earl Grey tastes as if you are drinking sunscreen. I’m not a big fan of lapsang souchong either; unless you make it really weak indeed it has a rather nasty tarry aftertaste. But at least Earl Grey and lapsang are both true teas. They both have tea in them. Not raspberry leasves; tea leaves.
One last thing. You cannot make lemon tea with a jar of a powdered instant product. You can’t. You can make a perfectly pleasant drink, but make no mistake. It isn’t tea.