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Feeding The Nation

Tea: Marvellous Leaf

In the morning, I sip tea poured fresh and piping hot from a clay teapot. With rock sugar added to the cup, I relish the warm sensation as the drink goes down my throat to my stomach. Very comforting and relaxing.

Words by Vikaria Lestari, Photography by Helen Yuanita

Tea has been known across the globe for centuries. It is not merely a drink, but a tradition with rituals that vary from country to country. The Japanese, for instance, serve matcha (powdered green tea) in their renowned tea ceremonies, while the traditional Chinese ritual is also a fascinating performance, involving the server making fabulous hand movements before presenting the tea to guests.

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Tea, like coffee, is a great unifier, bringing people together over a cup of char. British high-tea tradition, for instance, is all about catching up with friends over a selection of finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and pastries. For Russians, tea is a family affair, a two-step brewing process of loose, large-leaf black tea usually served after each meal with sugar and lemon, accompanied by an assortment of jams, pastries and confections.

In Indonesia, Tegal in Central Java is famous for its moci tradition; the name comes from the word poci, meaning ‘teapot’. Many discussions, ranging from everyday catchups to more serious conversations, are conducted over moci. Loose leaf black tea and jasmine are brewed in a special clay teapot, then poured over rock sugar. The custom of drinking this type of tea is known as nasgitel, an acronym of panas (hot), legi (sweet) and kentel (black). Interestingly, the teapot is not washed with soap after use, leaving the residue inside to enhance the flavours.

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Most people living in Central and East Java prefer to enjoy their tea with sugar. A cup of sugared tea served to guests is a way to express respect. The preference for sweet flavours is not only limited to tea and other beverages, but also to cuisine. In contrast, people inWest Java tend to prefer non-sugared tea. Tea came to Indonesia for the first time in 1684, introduced by a German physician, botanist and trader from the Dutch East India Company named Andreas Cleyer. He brought tea seeds, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, from Japan to grow ornamental plants in Jakarta, then known as Batavia. Young tea shrubs originating from China were spotted growing in the garden palace of the Governor-General Champhuys in Jakarta. In 1826, tea plants were cultivated at Bogor Botanical Gardens, and a year later, at Cisurupan Experimental Garden, Garut, West Java.

In 1830, the Dutch colonial government imposed cultuurstelsel, a cultivation system in which farmers were forced to farm for the government, in order to generate revenue for the Treasury of the Netherlands, since the war against Prince Diponegoro (De Java Orloog), known as the Java War, had drained so much cash. Indonesian farmers were made to grow export crops such as tea, sugarcane and coffee. Farmers in West Java planted tea, while those in Central and East Java grew sugarcane; around 100 sugarcane factories were established. When 70 per cent of rice fields had been replaced with sugarcane, there was inevitably a shortage of carbohydrates for the local population. As an alternative to rice, sugarcane juice began to be used in food preparation, which resulted in the sweet flavour of many Central Javanese dishes.

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Following the trial and error of the British in India, the Dutch came to realise that Chinese tea bushes were not suited to the type of soil and tropical climate of Java. The government then gradually replaced Chinese tea with Camellia sinensis var. assamica, a variety introduced from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1877 and planted at the Gambung plantation, West Java. Tea cultivation continued to expand and farmers began to grow the plant in North Sumatra in the early 1900s.

Rich in flavonoids, a type of antioxidant, tea has long been known to be highly beneficial to our health. The detoxifying effect of these antioxidants protects cells from free radicals that may lead to blood clot formation, atherosclerosis and cancer. Some research also shows that regular tea drinkers, consuming two cups or more a day, are less likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke, have lower LDL cholesterol, and tend to recover from heart attacks faster. So, whether your tea is sugared or not, contains lemon or jasmine or is drunk plain, a cup of tea is always a fabulous way to start the day.

Vikaria Lestari

Javanese by birth, is a writer and translator whose passions are travelling, food and reading. Her hobby, amongst others, is observing the unique characteristics of different cuisines and places, which she shares later in her writing. Her published works include translated novels written by bestselling American authors, as well as travel and lifestyle articles.