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Myanmar’s Evolving Tea Culture

The storm in the teacup with boiled water and a few fragrant leaves leaving a trail of colour and flavour, took the world by storm centuries ago, and the craze for this therapeutic beverage continues everywhere, even in countries not traditionally known to favour tea as a beverage. Numerous countries have a distinct tea culture, be it Britain, China, Japan, India or Thailand, and tea drinking a classic ceremony, with a snob appeal attached to its elaborate preparation and serving. What appears a simple brew can be elaborately prepared, and indulgently consumed in the most leisurely manner, providing the perfect environment to discuss politics, arts and sports.

Tea culture refers to the way tea is made, served and consumed, the way people interact with tea, and the aesthetics involved in drinking that cup of tea. For those who take their tea seriously, special attention is paid to the tea quality, the journey of the tea leaf from the garden to the package, the way the water is boiled, and how the tea is steeped to get the perfect balance between flavour the tannin component which gives black tea its sharpness. Tea is not just a drink but incorporates relaxation, refreshment, tradition and pleasure.

Myanmar has its own inimitable tea culture, with roadside teashops, standalone stalls or outlets housed in concrete structures, with similar offerings, casual ambience, serving as comfort zones for the young and old alike. The most common sight that meets the eye, is low tables and even lower plastic stools, tea kettles and plastic cups, plates of savouries being passed around, and small groups of people leisurely talking. The mood is not intense as the aroma of tea wafts through the air, people come and go, and the day passes by! Such is the typical tea shop of Myanmar, conspicuous on every street, in nearly every corner, by every roadside, and the scene pretty much the same, in rural and urban areas – this could be Yangon, Mandalay or any of the small villages in remote corners of the country. Tea happens to be the undisputed national beverage as well. The relaxed ambience, lack of rushed frenzy, enhances the aura of peace in the country where Buddhism is a way of life, and meditation practice very common  among locals. Tea, with its powerful aroma, is believed to have calming qualities, and helps de-stress, through the simple process of preparation, pouring, sipping and absorbing. Some people even propagate tea meditation. However, this does not mean that teashops are still and quiet. A significant amount of action takes places over endless cups of tea. Teashops are buzzing with the latest news updates, information circulating about everything, be it politics, art, culture, international issues, or the latest eatery in town. Interestingly, more men than women are seen here. Tables are crowded, music or television programs are loud, conversations even louder, and mixed with all this is the clatter of crockery, as young waiters carry plates of food, trays of tea and even loose cigarettes.

The changing teashops

The tea shop culture has been more than a century old, having emerged out of the strong British, Chinese and Indian influences. It has been the one constant, through years of military rule and the ensuing democratic environment, and been the breeding ground for numerous artists, poets, writers and thinkers.

Though tea has retained its significance, the tea shop culture has evolved just like everything else. The once hush hush conversations have given way to loud, open conversations, the grim stillness has been replaced by music, game shows, live sports telecasts, movies and more. Internet connectivity is provided in the upscale shops, though not possible in those under tree shades.

The change and transformation of the typical tea shop began after the student uprising of 1988. The small, cluttered teashops with tables too close, slowly became bigger, neater, better equipped and naturally, more expensive. The menus were expanded to include meals and snacks beyond the basics, with more varieties of tea and drinks. The air of simplicity got somewhat diluted, though it has not impacted business or the clientele.

Some of the unchanging constants in the tea shop are the low seating and tables, cups and a flask of free green or Chinese tea left on each table, and the lack of pressure to move out. No one objects to customers sitting for hours, sipping tea. The concept of sharing is heart warming for many tourists accustomed to looking out only for themselves.

One of the glaring changes one witnesses in the teashops today, is the absence of the youth. This can be attributed perhaps, to the mushrooming of more upscale cafes, fast food restaurants and shopping malls in bigger cities.

The biggest change in the tea shop culture is evident as one walks into the most upscale teashops like Acacia Tea Salon, very British in its décor and ambience, Rangoon Tea House, Yangon Bakehouse, Chatime, to name just a few. These are expensive, classy, clean and offer sumptuous cuisines, not all Burmese though. Some of the best known teashops that feature on tourists’ to-do lists include Lucky Seven, Yatha teashop and Shwe Khaung Laung, and these give the best tea experience in Myanmar.

The teashop menu

Teashops extend far beyond various types of teas. A wide range of snack items and an extensive breakfast menu make teashops busiest in the morning, an essential stop before heading out for the day. The starting point is the free flowing pots of green tea, which are later followed by laphet yei gyo, the sweet milky tea made out of black tea leaves added to boiling water, and sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk added liberally. A simpler version is laphet yei, that’s normal tea with fresh Tea varieties

Tea is one of the seven necessities listed to start the day with. Tea is native to Myanmar and not just acquired from its neighbours. Myanmar tea is distinct, different and its leaves eaten in their pickled, fermented form (laphet) as a salad, unlike any other place. Tea is an important agricultural produce, grown mainly in the Tawnpeng district of Shan State in eastern Myanmar, and lies in close proximity to the teaproducing Yunnan province of China, and India’s Assam state. The region produces both green and black tea. Some of the green tea varieties include the Kokang, Valley Green, Shan First Flush, Mountain roasted green tea, and the Kyaukme black tea.

Myanmar’s tea is mostly for domestic consumption, and it was exported for the first time to Germany in 2016, and small quantities of green tea are being sold across its borders to neighbouring China and Thailand. Myanmar tea industry facts

  •  Most of the tea is grown in the hilly areas of Shan state. Namhsan is known as the tea capital of Myanmar, with the most picturesque tea plantations covering the hills.
  •  Tea leaves are harvested between April and November, but the finest leaves can be collected between late March and mid-April.
  •  The Myanmar Tea Cluster with 30 executive members represents over 30,000 tea farmers, processors, manufacturers and traders. MTC was set up in 2013 to promote M y a n m a r t e a g l o b a l l y a n d constantly improve its quality to meet international standards. • A pinch of salt is added to tea, along with liberal amounts of condensed milk.
  • Pickled tea leaves which are eaten as a salad, were traditionally a peace offering between warring factions, after the truce.
  •  Green, white and black teas, all come from the same plant, camellia sinenis. It is the leaves of this plant that qualify as real tea, their oxidation and processing makes them black. All other herbal teas available are not real teas.
  • Milk is added to black tea leaves, which require the hottest water as well. White and green tea being milder, require less hot water to steep and release their flavour.

The culture of drinking tea fits in perfectly with the local way of life, and tea shops fulfil a social need, a place to bond and belong, sip and share, exchange news and views, rest, relax and refresh, and continue to serve as a comfort zone.