By: Parallels and Meridians
When one thinks of Burma, they think of Aung Sann Syu Kyi and don’t usually associate the country with tea. Even though tea time in Myanmar plays a pivotal role in the day – to day activities of the people in the country.
Camelia sinensis, the tea plant in common language originated in the Southeast Asia and established itself like a drink in the 10th century B.C. Another folklore goes that a king liked his water boiled and one day, while in the forest, he was brewing his water when a few leaves from the nearby plant fell in the boiling water which gave rise to a new drink tea. Many countries in the Southeast Asia drink tea from China, Japan, India being a few but in Myanmar tea is part of its cultural identity.
Regardless of the place in Myanmar, you can always spot people of varying age sitting on plastic stools and sipping tea. It’s a small idyllic setting of a table with a kettle bustling with hot green tea along the road. A cup of sugary black tea with white milk engrosses one hand deep in conversation and laughter. Myanmar has seen a boom in the hotel industry with air conditioned places coming up around town but what remains as the nerve center of the place are small road side vendors selling tea.
In the past with the Colonial rule these shops were the centers for political and intellectual discussions. Now the situation has changed and it is a spot for people to hang out and share changing thoughts and ideologies. Tea culture in Myanmar is a mostly male dominated one. Women are welcome in the shops but this is still not seen in a positive light though the times are changing for the better.
Tea houses of Myanmar
The city seems to be in a state of decay from the British colonial rule trying to change over to new clothes. The tea is a reference to its turbulent past though it has now carved its own Burmese act and cultural identity amidst the British idea of the tea. The tea custom in Myanmar is a way of socializing. It has been a way of relieving tension over a cup of tea. They act as the community centers in the time of despair and war. They are like the old school cafes around the city on every street and corner but with little more generosity and humility. This has percolated from the time of war and the tension, zone of bullet and firings that Myanmar was surrounded in and become its integral part. It is the Burmese way to unwind and share laughter – small tea houses replete with plastic stools and ceramic bowls with smell of brewing tea all day long is the energy booster throughout the day.
The art of drinking this tea is unique to the place. The tea is poured on to a saucer from the ceramic cup. It is then slurped relishing the drink. It is more like an addiction moving with the person’s time clock. Burmese drink around 3 cups of black tea on an average with the green tea. The tea is typically of two types – green tea or the Chinese tea, which is served in unlimited quantity without any charge. On the other hand is the black tea or sweet tea prepared with condensed milk and sugar. There appears to be some kind of ranking involved with who creates, pours, serves and cleans up.
Try and find the spot nearest to the tea making process in the tea house to get a good idea as how it is prepared. They bring along small plate of appetizers that go with the black tea, which is delicious as well!
Most of the South East Asian countries drink tea but Myanmar is amongst the very few countries that have it like food. Tea is grown in Namshan and Namphan on the Shan plateau on the Shan state. Laphet is the most popular tea. It is drunk as well as eaten. Every auspicious occasion is accompanied by tea which is stored in the center of a round circular box with compartments accompanied by peanuts, garlic, dried shrimp, coconut and ginger are arranged in the compartments of the container. It can be served as an appetizer with accompaniments or as a desert. According to the state statistics almost 20% of the tea is accounted for being eaten in the year 2006-2007.
Though Myanmar is forging its own tea culture, which is grounded in the generosity of the people, literature on the same is scarce. Though the public culture has started to undergo change. Restaurants and bars with fancy dining rooms have sprung up across Yangon recently, but the country’s open-air tea shops with their low tables, stand firmly in the midst of the change.
Though other issues have crept up due to this change. Due to the modern outlook more and more youngsters have started hanging out in the tea shops which is seen as time wasting. Elders have an opinion that sitting at the tea shop and whiling away time won’t help. They have a future to build, which they should not waste in mere talks.
However, at the end of the day everything can be solved with a hot cup of tea with loads of sweetness.