Monday, December 17, 2007

Tea: The Miracle Brew

By: Kathy Llamas

You’ve heard the saying, “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.” In the case of tea, “A daily cup of tea or more, keeps you out of the drugstore” is more appropriate. Long before tea was cultivated for use as a drink, the Chinese had taken tea as a medicinal herb.

According to historical records about Shen Nung, said to be the emperor who discovered tea in the legendary year 2737 B.C., it was believed that tea could “wither tumors, cure lung and chest infections, quench thirst, and ward off sleep. It could even make you happy!”

In 780 A.D., Lu Yu, one of the first experts on tea, in a book titled “Ch’a Ching” (The Tea Classic), wrote that “Tea tempers the spirits, calms and harmonizes the mind; it arouses thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens and refreshes the body and cleans the perceptive faculties.” All these before the 9th century!

Just how was the world’s most popular drink discovered?

In the book, Teas of the World, by Nancy Hayden Woodward, legends have it that Shen Nung, whose name means “spirit of the land,” was a Chinese emperor always concerned about cleanliness. Each day, he boiled his drinking water. On one occasion, leaves from a branch burning under the pot were blown by the wind and landed in the pot. He was overcome by the aroma and tasted some of it. He so thoroughly enjoyed it that he gathered more branches of the tea tree known as Camellia Sinensis, also known as Thea Sinenses.

Indian myth, on the other hand, insists that the Buddhist Bodhidharma, who founded the Ch’an (Zen in Japan) school of Buddhism, discovered tea during his travels to China where he planned to meditate for nine years. While meditating during his fifth year, his concentration was broken as he reached for some nearby twigs and began chewing on them. Instantly he was wide awake and ready to continue his meditation. The twigs came from the then unknown tea tree. The year was 527 A.D.

Did tea’s first roots come from Chinese soil? No one knows for sure. During the Chin Dynasty of Shih Hwang-ti, he ordered all political, social and cultural records destroyed. We can only rely on theories, myths, legends, and later records.

China and tea seem so inseparable that it is hard to imagine a time when there was no tea in China. Lin Yutang, a modern Chinese scholar, found manuscripts with evidence that tea was used as a beverage as early as about 300 A.D.

We all have our ways of taking tea. Chinese drink it straight without sugar, cream or lemon. Moslems add mint to it. The British mix it with milk. It is a refreshing tasteful beverage with no calories unless you add cream or sugar. Although it contains caffeine, the tannins in tea interact with the caffeine so as not to have the strength of caffeine found in coffee.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF TEA

Teas are graded for quality. The green or unfermented tea and black or fermented (oxidized) tea are considered the prime teas while the Oolong or semifermented tea is considered a secondary category. The variations are scented or smoked. It is interesting to note that both green and black teas are derived from the same plant. The difference lies in the treatment of the leaf after it is picked. Leaves destined to make black tea are fermented whereas those for green tea are dried in the sun or in drying rooms. Oolong is fermented to less than half of the extent of black.

To make black tea, the leaves are spread on a screen and are dried either by the sun or by a gentle current of hot air. Next, they are rolled to expose and oxidize the juice, then left to wilt on cool tables that may be made of metal, stone, glass, or tile, then fried over charcoal.

For green tea, the leaves may or may not be withered first. They are de-enzymized by pan frying. Sometimes, they are steamed to softness and rolled on mats. The process is repeated until they are crisp after rolling. They are then dried over charcoal resulting in the leaves turning yellow green. There is no fermentation or chemical change that takes place.

Both green and black tea leaves are sifted and sorted through meshes into different sizes and then packed according to several standards of size and grade. The smallest leaves are considered best because they have not grown large enough to develop tannic acid which gives tea a bitter taste.

To produce a full-bodied beverage, the leaves for Oolong tea must not be picked too early and the leaves are wilted in direct sunlight. Then they are shaken in bamboo baskets to bruise the leaf edges which causes the edges to oxidize faster than the center.

Oolong is produced mainly in Taiwan and is the tea most often served in Chinese restaurants in the United States. The name means, “black dragon.” An even less fermented Taiwanese tea is “pouchong,” generally called scented tea because the leaves are mixed with jasmine and gardenia blossoms. Other scented teas include two green varieties; one perfumed with chrysanthemum and the other, narcissus. Another well-known variety is “lapsang-souchong,” a rich and heavy smoked black tea from Hunan.

Epicures describe green tea as cool, refreshing, and clean in flavor. It is said to aid digestion, and is served with highly flavored and fried food.

Black tea’s color pleases the eye. It has a full-bodied flavor, and usually served with seafood.

TEA AND ITS MEDICINAL QUALITIES

The Chinese have many beliefs about the medicinal properties of tea. Many benefits of tea drinking include an excellent stimulant, helps headaches and dizziness, clears the kidney, liver and spleen, prevents stones, settles the stomach, aids digestion, relaxes the brain and improves memory.

During hot days, people sip chrysanthemum tea with the theory that it thins the blood and keeps it cool.

The book All the Tea in China, by Kit Chow and Ione Kramer, talks extensively about tea and its medicinal qualities. It will help to understand the elements in tea and what benefits those elements provide.

The most important chemical substances in the fresh tea leaf are caffeine, aromatic or essential oils and polyphenols (known as tannins). Both tannins and oils aid digestion by stimulating the intestinal tract. There is some evidence that tea counteracts the effects of fats by emulsifying them in the digestive tract. With reports on tea’s effects on fats in the bloodstream come claims that it actually reduces the amount of fat in the tissues. Oolong tea, mixed with other herbal ingredients is the basis for what is known as the “slimming tea.” There are claims that drinking it for three months can drop 15 pounds off your weight.

Caffeine, taken moderately, stimulates the central nervous system and promotes blood circulation. It aids elimination by performing as a diuretic to ensure better functioning of the kidneys. By drinking tea regularly, one may reduce the incidence of gallstones and other kidney problems.

Polyphenols are the most interesting elements and the ones which do the greatest good for human health. Isolated from tea, polyphenols act as antioxidants, which are known to be cancer-fighting agents. Through an anti-mutant factor, the polyphenols aid cell DNA to reproduce accurately rather than mutate, which may lead to cancer.

Polyphenols have been found to increase white blood cells which fight infection in the body. Medicines made with polyphenols from tea extracts have become part of the treatment for nephritis, chronic hepatitis, and leukemia in China.

Tea also works against heart attacks and strokes. Through its role as a gentle stimulant to the heart and circulatory system, it strengthens and keeps the blood vessel walls soft. The polyphenols in tea inhibit the absorption of cholesterol in the digestive tract and the bloodstream, and decrease the blood’s tendency to form unwanted clots.

In a book, Chinese Herbal Remedies, Dr. Albert Y. Leung indicates that researchers claim that tea contains germicidal elements which help prevent food poisoning and diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

Washing with tea is thought to prevent breaking out on the face, and is a home remedy for cuts, sunburn, and insect bites.

The flouride in tea can strengthen bones to help ward off osteoporosis as it strengthens dental enamel. Polyphenols also reduce the formation of plaque and inhibit the growth of mouth bacteria. Best of all, tea is said to slow the aging process. It can very well be the liquid flowing from Ponce De Leon’s fountain of youth as some of its benefits can be said to contribute to longevity such as stimulation of bodily functions, strengthening the immune system, and reducing the chance of heart disease.

Here’s the best way to enjoy your cup of tea. First, use fresh cold water, preferably spring water. While water is heating, warm the tea pot by rinsing it with hot water. Heat water just on the boil. Measure one teaspoon of tea for each cup. Pour boiling water into the pot. Let it stand for three to five minutes. ENJOY! 

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