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The Diaspora of Tea

Although all tea (Camellia Sinensis) originates in the Eastern part of the world, as in so many other aspects of modern life, there exists a complex network of tea exportation, adaption, and dissemination—a widespread and multi-layered diaspora of tea.

Devonshire Tea - a pure Kenya blend
Devonshire Tea – a pure Kenya blend

If you are wondering what exactly I mean by “diaspora of tea”, think of the geographical dissemination and cross-cultural exchange involving tea that has occurred, particularly over the last few centuries: tea imported to eighteenth century England and then exported to British colonies; the introduction of tea cultivation from China to India during the period that India was part of the British Empire; different regional adaptions of tea (one example might be the classic iced tea of the American South); “Devonshire” tea that is actually grown and packaged in Kenya; the introduction of flavours and scents into pure Eastern teas by people from other cultures—Earl Grey, anyone?

The role of cross-cultural exchange has been hugely influential in shaping tea culture today. In fact, it could be argued that, unless you are talking about pure teas grown and imbibed in the countries of their origin, tea is an entirely diasporic and multi-cultural phenomenon.

The specific instance of cross-cultural tea exchange that caused me to reflect on this phenomenon occurred when I was in Minneapolis. Minneapolis, and Minnesota in general, has a large population of residents with German, Swedish and Norwegian ancestry. During my time there I happened to come across a packet of Söderblandning, a tea blend that is quintessentially Swedish.

Söderblandning, or Söder Te, roughly translates to Blend of South Stockholm and is perhaps the best-known “Swedish” tea. Although the Swedes are not known for their tea drinking, they tend to favour black teas blended with fruits and flowers. Söderblandning follows this trend, consisting of a blend of Ceylon and Chinese black teas with orange rind, some tropical fruits such as mango or papaya, and cornflower and marigold petals. The story of this tea is as follows: it was created accidentally in 1979 by a teashop owner in South Stockholm who dropped some unintended ingredients into his blend and discovered that it tasted rather good. He originally sold it under the name of “Mistake Tea.”

The plot thickens when you learn that the creator of the blend, Vernon Mauris, is originally from Sri Lanka, and that Söderblandning has found a market in one of the countries most associated with traditional tea drinking and tea production; according to Mauris, he exports about 4 tonnes a year to Japan. In another twist to the story of cultural adaptation, it seems to have become popular to drink a hot cup of Söderblandning with a glass of port in Portugal.

So, here we have a “Swedish tea” created in Sweden by someone originally from Sri Lanka, sold in Minneapolis, made from black tea grown in China and Sri Lanka, and exported in large quantities to Japan—a diaspora of tea if there ever was one! And perhaps it is partly this complex multiculturalism that continues to make tea appealing to people from so many different cultures—it has travelled across the world and adapted to new environments just like the people it travelled with. Of course, tea’s multiculturalism also makes it an infinitely interesting topic to explore (and by explore, I mean drink!).

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6 responses to “The Diaspora of Tea”

  1. […] Following on from Part 1, this instalment uses two other teapots I came across in the British Museum as a starting point to reflect on the journey of tea culture across the world; the history of tea drinking is a diaspora of teapots as much as a diaspora of tea. […]

  2. […] had. The tea that would have been used in this tea set is, of course, the most obvious element, imported to Britain from various parts of the British Empire. However, interestingly, the red stoneware from which the tea set is made was also imported to […]

  3. […] to serve, it meant that I could unexpectedly stumble across them. They are a good reminder of the complex history of tea culture and teawares, and that Deltware doesn’t have to just mean blue and white tiles or […]

  4. […] were named after British individuals, such as Earl Grey, or Lady Londonderry, and were products of cross-cultural exchange from across and beyond the British Empire. There are also the now-classic blends of pure black tea […]

  5. […] to be a little more creative, and delve into the complex cultural dissemination of tea discussed in one of my previous articles. For example, when I watched Sweden play, I brewed up the last of my Söderblandning, the classic […]

  6. This is definitely something to ponder while sipping your tea! It’s so important to know where your tea is grown but also why it is grown there – really interesting blog, thanks!

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