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The Way of Tea in Asian Cultures

by Pat Tanumihardja

The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook by Pat Tanumihardja

My husband claims he fell in love with me instantly the first time I served him tea at my house. There was no ritual or ceremony involved—just a pot of genmaicha and two teacups. Who knew that this very natural act on my part could have such an impact on another person?

As someone of Chinese descent, drinking tea is very much a way of life for me. I drink it every morning; I drink it when I dine out (even at non-Asian restaurants). I’ve taken part in elaborate tea ceremonies, and I’ve learned how to cook the cuisine associated with tea drinking.

In the same way, tea plays a very important role in many Asian countries—as the focal point of formal ceremonies or just as a beverage drunk among family and friends.
In Chinese tea culture, tea is served in numerous settings: as a sign of respect to your elders on Chinese New Year (which is celebrated on February 14 this year) and during the wedding tea ceremony. Tea is also poured as an ancestral offering.

On the other hand, tea is an everyday drink. Tea houses are ubiquitous all over China and in Chinatowns worldwide. Patrons include everyone from students to busy execs who go to drink tea, meet friends, and listen to music and poetry at all hours of the day.

Besides, tea can be curative, sipped to cleanse your digestive system after a rich, fatty meal. Think of tea and dim sum—the little tidbits eaten for breakfast or lunch—perhaps the most well-known pairing accessible to Americans.

Pat Tanumihardja's Marbled Tea Eggs
Japan has the serene, formal ceremony of chanoyu (literally “boiling water for tea”) and the accompanying meal called cha kaiseki. While shaped over centuries by the formalities and manners regulating the daily life of the samurai as well as Zen Buddhism, the rules and procedures governing the chanoyu practiced today were defined by the tea master Sen-no Rikyu (1522-1591).

While the Japanese “way of tea” is a very complex and rigidly codified ceremony, Korea’s darye (meaning “etiquette for tea” or “day tea rite”), is much less formalized. The Korean approach to tea drinking is relaxed and natural, with fewer formal rituals, and greater creativity and freedom to enjoy a wider variety of teas, services and conversation. The steps are simple to master and drinking tea, alone or in company, quickly becomes a way of life.

Above all, tea is not restricted to drinking. Asian cuisine utilizes tea as an ingredient in cooking as well, for example in ochazuke (tea-soaked rice), marbled tea eggs, and tea-smoked duck.

In the modern world, tea is thankfully still very much ingrained in Asia’s rich tradition, albeit not always in such ritualized ways. The art of tea represents much more than the ritual. It is a simple act of nature illustrated in a spare, carefully worded haiku of a single flower petal floating in the light breeze; as simple as a pot of genmaicha bridging two hearts.

(Note: This story is an excerpt from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook—Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens.)

Marbled Tea Eggs Recipe

Patricia Tanumihardja

Patricia Tanumihardja writes about food, travel and lifestyle through a multicultural lens and especially enjoys covering topics that converge on food, history and culture. She has been published in edibleSeattle, Monterey County Weekly, Sunset, and Saveur. Her debut cookbook, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook—Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens is now available. Please visit:


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(Updated: 12/22/10 CT)

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