5 o’clock Tea!

About Eritrea - History & Culture

What do the British love more than being miserable?

Tea!

Yes, and?

That’s really it! You’re caught up on English culture.

Natnael, we’re paying you for this.

Fine, Fine!

Tea drinking….

It’s a national sport in England.

The average Brit drinks 17 tonnes of tea a year. Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration, but you know what I’m getting at. They drink tea for breakfast. They drink tea for lunch. They drink tea before bed. They drink it at every opportunity in between.

They have it black, white or with lemon.

But the most popular combination is the builder’s tea. Milk and sugar.

Before the arrival of Coca-Cola, tea was almost the number one soft (hot) drink in the world. It didn’t need companies to sell it or corporations to dominate it. You just boiled the tealeaves, added some sugar, and perhaps lit up a cigarette and voila! You conversed with the gods.

The Chinese or the Indians invented tea probably as a potion. Maybe it was somehow associated with the other world. In days of old, if something tasted good, that unique flavor was attributed to the divinity. Wine, was for example, the nectar of the gods. People believed it gave the one who drank these concoctions power, equivalent to that possessed by the deity.

The English invented the five o’clock tea mostly known as high tea for reasons known only to their aristocrats or maybe to their businessmen. They drank their ritualized afternoon tea come rain or come shine. Did they do it during their so many battles? Who knows.

It all started when one day they occupied India. They found a lot of tea in that country. So they said to themselves: How can we sell it to those bloody Arabs out there who drink only Coffee! So they set sail north to the Arab lands.

“Good Morning Ali? Have you tasted this new magic potion yet?”

“What is it, Mr. Brand?”

“It is called tea, and it is good for your physical and spiritual health.”

“Walahi, I will buy it if that is the case.”

So Mr. Brand sails back to India, comes back with ships laden with crushed black leaves and sells his merchandize at a profit and eventually Ali tosses his jebena (Coffee pot) out the window and starts to enjoy his shahi. And the Arabs, being good at calligraphy, Ali invents new styles of pouring tea into his small glass. He holds the teapot one meter above the ground and pours, and while he pours he moves the teapot slowly, up and down. It is music to the eye.

Mr. Brand is a very shrewd dealer. He deserved to be knighted by Her Majesty, for he did not forget to bring along Karfa(Cinnamon) and Kinifer (Clove) along with him. Ali becomes very happy. And Mr. Brand gets to be very very rich and begins to think about colonizing Arabia Felix one day as he sips his tea way up north in his office in London.

Tea is a nice beverage. It opens up the mind, and makes you think about a lot of things. Including colonial schemes. But it also destroys colonies. Remember the Boston Tea party? If it were not for those boxes of tea, we wouldn’t have USA at present.

Before the advent of the Italians, Eritreans knew nothing about tea. Our grandmothers drank only coffee without sugar. But, gradually, with the opening of the country to foreigners, Eritreans began to get the kick out of sweetened tea. The countrymen followed suit. Teashops flung their doors open. Tea drinking became a national pastime. And now if any Eritrean is suffering from gastritis or diabetes or even bad tooth, it is the fault of our over-boiled and oversweetened shahi.

But, many expatriates (except Arabs and Indians) are repulsed by our tea. Said one European, “Is it tea or syrup?”

He was right. Eritreans tend to boil the hell out of the tealeaves first and sweeten it enough to deaden the taste buds.

“I can’t drink this,” said one Italian at a bar. “Too much sugar.”

One of the reasons why Eritreans drink over-sweetened tea is perhaps because that is our only source of sugar or glucose. The ferengi (Europeans) can satisfy their sweet tooth by eating piles of sweetmeat and jelly.

As I said above, tea opens the mind and brings old memories of old past. If you visit the teashops of Baghdad you will meet storytellers sitting in the corner. An old man who has 1001 Arabian-nights-type of stories in his repertoire, tells tall stories and people pay for his tea.

In Asmara it is said that in the 1960’s people sat in teashops to chat. But there were those who excelled in recounting interesting tales (mostly invented) and the teashop owner liked them. They attracted customers, and he sold a thousand and one glasses of tea per day.

Apparently there was one lot back in the day that frequented a certain teashop for a purpose. His name was Yohannes. He wrote love letters for money or a cup of tea.

“I have a crush on this out-ofsight girl, her name is Helen, please help me to write her a very beautiful poem.”

“No problem. What does she look like? Is she tall, slim, plump, fair, complexioned, long hair, shapely….?

“She is everything to me.”

“Okay, Helen, Helen I take my pen, to write now and then your eyes are like gold, a pearl to be sold(very silly isn’t it)….”

When we were kids, we ate Kitcha(Unleavened bread) with tea before leaving for school. The Hebrews ate it once a year; we ate it all our lives. If you broke the tea filled glass you were not served again. You cried your eyes out and nobody came to your rescue.

Guests were given tea without prior notice. Every stranger who dropped by was entitled to a glass of tea. What remained in the pot after the guests left was shared among kids in the absence of the mother.

But tea comes in various flavors: minted, with lemon, spiced, mixed with milk,etc. The Brits like it with milk, Eritreans with lemon, Americans cold, Sudanese black and gluey.

In France, though, it is a completely different story. Some Frenchmen don’t have the faintest idea what tea is. They drink coffee in the morning, after lunch and before going to bed. And those who do, they got up at night to fix tea only to kick away their insomnia.

It is said that tea is more expensive than any other soft or hot drink in France. So if you one day find yourself in France with short change do opt for a soft drink that is not tea.

If you happen to preach the virtues of tea as compared to coffee to the French by uttering tea helps with heart condition, coffee is bad for the heart and dehydrates the body The French probably won’t listen.

Maybe the French at some point in time thought that it was an Anglo-Saxon ploy designed a hundred years back to make them buy English tea. These two nations have ever since their creation held contradicting views about the world ranging from perfumes to foreign policies.

However, David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Paul Merson and the rest of Arsenal’s squad in 1996 got a different Frenchman. A little known Frenchman named Arsene Wenger arrived from Japan promising great things as long as Arsenal’s players changed their tea habits.

Ideally there was no milk or sugar, but if you had to indulge then there was a certain technique Wenger was hell-bent on implementing.

It was all to do with the sugar.

Firstly, you had to be using sugar cubes, a lesser-heralded hero in these granulated days.

The next step was to submerge the sugar cube into the tea, ensuring it stayed on the spoon.

Finally, when the sugar cube is saturated to the max, you stir from side to side, rather than in a circular motion.

Thus, you had yourself a perfectly dissolved builder’s tea.

Drink your tea this way and you’ll be winning domestic doubles in any country in no time, although it should be noted that it will all end in a long barren spell and sad goodbye.

Right, I’m off to get a cuppa.