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The art of Chinese tea

Tea has been cultivated in China for many centuries.

In Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries tea was largely limited to royal houses. But the liquid made from the camellia sinensis bush has always been consumed by everyone in China. Whether as a quick pick me up or as part of an elaborate ritual, tea drinking is an indelible part of Chinese life.

Tea comes in three primary 'colors': green, oolong and black (though white tea exists, too). But the different shades are not the result of using different varieties. They stem from the amount of oxidation the leaf undergoes before being further processed.

Black tea certainly exists in China today, as it has for hundreds of years. But 90% of it is exported to the rest of the world. Green (and, to a much lesser extent, oolong) remains the favored style. The Chinese are known as a wise people and evidence for this can certainly be found from this choice. Green tea is not only delicious, but very healthy.

Green tea is rich in antioxidants. Those help cleanse the blood stream of free radicals (charged atoms that can damage cells), aiding greater heart health. Green tea is also rich in Vitamin C, isoflavones and other healthy ingredients.

But tea is not drunk in China only as a boon to good health. The Chinese are not frenetically obsessed the way Americans are with every twitch of the health meter. Tea is considered a pleasing drink, one that adds to a meal and also provides an opportunity for socializing. They don't as often spend hours preparing and serving tea in a ritual as elaborate as their Japanese cousins. Nevertheless, tea in China is part of a way of life.

It also provides an important adjunct to a fine style of dining known as dim sum.

Dim sum provides a large variety of small foods that are often selected off a cart. Selections might consist of dumplings stuffed with meats or vegetables, or one might be a small cake for dessert. But whatever the food chosen, tea is an essential component of the dim sum dining experience.

Carefully brewed and typically served in a cup with no handles, drinking a fine tea completes a Chinese meal. Unlike its British counterpart it is served plain, without milk or sugar. It serves to cleanse the palette between choices. It soothes and refreshes. But, like its ritual-pair in Britain, it provides a moment of civilization in a chaotic world.