Tea, herbal tea, infusion and tisane

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Many Filipinos tend to look at tea as an instant drink largely because the tea we know comes from the West, the kind packaged in convenient tea bags. But did you know that the first tea bag was not made to be dropped into a cup of hot water? Story has it that tea bags were invented by a New York merchant as a way to give tea samples. And that’s just one of the many stories associated with tea.

What it tea and how was it discovered? Another story has it that around 2737 B.C. when it was the practice in China to boil water before drinking due to sanitation issues, dried leaves landed on Emperor Shen Nung’s cup of hot water. He liked the aroma, tasted the brew and tea was born. Tea can refer to the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes (let’s just call them leaves for brevity) of the Camellia sinensis; the beverage made with the leaves of the Camellia sinensis; or the meal during which the beverage is traditionally drank.

There are three (four, if you want to split hairs) types of tea although they are all leaves of the Camellia sinensis. The differences lie in the way the leaves are prepared and cured. But to better understand the types of tea, let us first look at the four-step preparation and curing process that the leaves undergo. After the leaves are picked, they are first withered to remove moisture. Then, they are rolled to release the natural juices and aromas. Third, they are oxidized (the common term used is fermentation which seems to be a misnomer) by exposing them to air. Fourth, they are fired to dry the leaves evenly.

Every step of the process yields a different type of tea. Leaves that undergo all four processes are sold as black tea. Leaves that are only partially oxidized are black and gold in color and sold as oolong tea. Green tea leaves stay green because they are not oxidized. A fourth type, white tea, which is really a variation of green tea comes from leaves that are picked before they open and while still covered with fine silky hairs. Because they have been least subjected to processing, green and white tea are said to have the most beneficial effects on our health.

When buying commercial tea, especially those that come in tea bags, it pays to know exactly what you’re getting. Herbal teas are not real teas as they contain no part of the Camellia sinensis. They are more in the nature of infusions (or what the French call tisane) — a blend of fruits, flowers, roots and leaves of plants other than the Camellia sinensis. That’s why most of them are labeled caffeine-free. It’s not because the caffeine had been removed from the tea but because they contain no tea at all.

Flavored tea, on the other hand, is a combination of Camellia sinensis and aromatic fruits, flowers, roots or leaves of some other plants. Blended teas are a combination of one or more types of tea. Malunggay tea is a herbal tea; Earl Grey tea (black tea and bergamot), jasmine tea (oolong or green tea and jasmine flowers) and genmaicha (a combination of green tea and toasted brown rice) are flavored teas.

Oriental stores and better supermarkets sell loose tea leaves. They might seem expensive but when you consider just how many cups of tea you can make with just a few grams of dried tea leaves, the cost becomes relative. At home, I like to make my own flavored tea by combining tea leaves with an assortment of herbs and fruits. It’s easy enough — all you need is a teapot (porcelain or earthenware), hot water and cups. Here’s how to prepare green tea with lemon and mint.

Start by boiling water. Warm the pot and cups by pouring in hot water then throwing it out.

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Next, place the tea leaves in the pot.

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Pour in hot water then throw out the water once more. This process is said to remove much of the bitterness from the leaves.

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To the tea leaves in the pot, add a quarter of lemon and a handful of mint leaves (stalks included). I like to tear the mint by hand for maximum flavor.

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Pour in hot water and allow to steep for at least two minutes. Steep longer than five minutes and the brew gets bitter.

If you enjoy citrusy flavors, aside from lemon, you can add lime or orange. If you like stronger aromas and more exotic flavors, add a cinnamon stick, a slice of ginger or a generous pinch of anise seeds. Aside from mint, what herbs go well with tea? Tarragon, lemongrass, thyme, rosemary, dill and sage are among my favorites.

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