Strange brew: The stories and culture of tea in Russia

Teapot and tea briquette. Photo by Anastasia Pestova, used with permission

Once, during my student years, I was coming home by train. The economу-class train was packed with students like myself from various regions of Russia. We quickly got to know each other, and two guys volunteered to make us some tea. Returning with the cups, one of them pulled a knife and a block of butter out of his backpack. Without hesitation, he plopped at least 50 grams of butter into each cup! The guys were from a small Siberian town and explained that back home, many people drink tea this way. Later, in the cramped toilet of the old Russian train, they spent a long time scrubbing our cups clean of the butter with cold water.

Where the Russian tea comes from

In 1638, tea was brought from China as a gift for Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich. Initially, tea in Russia was considered a medicine and was sold in pharmacies. People even tried to cure cholera with tea.

The tea era truly began when tea transitioned from a medicinal product to a common beverage. The first ones who started drinking tea on a regular basis were the inhabitants of Siberia in the 18th century, both Russian peasants and Indigenous peoples. The drink helped them stay warm in the harsh climate and provided a boost of energy during long journeys.

The most expensive tea in Tsarist Russia was called “baikhovy” tea. Interestingly, this term existed and still exists only within the country. It is said that Chinese traders, offering the most valuable tea with tips (the top leaves of the tea plant), would say “bai hao.” Russian merchants simplified this to “baikhovy.” Essentially, this term does not refer to a specific type of tea but rather to any loose-leaf tea.

Tea drinking as a cultural experience

In East Asia, tea is a ceremony with its own special rules and a particular journey into the inner world. Russian tea drinking, however, has (almost) no ceremonies and is marked by long, heartfelt conversations.

Russian samovar. Photo by KiriLL for Newspaper ‘Number One’ via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Tea time has always been a setting for discussing important matters and socializing. In the 17th and 18th centuries, silence at the table was seen as disrespectful to the hosts. People would sit at the table for a long time, as tea was not something to be rushed.

A distinctive feature of Russian tea culture is the abundance of treats served with tea. Honey, jam, sugar, fruits, dried fruits, cream, milk, various buns, pies, and cookies are typically served. Sometimes, even meat dishes are included. In some regions, you can even see salted lemons and pickles served with tea.

While in East Asia tea is poured from the same pot in which it is brewed, the Russian tradition involves a samovar and a separate teapot.

The samovar, an indispensable attribute of traditional Russian tea drinking, can now mostly be found in museums or traditional restaurants. However, special tea cozies used to cover the teapot can still be found in some families. These are made from thick materials and shaped in different ways, like a woman in a wide skirt, a doll, a rooster, or fairy tale animals.

Another popular accessory is the “podstakannik” (tea glass holder). In taverns, tea was served in glasses without handles, which would burn the hands. In the 18th century, a clever artisan invented the first podstakannik. They were made from various materials like brass, copper, or silver. The wealthy could afford personalized holders adorned with precious stones. In 1892, podstakanniks started to be used on trains, a tradition that continues today.

‘Chifir’ and some strange teas

No discussion of Russian teas would be complete without mentioning the notorious prison tea, “chifir.” This unique ritual found only within the confines of the former USSR, involves brewing an incredibly strong and bitter tea with psycho-stimulating effects due to its high caffeine content. In a 400 ml aluminum mug, at least half of a 50-gram packet of tea is used.

Doctors warn that prolonged consumption of chifir can lead to cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases.

But chifir is not the only unusual tea. In eastern Siberia, a tea called “zatiran” was made from cheap tea leaves, salt, milk, and flour fried in fat or butter. This type of tea is still popular among the residents of Buryatia.

In the 1960s, during a period of shortages, a tea nicknamed “elephant tea” (because of the packaging image) became incredibly popular in Russia. To improve the quality of tea in the country, the authorities arranged imports from India and Sri Lanka. “Indian tea” actually contained only 15 percent real “Indian” leaves, with the rest being lower-quality tea from Georgia. Essentially, the familiar taste from Soviet stores was a blend of teas from various regions.

This might explain why lemon has become a quintessential addition to Russian tea. The bright taste of lemon can mask all other flavors, effectively “rescuing” even the poorest quality tea. This practice, used both in the past and today, “improves” even Lipton teabags.

Tea in the Russian language

Tea has found its place not only in kitchens and restaurants but also in the Russian language. The term for “a gratuity or tip given to service staff” is “chaevie” in Russian, literally translating as “tea money.”

The expression “гонять чаи” (gonyat’ chai) meaning “to drink tea in an unhurried manner and with great enjoyment” is used to describe someone loafing around or shirking work. There are proverbs like “выпей чайку — забудешь тоску” (Drink tea, forget your sorrow) and “чай не пьешь — откуда силу возьмешь?” (If you don't drink tea, where will you get your strength?). From the Siberian region comes the word “чаёвничать,” meaning “to chat” or “to socialize over tea.”

So the main thing in Russian tea is not what is in the cup, but those who are at the table. Therefore, in Russia, tea is more than just a drink; sometimes it is a real adventure.

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