A tea plantation in Malino, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, at sunset. Image via Wikicommons license CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

In honor of International Tea Day, Global Voices is exploring the history and variety of tea consumption around the world. From the bitter chai of Turkey to the earthy yerba mate of Argentina, and the sweet milk tea of Thailand, there are seemingly infinite ways to brew and drink tea. Each variant reflects the traditions, history, and culture of those who use it. 

Since 2019, the United Nations has recognized May 21 as International Tea Day to celebrate the cultural, religious, and economic significance of the world's most popular beverage (behind water). There is evidence that humans have been consuming tea for over 5,000 years, and though its birthplace is still debated, it likely emerged in the mountains of China, India, and Myanmar. Today, China is the world’s biggest producer of tea and it exports this product around the world, from nearby neighbors like Hong Kong and Malaysia to far-off nations like Morocco, Ghana, and the United States. 

This booming trade reflects the deep importance of tea. In many countries, tea is an essential part of forging connections and building community. India is famous for its iconic piping hot chai masala tea, where good-natured arguments over the best brewing methods can span decades. In Japan, the intricate tea ceremonies, or chanoyu, have helped preserve their unique traditional culture. In Taiwan, bubble tea, with its chewy tapioca pearls, has become something of a global sensation, acting as a form of “gastrodiplomacy” for the politically tenuous island nation. In Morocco, their signature sweet mint tea remains a powerful symbol of hospitality and friendship. Meanwhile, several Indigenous communities from South Africa to Jamaica and Australia rely on bush tea to treat illnesses and maintain health.

While teas are often associated with cozy afternoons and comfort, the history of tea is also steeped in politics, class struggle, and colonization. For example, the popularization of tea in Western countries is inextricably linked to colonization and oppression. From the Indonesian archipelago where harsh tea plantations helped turn the Dutch East India Trading Company into a colonial powerhouse, to the sprawling hills of southern India where the British extracted massive amounts of tea through blood, brutality, and forced labor, tea played a crucial role in building empires and steering history. 

Even today, tea plantation workers today often face exploitative business practices and unsafe conditions. In Bangladesh, plantation workers are often limited to a meager diet of tea leaves and rice due to unfair wages and unethical practices of plantations. Similarly, the climate crisis is making tea production more challenging and often dangerous, as flooding, intense heat, and unpredictable seasonal changes can cripple the industry and harm plantation workers.

As any true tea lover will tell you, choosing a blend — herbal, black, Ceylon, green, Earl grey, oolong, and more — can be contentious, as tea aficionados are passionate about their preferred teas and brewing style! This special coverage is tapping into that passion and asking our community to share the history of tea in their countries, the tea traditions close to their hearts, and the complicated politics of tea production and export in their regions.  So, grab your favorite mug, steep a cup of your preferred blend, and check out the articles below to learn about the tantalizing world of tea.

Stories about The comforts and controversies of tea

Quetta Tea? Yes please!

The Bridge  2 weeks ago

In the past few years, Quetta tea stalls have sprouted across urban centers in Pakistan, attracting people of all ages to enjoy a cuppa at any time of the day.