Myanmar’s Inimitable Tea Culture

Tea, a therapeutic beverage, has been a worldwide craze for centuries, with various countries having their own distinct tea culture. From Britain, China, and Japan to India and Thailand, tea drinking has become a classic ceremony with a snob appeal attached to its elaborate preparation and serving. For tea enthusiasts, the tea quality, journey from garden to package, water boiling technique, and steeping method are all given special attention to get the perfect balance between flavor and tannin.

Myanmar, with its own inimitable tea culture, has roadside teashops, standalone stalls, and outlets housed in concrete structures that offer casual ambiance, serving as comfort zones for both the young and old alike. With low tables and plastic stools, tea kettles, and plates of savories, the typical tea shop in Myanmar is a relaxed and comfortable space for people to enjoy their tea leisurely. The aroma of tea wafts through the air, creating a peaceful atmosphere, enhancing the aura of peace in a country where Buddhism is a way of life. Tea is believed to have calming qualities, helping to de-stress through the simple process of preparation, pouring, sipping, and absorbing.

Despite the relaxed ambiance, teashops are buzzing with the latest news updates, political, art, cultural, and international issues, and the latest eatery in town. Interestingly, more men than women are seen here. Tables are crowded, music or television programs are loud, conversations are even louder, and mixed with all this is the clatter of crockery as young waiters carry plates of food, trays of tea, and even loose cigarettes. Myanmar’s tea culture is a unique experience that captures the essence of the country’s tranquility, tradition, and pleasure.

Evolution of Tea Shop Culture in Myanmar

Tea shops have been an integral part of Myanmar’s culture for over a century, shaped by British, Chinese, and Indian influences. They have served as a hub for artists, writers, and thinkers through times of military rule and democratization.

While tea remains a staple, the atmosphere in tea shops has transformed over time. Quiet conversations have been replaced by lively discussions, and the solemn stillness has been replaced by entertainment such as music, sports telecasts, and movies. The more upscale shops even offer internet connectivity, while the traditional teashops under tree shades remain disconnected.

The transformation of tea shops began after the student uprising of 1988. They became larger, better-equipped, and more expensive, with expanded menus that include meals and snacks beyond the basics, as well as a wider variety of teas and drinks. While the air of simplicity has somewhat diminished, it has not affected business or clientele.

Some things have remained unchanged in the traditional tea shop culture, such as low seating and tables, free green or Chinese tea left on each table, and the absence of pressure to move out. Customers are free to sit and sip tea for hours, and sharing is encouraged.

One notable change in tea shops today is the absence of young people, likely due to the emergence of more upscale cafes, fast food restaurants, and shopping malls in larger cities. The biggest change, however, is seen in the most upscale tea shops, like Acacia Tea Salon and Rangoon Tea House. These establishments are expensive, classy, and offer a variety of cuisines, some of which are not Burmese. For tourists, Lucky Seven, Yatha teashop, and Shwe Khaung Laung are among the best tea shops to visit for a unique Myanmar tea experience.

The Menu at Teashops

Teashops are not just about tea – they offer a variety of snacks and an extensive breakfast menu, making them a popular stop before starting the day. The first order of business is usually the free-flowing green tea, followed by laphet yei gyo – a sweet, milky tea made by adding black tea leaves to boiling water, and then adding sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. A simpler version is laphet yei, which is just normal tea with fresh milk.

Tea is an essential part of starting the day in Myanmar, where it is grown and consumed domestically. Myanmar tea is unique and distinct, with its leaves often eaten in their fermented form as a salad, unlike anywhere else in the world. The tea is mainly grown in the hilly areas of Shan state, which is close to China’s Yunnan province and India’s Assam state. The region produces both green and black tea, with varieties like Kokang, Valley Green, Shan First Flush, Mountain roasted green tea, and Kyaukme black tea.

Myanmar’s tea is primarily for domestic consumption, but small quantities of green tea are exported to China and Thailand. In 2016, the country exported its tea to Germany for the first time. The Myanmar Tea Cluster (MTC) was established in 2013 to promote Myanmar tea globally and improve its quality to meet international standards. MTC represents over 30,000 tea farmers, processors, manufacturers, and traders.

Tea is an important part of the local culture, and teashops serve as social gathering places to bond, share news and views, and relax. In Myanmar, tea is one of the seven necessities to start the day, and it is customary to add a pinch of salt and condensed milk to black tea. Pickled tea leaves were traditionally used as a peace offering between warring factions after a truce.

All tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, with black tea leaves requiring the hottest water and milk added, and white and green teas requiring less hot water to steep and release their flavor. Herbal teas are not considered real teas.

Teashops have evolved beyond their traditional offerings to cater to changing tastes and preferences. However, they continue to be an essential part of the local culture and serve as a comforting and welcoming space.

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