By Yingyi Tan
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For centuries, China was the world’s only tea exporter. In the 9th century, tea culture spread beyond China, first to Japan and Korea, then to the Middle East and South Asia through the Silk Road. Iran and India today stand out as countries that have some of the world’s highest per capita rates of tea consumption and the most vibrant tea cultures. But tea didn’t become a necessity with social and economic importance for both countries until the 19th century, when the British exerted deliberate efforts to cultivate tea in its colony India.
Primarily through first-hand accounts, this paper compares the development of tea culture in Iran and India and analyzes how its belated popularity in both countries was influenced and prompted by diverse external historical events. The first section presents a few documents that reflect the earliest acknowledgments of tea in the two countries. The second section reveals how tea in both countries became popular among the upper classes during the 16th- 17th century, but the limited supply still constrained its availability in China. The third section explores the massive changes the British colonial establishment brought to the Indian Ocean. Namely, Indian tea, mass-produced in large-scale tea plantations, came to replace Chinese tea in the global market and made its way to the mass Iranians. This paper’s chronological and thematic approach demonstrates the interesting intersections and parallels of tea culture in Iran and India and their implications for understanding the changing value of tea from a regional to a global commodity.
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