Our theme for the month of February is “plants.”
If you know me, you know that the beverage inside my cup on that Zoom call is tea, not coffee.
While that habit is somewhat unusual for me as an American, it is not unusual for the world at large. According to geographer David Grigg, “three cups of tea are drunk for every one of coffee.” Still, continental and cultural trends can affect the identity of your caffeine delivery method of choice. If your morning begins in Europe or the Americas, you’re likely craving a cup of joe; if your morning begins anywhere else—Africa, the Middle East, Asia—you’re likely craving a cup of tea.
Tea, as beverage terms go, is a remarkably versatile word. While the English word tea began as a descriptor for the beverage brewed from Camellia sinensis (a shrub native to China, northern India, and southeast Asia), tea now describes all sorts of plant-based drinks. In the deliciously vague words of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, definition 3a, tea can be “any of [the] various plants used like tea; also, a drink prepared by soaking their parts (such as leaves or roots) and used medicinally or as a beverage.” If you pour water over peppermint leaves, you’ve created peppermint tea. If you pour water over lemon slices and ginger roots, you’ve created lemon-ginger tea. And if you pour water over potatoes, you’ve created potato tea, an uncommonly disgusting monstrosity but a fairly qualified claimant to the title of “tea.”
As someone whose day is measured in tea as well as hours, I tend to believe that those who dismiss tea just simply haven’t tried the right variety yet. I enjoy a good cup of coffee, but my affection lies with tea because of its sheer variety of consumable forms. Of course I love the family of teas derived from Camellia sinensis—black, green, white, oolong, and so on—but herbal and other nontraditional teas can suit just as many of my moods.
Here is my schedule of a day of teas: some familiar, some unusual, all uniquely delicious. Perhaps you’ll rediscover an old friend. Perhaps you’ll find a new accompaniment for your day. Hot leaf juice (and its chilled versions) can be an amazing way to explore the strange and wonderful ways people have created to drink their gardens.
Breakfast — English Breakfast
Often stereotyped as classy and pretentious, this black tea blend often fills a much more utilitarian role in its home country. During my college semester in York, I found myself surprised by how rich and earthy—almost coffee-like—a cup of English Breakfast could be. “Builders’ tea” (the sort of strong, dark tea traditionally guzzled by the British construction trade) is a delicious way to start the day, and its strong punch of caffeine is enough to jumpstart any sluggish morning.
Recommended Enjoyment Method: Squeeze a few drops of honey into a mug then plop a Yorkshire Tea bag on top. Boil water and pour over the tea bag. Steep to desired strength. Add milk or cream (half-and-half is delightful, as is extra-creamy oat milk).
Midmorning — Chai
Because chai means “tea” in Hindi and a host of other languages, I’ve learned that the American chai tea latte can often provoke eye rolls from those who knew the spicy tea long before Starbucks. As a latte simply indicates tea with steamed milk, anyone ordering a chai tea latte is ordering a rather repetitive tea tea tea with milk.
But masala chai—the South Asian drink behind the sweetened concentrate—is also a much richer, more nuanced beverage than most coffee shops often serve. Masala chai is a combination of tea (usually assam tea, a variety of black tea) and spices, a fragrant dance of flavors that vary by family and region and preference. I’m still fond of a sweet, cinnamon-laced chai in a plastic cup, but I’ve grown to adore the process of crushing ginger, cardamom, and cloves in a mortar and pestle, of boiling the spices until the kitchen smells like heaven. Even on lazier days, a loose-leaf chai can deliver some of the same delight: I’m currently sipping a rooibos (red bush tea) chai as I type these words.
Recommended Enjoyment Method: If you’ve never tried a bold, spicy masala chai, binge-watch @crossculturechristian’s videos on TikTok (which share deep thoughts as well as delicious recipes), and then follow Kevin’s techniques. Priya Krishna’s cookbook Indian-ish also offers a simpler but still wonderfully spicy cardamom chai.
Lunchtime — Jasmine
Jasmine tea is a type of green tea, usually scented with jasmine blossoms. It is particularly beloved in East Asia (China’s Fuijan province grows some of the highest-quality leaves), and it is particularly delicious when paired with the foods of that side of the world. If you’ve never drunk jasmine tea while nibbling on a salmon roll, you are missing out on one of the great joys of this life.
Recommended Enjoyment Method: Brew loose-leaf jasmine tea (I’m partial to the kind bought in bulk from a fair-trade store) in a teapot (I’m partial to cast-iron teapots, which retain heat longer than ceramic teapots).
Afternoon — Garden Peppermint
At this time of year, when my garden is covered in snow, I long for a cup of good mint tea. If you’ve ever planted mint, you know that it can take over a garden in under a month’s time. But a few pots of mint on the porch can be a glorious addition to your tea diet. Spearmint often produces a beverage more reminiscent of toothpaste than summer afternoons, but peppermint can produce a minty, refreshing drink that’s good hot or cold.
Recommended Enjoyment Method: Trim the enormous peppermint plant on your porch, perhaps combining the clippings with other members of the mint family—lemon balm, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, and so on. Dust off any dirt on the leaves, then pour boiling water over them. Steep to desired strength. Enjoy, or chill and then enjoy.
Evening — Citron Tea
Last winter, my housemate introduced me to this Korean citrus tea, which is made by spooning a citron fruit marmalade into a mug before pouring in boiling water. Many Koreans drink this Vitamin C-rich drink on sick days, and once I took my first sip, I understood why. The sweet, citrusy tea is warm, cozy, and caffeine-free, and it’s sweet enough to comfort both whiny children and sugar-deprived adults. In the long winter months, my housemate and I have taken to making citron tea and popcorn around 9 p.m., creating the perfect sweet-and-salty snack to end the night.
Recommended Enjoyment Method: Pick up a jar of citron tea at your local Korean market. Spoon marmalade onto the bottom of your favorite mug (I usually cover the bottom in about an inch of marmalade). Pour in boiling water. Enjoy, hunting for bits of citrus peel, which you can either ignore or nibble as an included snack.
Bedtime — Chamomile
Chamomile tea is often the leading ingredient in so-called “bedtime” teas, and the delicate daisy plant is often heralded as an herbal cure-all, capable of soothing ailments from insomnia to anxiety to hay fever.
I truly don’t know if chamomile’s effect on me is physical or psychological. But chamomile is often a predecessor to yawning—and as a night owl, that drowsy state is often difficult for me to reach. So I’ll keep drinking a cup of chamomile before bedtime, easing my transition into dreamland and finishing the day with one more cup of tea. I’ll be drinking English Breakfast again before I know it.
Recommended Enjoyment Method: It’s late. Grab a tea bag, and pour over some boiling water. If you’re feeling fancy, drizzle in some honey. If you’re feeling especially fancy, try growing your own chamomile plants, and if you manage to grow more than a few usable daisies, please message me your secrets.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.