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Buryats drink more tea than anybody. Mongolians probably are second, Russians third and the English possibly, by comparison, a distant fourth.
Like the English, the Buryats drink it with milk and sugar. If you order tea in a café, restaurant or have it served to you at someone's home it will automatically come with milk. The same is true in Mongolia except there it will come with goat milk. Sometimes with camel milk. In rural Buryatia communities they will serve it with yak milk, but only if that's the livestock the have. They prefer cow milk. The deer people, of course, serve it with reindeer milk. To get it without milk, you have to order it that way. Then they will often automatically serve it with a thin slice of lemon (not a wedge, but a thin circle) and often as not with sugar already in the cup as that's how the Russians tend to drink it. Getting it sans milk is sometimes near impossible as they will make a huge pot of tea and throw in the milk right then. To ask for it without milk, lemon or sugar, well people look at you with wonder as to where did this exotic bird come from. Sometime they will watch to see if you really drink it that way.
It reminds me of the time I first visited England back in September 1971 and ordered a cup of tea at a cafeteria in Earl's Court. The tea came with milk. I sent it back saying I must have gotten someone else's order.
"Wot's wrong?" This said with a thick cockney accent.
"I'd like a cup of tea."
"But I didn't order it with milk."
"No just black tea."
"Tea is always served with milk."
"But I don't like it with milk, I prefer it black."
"Black? I suppose you'll be wanting a slice of lemon too?"
"No, just black."
"Made with a teabag then?"
"No, with leaves as normal."
"Well that's a relief, here you go."
"Ah miss," I said a few minutes later,
"Wot's wrong now. Don't fancy the water? The shape of the cup?"
"No, it has sugar in it. I like it black. No milk. No Sugar."
"Libby, the Yank's stark. Maybe you'd prefer some coffee?"
"No, I don't like coffee. Tea black without milk, sugar or lemon."
"This is a first. Wait until I tell my sister Flo."
Tea first arrived in Russia in 1638 as a gift from a Mongolian ruler, whose people, along with the Buryats had been imbibing the brew for some time, no doubt served with milk. Indeed the Dutch had already developed the tea habit and began trading it in 1611. The English followed suit as traders in 1658 and later here in Russian after explorers pushed into eastern Siberia and set up outposts in Irkusk, Udinskoye (what was to become Ulan Ude in 1666) and Kiakhata, located on what would become the border between Russia and Mongolia, the fabled city of tea merchants and one of the most important and richest cities in the world during the 19th century. These cities were vital destinations and markets along the Tea Road that stretched from China to Moscow, surpassing in importance, in the minds and pockets of many, the better known Silk Road.
Customers considered the Russian tea, dragged across two vast continents by wagons, far superior to that shipped over the seas by the Dutch and English. Tea leaves cannot tolerate moisture, even moist air, thus the tea brought overland was favored. The Kiakhata tea merchants got rich until the double whammy of the Russian Revolution closing the borders to Mongolia and the building of the Trans Siberia railroad destroyed their livelihoods, but not the trade in tea as it was taken over by the state although in a far less efficient and profitable manner. The love of tea remained and nowhere more so than in Buryatia where it continues as a staple of every meal, business day, break or social occasion.
The proper way to make tea is to first heat a small teapot with boiling water. After pouring out the hot water, place one teaspoon of tea per cup with an additional teaspoon for the pot. Fill the pot with near boiling water. Cover the pot with a cozy and let it sit for four minutes. Before you are ready to serve the tea, warm the cups into which it will be served, if they are not already at room temperature. Fill each cup about one quarter of the way full with tea from the teapot, then stop and fill the rest of the way with fresh near boiling water. Then add milk or lemon, sugar or, in my case, nothing, and enjoy.
Buryat's often add to the pot a tiny sprig of Sagan Dali, or White Wing, the leaves of a small bush that grows in the Tunkinsky region. They consider it a tonic. Sagan Dali adds a little earthly flavor with a slight balsam taste. They feel that it helps with digestion and many other such things. For a little 'astringency and strength' they will add a few tablespoons of Balsam Farms' 80 proof Buryatia or 90 proof Amrila Balm, this last to provide a bit of the 'torrid breathe of the steppes,' both guaranteed to give you 'vivifying power' and help prevent the common cold and other diseases. Both of latter additives are based on Tibetan medicine and contain either essence of balsam or plants from the steppes, combined with various herbs. I have to say; they stopped a developing flu of mine dead in its tracks. Since the company is a strong supporter of the Institute of the Pandito Khamabo Lama Itigekov, one can further justify its qualities of supporting a good cause; a trait that for some may be necessary as it is an acquired taste that some may never acquire.
As for herb teas, first these are considered infusions (not teas) and medicinal, thus they can only be purchased in pharmacies, not in grocery stores next to the regular teas or coffees as is our custom. Options are limited. Nary a Sleepytime, Lemon Lift or Morning Thunder is in sight. Rose Hip and Chamomile are the staples. Not surprising, you don't see Russian Caravan tea sold in stores either, a popular flavor in the United States, Canada and England. Jasmine, Earl Gray, Oolong, Pekoe and Darjeeling are all available. Assam here is what we call Russian Caravan back home. I asked James, an Irish volunteer at the orphanage, if they serve Irish Breakfast in his country and he said the Irish do have tea for breakfast, but he hadn't heard of such a brand. He drinks his with milk by the way. And as for coffee, except at two cafes that served the brewed variety, you'll get instant.
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475