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Tea Time in Sri Lanka: The Culture of Ceylon Tea

By Vinod Chathuranga

Sri Lanka, once known as Ceylon, has carved its place in the world as a tea paradise. This article delves into the rich history and vibrant culture surrounding Ceylon tea, from its colonial-era plantations to the bustling tea houses of today. It also explores the diverse varieties of Ceylon tea and their unique characteristics, alongside the traditional snacks enjoyed during tea time.

A Heritage Rooted in Colonial History

The story of tea in Sri Lanka begins in the 19th century during the British colonial era. Under British rule, coffee plantations in Sri Lanka faced devastation due to disease, prompting James Taylor, a British planter, to introduce tea plants from India. The cool, misty hills of Sri Lanka’s central highlands proved ideal for tea cultivation, and soon, tea plantations flourished.

The tea industry rapidly expanded, transforming Sri Lanka into one of the world’s largest tea exporters. The term “Ceylon tea” became synonymous with quality and flavor, capturing the essence of the island’s lush landscapes and meticulous tea production methods.

Varieties of Ceylon Tea

Ceylon tea is renowned for its distinct flavors and aromas, influenced by the region in which it is grown. The main varieties of Ceylon tea include:

1. Black Tea: The most common type of Ceylon tea, known for its robust flavor and briskness. It is produced through a process of withering, rolling, oxidation, and drying. Depending on the altitude and region, black teas from Sri Lanka can range from bold and strong to delicate and floral.

2. Green Tea: Less oxidized than black tea, green tea retains a fresh, grassy flavor with subtle vegetal notes. It undergoes minimal processing to preserve its natural antioxidants and health benefits.

3. White Tea: Made from young tea buds and minimally processed, white tea has a delicate flavor profile with floral and fruity undertones. It is prized for its subtle sweetness and smooth texture.

4. Oolong Tea: A partially oxidized tea that falls between green and black tea in terms of flavor and aroma. Oolong tea from Sri Lanka is known for its fragrant, fruity notes and nuanced complexity.

Each variety of Ceylon tea offers a unique sensory experience, reflecting the terroir of its cultivation and the skill of the tea makers who craft it.

Tea Culture in Sri Lanka

Tea is more than just a beverage in Sri Lanka; it is a cultural institution. Tea estates and plantations dot the picturesque landscapes of the central highlands, offering breathtaking views and immersive experiences for visitors. Guided tours of tea factories provide insights into the tea-making process, from plucking the tender leaves to the final blending and packaging stages.

Tea tasting sessions allow enthusiasts to savor the nuances of different Ceylon teas, learning to appreciate the complexities of aroma, flavor, and body. The art of tea drinking is elevated to a ritual, with careful attention paid to brewing times, water temperature, and the use of quality tea ware.

Traditional Tea-Time Snacks

No tea experience in Sri Lanka is complete without sampling traditional tea-time snacks, which complement the beverage perfectly. These snacks are often savory or sweet, adding to the enjoyment of tea rituals.

1. Short Eats: A variety of savory snacks such as cutlets (deep-fried meat or vegetable patties), vadai (fried lentil fritters), and rolls (stuffed pastries) are popular choices. These snacks are flavorful and satisfying, making them ideal companions to a cup of hot tea.

2. Tea Sandwiches: Delicate sandwiches filled with cucumber, egg salad, or cheese are a lighter option that balances the richness of the tea.

3. Sweet Treats: Sri Lankan sweets like “kokis” (crispy fried cookies), “aluwa” (a sweet made from rice flour and jaggery), and “love cake” (a rich, spiced cake) provide a sweet contrast to the bitterness of tea.

These snacks are often enjoyed during “tiffin” or afternoon tea sessions, a social occasion that brings friends and families together to relax and unwind.

Sustainability and Quality

In recent years, Sri Lanka’s tea industry has embraced sustainable practices to preserve the environment and support local communities. Many tea plantations are now certified for sustainable farming methods, including organic cultivation and fair trade practices. These initiatives not only protect the natural biodiversity of Sri Lanka’s highlands but also ensure the quality and purity of Ceylon tea for generations to come.

Tea time in Sri Lanka is a celebration of heritage, craftsmanship, and community. From the colonial-era plantations that laid the foundation for Ceylon tea’s global reputation to the modern-day tea houses that offer immersive tea experiences, Sri Lanka’s tea culture is steeped in tradition and innovation.

Whether you prefer the robustness of black tea, the freshness of green tea, or the delicacy of white tea, Sri Lanka’s diverse range of Ceylon teas promises to delight the senses. Coupled with traditional tea-time snacks that range from savory to sweet, tea time in Sri Lanka is a sensory journey that invites you to savor every moment and embrace the island’s rich tea heritage.

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