If you’ve read Ancillary Justice, you know that tea is very important to the Radchaai. As it happens, tea is also important to the events of Ancillary Sword, and not just because it takes place firmly inside Radch space. It so happens that Athoek System has a planet where tea is grown, so tea is extra important there.
I’ve been asked if Radchaai “tea” is really tea, or if it’s perhaps just a convenient term for some sort of Space Caffeine. In fact, it’s tea. As in made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. We sometimes call nearly any sort of vegetable matter steeped in hot water “tea” but technically speaking, if it’s not Camellia sinensis, it’s not tea. It’s probably a tisane. Many of which are quite nice! But they’re not quite, you know, tea.
All the various types of tea are made from basically the same plant, but there’s quite a variety available. Some of that variety is due to different cultivars of Camellia sinensis, but quite a lot is a result of the different ways the leaves are picked and processed. Depending on the sort of tea, leaves might be left to sit and wither for varying periods of time before being steamed or pan-fried or air-dried (which halts the oxidation process that’s been supposedly* happening while the leaves wither); bruised, cut, or rolled to encourage even more oxidation; dried again; or even left to age and actually ferment.
The end result is a wide range of very different teas, all produced from essentially the same plant. Roughly you can divide them up as white tea (the most minimally processed, briefly withered and then dried), green tea, oolong, black tea, and pu erh (this is the aged, fermented category, though in the past forty or so years it’s been possible to make something allegedly very like the long aged and fermented pu erhs in just a couple of years, and this sort of pu erh has become relatively widely available. It happens to be the only sort I’ve tried, which is why I say “allegedly”), but there’s quite a lot of variety just within those categories.
White teas aren’t too difficult to find these days–in fact, they’re a bit trendy. But white tea’s trendiness is nothing compared to green tea! Green tea is definitely in these days. There’s nothing wrong with the stuff from Lipton or Bigelow or whoever in the grocery store aisles, if it tastes good to you, but consider trying some of the Chinese green teas (I’m partial to pi lo chun, myself). Or try gyokuro, which is a Japanese green tea made from the leaves of plants that have been deliberately shaded, which affects the flavor. Or try genmaicha, which is green tea mixed with roasted rice, or hojicha, which has been pretty seriously charcoal roasted and tastes like it. It’s not one of my favorites, but you might like it. (I also strongly dislike lapsang souchong, which is a black tea that’s been smoked over pinewood, and tastes basically like drinking the ashes of a tragic Christmas tree lot fire. People I love and respect adore drinking the stuff, though, go figure.)
Oolong! So-so oolong is, you know, so-so. But find yourself some good Ti Kuan Yin (sometimes called Goddess of Mercy, or, for reasons I don’t grasp, Iron Goddess of Mercy). Or, currently my favorite oolong is the Milk Oolong sold by the Republic of Tea. (Bonus–if you get on their mailing list, every now and then they send out a paper mailing that often includes a sample tea bag.) There are lots of different sorts of oolong, of course, lots of individual variation in the process that produces oolong teas, but those are my favorites right now.
Black tea is what you probably think of when you think “tea” if you’re in the US or the UK. Most of what’s available in US or UK grocery stores is a blend of various black teas. Wanna taste the unblended stuff? Check out a fujian black or a keemun (both Chinese) or a darjeeling or assam (both Indian). Tea plants are native to China, by the way, but in the mid 1800s the British were, for various reasons, quite anxious to be able to grow tea in their own territories. They tried sneaking seeds and plants out of China to grow in India, with very little success. Eventually they found a variety of the plant growing wild in Northeast India, and they were off to the races.
Pu ehr is easier to find these days–I swear I saw bags of Lipton pu ehr at the store the other day, in fact. It’s generally very smooth with a very earthy flavor. It doesn’t get bitter even if you steep it for ages. Get a small amount and see if you like it. Not everyone does. (I do!)
You can get tea bags, and loose leaf tea, and even tea bricks–it’s not done much anymore, but steaming tea and pressing it into bricks makes it easier to store and carry long distances, and it keeps much longer that way. There’ve been times and places where bricks of tea were used as money. Most of the tea bricks I’ve seen that are easily available in the US aren’t actually meant for consumption, though, they’re just meant to be cool objects. But the pricey, long-aged pu erh is still formed into bricks or cakes. Poke around ebay for a bit and you’ll find some.
By the way, it’s not true that you can “rinse” nearly all the caffeine out of tea by steeping it very quickly in hot water and then discarding it. There are styles of preparing tea that call for that, but there’ll still be plenty of caffeine in the next steep. It’s also not necessarily true that white tea has hardly any caffeine, (which I’ve heard asserted several times) or that green tea has less than black. Just something to keep in mind, if caffeine is an issue for you.
So now, if you’re still with me, you’re wondering what sort of tea do the Radchaai drink? And the answer is, it depends. Radch space is huge, and no doubt various sorts of tea are popular in various places. But the cheapest, easiest to find tea is bricked, and shipped very long distances, probably quite slowly, so plenty of time to age. So if you want to know what the lowest-common-denominator tea is like, maybe it’s something like pu erh. If you want a step up from that, you might try the various flavored teas based on pu erh. Because adding flowers or fruit or whatever else to tea has been a thing for ages, is still a thing today, and will probably continue to be a thing as long as tea is drunk.
There’s a named tea in Ancillary Sword: it’s called Daughter of Fishes, and best I can tell you is, it’s something like a really good oolong. So try some Ti Kuan Yin.
But what, you might be asking, is Breq’s everyday cuppa? Probably some sort of green tea, actually. If you’re new to green tea, by the way, it can be quite bitter if you brew it too hot or too long. Try just one or two minutes at first. And if you can, try brewing it at about 170F. (This is easier if you have a variable temperature kettle, which [cough] some of us do. (It’s research!) Or you can boil the water and then let it cool down to 170. Or, you know, not, whatever, the short brewing time might fix the bitterness up fine.) As I said above, I’m partial to pi lo chun just now, but I’ve also got something I ordered from Yunomius that I was pretty sure was an aracha, but now I’m not sure exactly what it is, because the package is all in Japanese and I can’t find it on the site, but it’s very good!
Incidentally, if you haven’t already, I recommend at least trying loose leaf. It’s not that hard to do–you can get a teapot with a little basket that lets you easily pull the used leaves out, or a sort of pot that you set on top of your cup and the tea drains down, or an infuser that will sit in your cup that’s easy to empty and rinse out.
Or, you know, not, if that’s too fussy for you. The important thing is to end up with a cup of tea that you enjoy, so whatever works.
*I say “supposedly” because from what I can tell, what’s actually happening here is poorly understood. Also, note that while some steps in tea processing (particularly black tea processing) are often described as “fermentation,” there’s no actual fermentation taking place. Unless, of course, you’re talking about pu ehr.