So many of you are curious about Russian tea habits. Here are some Russian tea traditions. Please keep in mind that Russia is a large country with many regional customs, so some traditions and methods will differ. As always, none of the links are affiliate links. We do not earn money if you buy a samovar at Amazon, heh.
Russians discovered tea in 16th century, when Ivan the Terrible sent two Cossack atamans (war chiefs), Petrov and Yalychov to Siberia with a decree to “unknown peoples” who might be living there. They made it to the sea, passed through Mongolia, and reached China. Whether or not tea was a part of this expedition remains hotly debated by Russian historians, but it is clear that there was an eventual establishment of diplomatic ties between Russia and China, and in 1618 Czar Mihail Fiodorovich Romanov was presented with several crates of tea by the Chinese delegation. Russian word for tea, “Чай,” phonetically spells out chai.
At first tea was viewed as a medicinal drink, but it quickly gained popularity, and by the end of 17th century everyone was drinking it. By 19th century, tea was a big deal. Strict laws were enacted to prevent sale of contraband tea and banning production of koporskii tea, made from fireweed. Koporskii tea tasted kind of nasty, but if you messed with it enough, in a dry state it looked like real tea, so unscrupulous merchants would cut real tea with it.
In the 20th century, a lot of tea in USSR was either home grown or imported from India and Ceylon. Eventually, due to economic difficulties, those imports dried up and so did the consumption of tea. Now it has picked back up and Russian tea market is the fourth largest by volume, right behind China, India, and Turkey. Most of the tea in Russia comes from India, then Sri-Lanka, then China and Indonesia. They keep trying to grow tea in the Krasnodar region, but it accounts for less than 1% of all tea consumed.
Russians drink 10 times as much black tea as green tea, and the green tea still throws a lot of them for a loop. During her first career, my mother was an engineer working for a company designing an anti-missile system. She and her coworkers ended up viewing the tests of the prototype, and the military put them into some old barracks. It was like camping out in a cabin.
One day they all went to the view the tests, and the weather was bad and cold, so they send one guy back ahead of time to make hot tea. He found the tea, but accidentally grabbed the green tea someone had instead of the black tea. So he brews a kettle of this tea and it’s the wrong color. Being an engineer, he concludes that this tea is weak and solves this problem by adding more tea and more tea, until he gets the nice brown color he wants.
The team returns, takes some nice swallows of said tea and then they all have heart palpitations and a spirited debate regarding whether or not they need to go to the hospital.
Traditional tea preparation involves zavarka, very strong concentrated tea brewed in a tea pot, which is then diluted by boiled water to the desired strength. Children get weaker tea, adults get stronger tea.
This is where the traditional Russian samovars came into play. They are basically low-tech electric kettles designed to boil water and then keep it warm for hours. First samovars used coal, now they are electric. You can see the one below comes with a matching removable tea pot.
Samovars are pretty, but not practical, because they are a pain to clean.
In the pre USSR times, tea was drank in pretty cups, which were always served with a deep saucer dish. Tea was frequently poured into the saucer and drank from it because it cooled faster.
The tea I remember was served in cups at our house. On a train and in a school cafeteria, tea came in glasses, often with a podstakannik, a metal holder.
The glass is removable and easily washed.
Tea is usually sweetened with sugar, more rarely with honey. Honey was more expensive and less readily available. Sometimes lemon was served, but lemons were also a bit of a luxury. Some people mix in preserves. Very few people drink it unsweetened. Milk is usually a no and will get you funny looks.
Indian spiced chai was not a thing in Russia when I left. Most of the times I can’t drink it. It doesn’t taste right to my palate. Neither is adding bergamot, and I can only tolerate it in small amounts. It works in London Fog from Harney’s but not in Earl Grey for me.
Tea is a ritual. In my house, tea was typically consumed at breakfast, with some fruit and sandwiches with bologna or whatever sausage we had handy. You drank your tea and took off for school.
Tea must be consumed hot enough to nip at the roof of your mouth.
This is legend and folklore, so please don’t take it as a medical advice.
Hot tea with a couple of teaspoons of raspberry preserves in it will quickly break a fever. Right now I am not feeling that hot – I haven’t felt that hot all week – and I drank some this morning.
Tea with shipovnik, rosehips, is considered to boost immune system and improve kidney function but is counter indicated for anyone with stomach acid related issues. We would drive out once a year and gather our own rosehips from the edges of the farm fields where it grew like a weed.
In case of conjunctivitis, Russian mothers brew very strong tea, let it cool, and wash the eyes out by dipping a cotton pad into the tea and gently pressing it to the eye. I can confirm that conjunctivis does seem to go away at record rate with this treatment.
To be honest, most health issues in Russia are treated with tea. Headache – tea. Fever – tea. Broken arm – tea. Tea is the way.