Steep this

May 28, 2002

`HE DRINKS too much tea," says a character named Simon in Noel Coward's Hay Fever.

"It can't do him much harm, surely?" says Myra.

"It tans the stomach," says Simon.

Hmmm. Feeling leathery on the inside? Blame tea if you want, but it might just be worth it.

Researchers in the United States are suggesting that a steady diet of tea could help prevent you from dropping dead after a heart attack. And in Taiwan, scientists believe tea could help keep you from dropping at all - because it strengthens the bones. The old song has the wording backward. Tea: a twofer.

No wonder so much of the world turns to tea, and in so many forms. The Japanese ritualize it. The Chinese - well, it's no accident that one expression for more wealth than you can imagine has to do with all the tea in China. The Indian tea wallah with his charcoal brazier lets it sit for hours but somehow makes it vaporously magical with spices and hot milk. The Afghan, sitting cross-legged on a carpet with his automatic at his side, takes green tea in summer and black in winter - by the gallon.

In Russia, impossibly strong tea from a chainik is mixed with boiling water fresh from a brass samovar, ideally fired by pine cones. Russians, famous for their vodka, draw strength and warmth and comfort from tea. Drunk from a sturdy glass, tea gives a Russian her own private place to draw into. Russians admire the English for taking tea with milk, but never imitate them. The peasant holds a sugar cube in his teeth and drinks the tea past it. As long as his teeth hold out, that is.

Somewhere west of Russia, the world stops using some variant of the word chai and turns to tea or its linguistic cousins instead. No matter. Put together a cold, rainy, wind-whipped afternoon in Canterbury, a drenched and cranky and footsore traveler, and a steaming metal pot of tea with a scone on the side, and you've put together an ascent into the sublime. Differentiate the equation: It's a function of the tea.

But a note of medical advice: No one's talking about herbal tea here. It's tea from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, that does a body good.

So accept no substitutes. Stand tall, take it to heart - and have a cup of tea.

And then have another.

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