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  • Spencer Low

The Portuguese and Tea

It is Christmas Eve today and Christmas tea has made its annual appearance. Typically flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and orange peel, Christmas tea is for many people associated with Christmas markets in France and Germany. However, I'm struck by how much of a historical role Portugal played in the ingredients:

  • Portuguese-controlled Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka) was the world's largest producer of cinnamon

  • Cloves and nutmeg were core to the spice trade with Southeast Asia that the Portuguese jealously guarded until the Dutch muscled their way in

  • European oranges were originally bitter, but Portuguese navigators brought back sweet varieties from China in the 16th and 17th centuries; the Portuguese then exported their sweet oranges, some say the best in the world, to other countries where the word "Portugal" now means "orange" (e.g. Romanian, Bulgarian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Persian).

Christmas teas at a Christmas market in France

The main ingredient is of course tea leaves, which the Portuguese helped popularize around the world through their early contact with the Chinese as well as their influence on the royal court of 17th century England.


Tea is native to Asia and has been drunk as a steeped beverage in China for thousands of years. It later spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam during the Tang dynasty (AD 618 to 907). When Portugal made direct contact with China starting 1513, they observed tea drinking and in 1560 the first Portuguese account of Chinese tea was published by Portuguese missionary Gaspar da Cruz.


Macau quickly became Portugal's base for its trade and other interactions with the Chinese Ming and later Qing dynasties. The Chinese dialect spoken in Macau and surrounding Guangdong (广东) province is Cantonese, and the word for tea, 茶, is pronounced tsah (to be precise, caa4 in the Jyutping romanization system). In standard Mandarin, reflecting northern Chinese pronunciation, it is a fairly similar chá. No surprise therefore that the Portuguese call tea chá (with the accent on the 'a' denoting its sound as opposed to the coincidentally identical tone mark in Mandarin Chinese pinyin).


It was the northern pronunciation that spread into Central Asia where it encountered the Persian suffix -yi, becoming chai. This pronunciation was picked up in Hindi/Urdu, Turkish and Russian, which in turn influenced many South Asian and Slavic languages.


So what accounts for the English word 'tea' and its similar forms in French (thé), German (Tee) and most other Western European languages? For this we have to recognize the influence of the Dutch. Starting in the early 17th century, the Dutch started to import tea into Europe in commercial volumes, whereas the Portuguese viewed the product more as a cultural, elitist curiosity. The Dutch word for tea was thee, influenced by the Fujian (aka Hokkien) dialect spoken in that province as well as in Taiwan (then known as Formosa). This was undoubtedly reinforced by the Malay and Javanese word for tea, teh, itself derived from the Chinese Fujian dialect. This reflects the fact that the Malay world's contact with China was mostly through Fujian traders and sailors, so much so that China is itself is often referred to as Tiongkok, the Fujian pronunciation of 中国 (Zhōngguó, or China in Chinese).


Even with the Dutch efforts to popularize the drink (which made it across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam before it became New York), it was the English who made tea a global phenomenon. For this they have a Portuguese princess to thank: when Catherine of Braganza married the English King Charles II in 1662, she brought her liking for tea with her to the English court. The English aristocracy promptly emulated her and the rest is history. This includes the fascination for the vessels used in preparing and enjoying tea – fine porcelain, also called china, which the Portuguese traded in large quantities.


To this day, many British people might still remember their grandmothers talking about "a good cup of char". There are still living traces of the days when even the English called tea "cha" or "char" like the Portuguese. Today, the Portuguese themselves are not big tea drinkers; like their Brazilian cousins they prefer coffee.

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