Op-ed
Essay
03 Oct 2022

THE SECRET LIFE OF (TEA) PETS

Enjoying tea rituals with tea pets.

Text
Smita Maitri
Photo
Smita Maitri
Topics
Es Teh Tawar
Indonesian Tea
Tea Culture
Tea Pets
Teh Poci
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Nestled on my wooden tea tray, quietly lies a small, tiny bat. With each morning, the soothing fragrant of my favorite sencha grows stronger on this teeny bat. The first flush of my tea is reserved for his morning shower. As the tea leaves absorb water and awaken, readying itself for its first cup, my tea pet patiently waits. This small act goes way back to the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), when the popularity of Yixing clay teapots made its way to the lives of people in Yixing, China. Teapot artists began sculpting with the same materials as their teapots and transformed leftover clay into mythical creatures.  Meant as a companion for your tea set, tea pets began to be incorporated in tea rituals. A tradition old as time that made its way into my home, when my mother started to dive in her love of teas. 

Believed to bring good luck to its owner, each teapet also hides underlying meaning shaped by the creature it is molded after. The three legged golden toad is believed to ward off evil and attract wealth, Pixiu (an ancient hybrid mythical creature from China) ensures endless fortune, while the Qilin represents kindness, benevolence and good fortune. My particular tea pet bat, which my lovely friends gifted me for a recent birthday, symbolizes good fortune and positivity. Each wing coddling on a gold coin, he presents me with a blessing. Taking time each morning to care for these clay pets, invokes time to think about life. 

Time slows down– even for only 20 minutes of each day– preparing your tray, heating water to the correct temperature, rinsing your tea ware, and picking the right tea that suits your mood today sets you up for a contemplative session. Just enjoying the tea and having a companion (may it be a real person or just your teapet) and sharing it is a wonderful experience in itself.  It’s a wonder why it’s such a rare practice, especially here in Indonesia. 

Tea is a big part of our export culture. Indonesia is one of the top 10 tea producing countries in the world, but tea isn’t as highlighted in our everyday culture. Tea is always present in all restaurants, warung, or any establishment, it is the gold standard must have drink anywhere in Indonesia. May it be iced tea, sweetened, lemon, peach, hot tea, a wide range of teas can be seen in the menus of Indonesia’s restaurants. Yet, the way it is consumed and its role differs greatly when compared to Chinese to Japanese Tea Culture. When we dig into these cultures, tea is a symbol with rituals and rites that come along with it, whereas here, my mind fixates on Teh Poci clay teapot where we pour over hot water as one of the most well known rituals. It is only recently that I discovered why they did not stir the tea, as it symbolizes that life is bitter in the beginning but as we sip through, the stone sugars will have melted and we are greeted with a sweet astringency of teh poci. When we go to different parts of Indonesia, we find rituals that are only present and practiced in that area, but the way in which tea is elevated is always different. It’s so abundant yet so quiet and subtle.

In 2022, tea is more abundant than ever. The ever growing popularity of boba, milk tea, flavored ice tea or green tea anything, has put tea in a more forward and new generation lens. A more fun and fast paced way of tea has made its way into our everyday lives. After a long day working, a nice sweet ice cold milk tea with boba pearls really hits the spot. A stark contrast to old traditions that take time in each step of the way, with each movement representing a meaning and intended to slow time and make us be present in the moment. It’s not to say that these progressions are bad, we can appreciate teas in many ways. It’s always exciting to see what new ways develop to enjoy teas. 

But, I always go back to the comforts of my home. Starting the day with a tea ritual and making time to shower and care for my pet bat, is my personal form of appreciation for tea. Though I might slip in one or two sugary teas in my week, and the regular ‘es teh tawar’ in any establishment. 

Each person has a unique relationship with tea and there is no wrong way of enjoying it. My tea pet bat agrees. To each their own. So, how does tea fit into your life? How do you enjoy your tea?

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