Tea is one of the world’s oldest pleasures—a sensory and meditative pause in daily life, and one that connects us to an outside world of distant forests and farms and flower patches across the globe. The origin and lore surrounding tea stretches back millennia, but it is also something that uniquely brings us into the present moment, calling us to sit and enjoy.
While the world may be currently navigating isolation through social distancing, Waris Ahluwalia would like us all to pause and consider a cup of tea. An actor and designer most known for his roles in Wes Anderson movies and his fine jewelry designs, he is also the founder of House of Waris Botanicals, a tea and “functional botanicals” company based in New York City. His teas are poured in some of the city’s best restaurants, including Estela and Altro Pardiso. And he began to turn his attention to tea about five years ago, when he says he realized that tea was a thread connecting everything else in his life: “Wherever I went—at family gatherings, tea was served. After dinner, tea was served. During laughter and celebration, tea was served. During quiet moments, in solemn moments, in moments of grief. It was always there. In my travels for jewelry production in Jaipur, or when I went to Delhi or Bombay, tea was served. When I went to meet with the elephant organizations and local conservationists, tea was served. It was right in front of me. The answer had always been right there.”
Ahluwalia spent five years developing and sourcing tea leaves and botanicals for his current line, traveling the world to visit growers of hibiscus flowers, ashwagandha, orange blossoms, and black pepper. Sourcing and making his kind of tea is a constant and global process, which for Ahluwalia has involved sourcing old-growth forests in Yunnan, China and fields of saffron in Afghanistan. He points out that tea spans a nearly unmatched roster of cultures, places, and time periods, providing a sense of calm and peace to drinkers, as well as taking its place among complex historic moments and those of political unrest. “It is a part of human history,” he says, adding that he founded the company, in part, as a recognition of the beverage’s power to bring people together.
“If someone asks you to grab a cup of coffee,” Ahluwalia says, “They are saying ‘I’ve got five minutes for you.’ But when someone says, ‘Do you want to meet for tea?’ they are saying ‘I want to spend some time with you.’ It is a resilient social fiber across boundaries.” We have gathered for tea among communities and families and cultures for centuries, and it is also something we use to gather ourselves in a quiet moment.
Tea is, as Waris puts it, “the world’s original wellness product.” Herbal and plant-based traditions have roots in cultures and medicines around the world, including Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, and the proposed benefits were a central part of his vision. His research process involved a team of herbalists working to develop teas he calls “functional,” and those dealing with one 21st century epidemic in particular: stress. “Stress is sort of a socially acceptable form of mental illness,” Waris points out empathetically, “There’s nothing that we can do to remove stress, but what we can do is work on how we respond to it. Our blends are formulated with herbs known as adaptogens, which [are meant to] help your body adapt to external stressors and help bring your body back into balance.”
To Ahluwalia, focusing only on physical benefits, though, would be ignoring everything else that comes with the act of drinking tea and the context. Just isolating the compound curcumin found in turmeric, for example, leaves out all of the psychological, meditative benefits boiling, steeping, and sipping a cup, he says. All three may be things we need right now in equal parts.
In a moment where we must all be temporarily separated, Ahluwalia hopes to further spread the idea of tea drinking as a ritual by which we can ground ourselves, take a pause, and stay connected. The teas themselves, he hopes, can serve as a connection to a place we may be currently closed off from. “I know as a culture we are obsessed with being productive, but you are being productive when you make a cup of tea”—you are taking time to invite in an intimacy with the tea’s sources, the vast landscapes it spans around the world.
Allie Wist is an artist, creative director, stylist, writer, and content producer whose work is anchored in food culture, climate change, and global landscapes. She creates narratives through visual and experiential expressions which reexamine our collective consumption identities and histories.