And that's the tea (Photos: Amanda Thompson)

On the dark and mysterious art of reading tea leaves

‘Reading the cups’ is the ultimate reason to always drink proper leaf tea and never tea bags, adding a touch of drama to an otherwise boring cuppa. Amanda Thompson talks you through it.

I don’t know who I am. I don’t know where I come from and I don’t know my people – it’s an uncomfortable thing I try not to think about. I float untethered in this land and I can claim no connection to this ground I borrow from another people, or to anywhere else. My pale-skinned relations three and four generations ago were probably poor and British, coming here to scramble around for something they would never get from their own countries. I’d like to think they brought something special to this country in exchange for all they took but I doubt it. Just your standard Eurotrash, probably. Sorry about that.

The only one I know anything about is my Irish great-grandmother. She had reason to hate colonisers too, for what it’s worth. Somewhere, sometime around the turn of the 20th century her whole family turned up at a dockside wanting assisted passage to New York, but there weren’t enough places for them all on that ship so she was put on one to New Zealand instead. She never saw any of her family again; none of them could read or write so she never heard from them either. Illiterate, indigent and so very alone. 

Mum told me her grandmother was so poor, so very poor she wore – this last part was whispered in horror – tennis shoes to church (don’t ask me. I mean I’d be more than sweet to wear tennis shoes, if I ever did go to church or even play tennis, but mum was pretty upset about it). The stories I heard from gran were a bit different – her mother believed in fairies and wept when she wore a little piece of green ribbon on St Patrick’s Day. She had her children read to her from the newspaper and thrashed them if they faltered over words. She went to mass every day, she drank a lot of tea, and she read the tea leaves. 

I don’t know where this little parlour trick came from since my Irish family certainly never had such a thing as a parlour, but I love it. “Reading the cups” is the ultimate reason to always drink proper leaf tea and never tea bags. It adds a handily cheap touch of drama to an otherwise boring cuppa. I offer to read people’s tea leaves at the drop of a Super Wine and I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say no yet. Aren’t we all a bit nosy about the possibilities of tall dark handsome strangers or surprise trips in our near futures? Who among us has not wanted to peer into the embarrassing dreams and kinky desires of our co-workers at smoko?  

I’m only talking about dishing the real tea here, the type that comes from a kind of camellia bush. Green tea leaves have been dried lightly, oolong has been cut, withered and oxidised a bit, but black tea is the fully dried and oxidised tea that moves me. It’s the one we are most familiar with in a Kiwi cuppa, the Bell and the Choysa and the Dilmah and the Chanui pleasures, easily got from any supermarket any day of the week. All good stuff. If you grow or buy your own herbs to make tea that’s cool – peppermint is good for stomach upsets, chamomile for stress – but it’s not really tea, it’s a herbal infusion. Fruit-flavoured tea bags with names like Pomegranate Strawberry Zinger are dried apple dust and bullshit, and sweet “iced tea” in a plastic sippy bottle a vile marketing scam for the sheeple. 

Tea for one (Photo: Amanda Thompson)

A good cup of real tea is simple. You need a teapot, admittedly – warm it with a swish of hot water first. Chuck in one spoonful of tea leaves per person and one more for the pot, because the pot has feelings too. Fill your teapot with utterly, utterly boiling water – for some boring scientific reason any water less than boiling hitting the leaves will make your tea taste terrible, which is why microwaving a cuppa is always out. 

Your tea must now draw, or steep – sit for a while. Maybe three minutes. During this time all the annoying floaty bits will settle and the flavour will really make itself known. Use your tea cosy to keep the tea from cooling down enough to not burn your whole oesophagus, which is all part of the traditional tea-drinking experience. Greedy capitalist tea-selling types will try to sell you a little hourglass-timer-thingy but resist; you just need to faff about a bit, cutting cake and going through every drawer to figure out if you did once buy a table cloth or if it was just a feverish Downton Abbey dream. That’s about the right amount of time for tea to draw. 

“I’ll be Mother,” you must announce pompously before you pour the tea into empty tea cups even more pompously, if at all possible. There should never, ever be any milk in these cups if you are doing it right. I mean ever. That is simply the worst breach of old-school tea etiquette – the milk goes in last and from a decorative jug, because we’re not animals, darling. Our family were dirt-poor Labour-voting Unionists who didn’t own a fridge until 1973, so we militantly put the milk in first. Sweetened tea is entirely acceptable. Those sweet milky tea drinkers from a rural or camping sort of background will advise you to put sweetened condensed milk in your tea, killing two birds with one stone. I have tried this and can confirm it is surprisingly revolting. 

Drink your tea and gossip. If the tea leaf reader in your group (ie me) uses this gossip as a handy starting point for your cup reading later, so be it. Once everyone is finished, they must give their cup a dramatic swirl then completely upend it on the saucer to get all the last drips out and think hard about what they would particularly like to know. Fame, fortune, where you left your keys – the tea leaves will tell all.

But the saucer is not just a handy catcher of drips, it’s also a vital receptacle on which to balance a wee snacky-snack and I always incorporate this food into my readings as an indicator of luck. Gingernuts? Every day, average luck is coming your way. Lamingtons mean a celebration and, if your luck is really in, a cream horn is a happy marriage or a hot threesome featuring at least one underwear model (depends on the audience). Less lucky is the asparagus roll – unfortunately a funeral is approaching. I’m also going to predict this if you’re using your saucer as an ashtray, just saying.

Why not have a go? It only takes a genuine arcane gift and a little practice! Starting from the handle, reading clockwise will take you into the future; for scrying experts, try going anti-clockwise to discover why something happened in the past. Relax your mind, your shoulders and your grip on logic. The pictures in the muddy teacup bottom tell a story; it’s up to you to make sure it’s an exciting one. Nobody wants to hear they will get up tomorrow and go to work again forgetting it is bin day. Leave bad news to the tax auditor and the oncologist. Go big – but keep it real. Surprise promotions, a financial windfall, a new puppy, Marlon Williams writing a yearning love song about you. A thank you letter. A lost love found. A glorious weekend in Foxton. These are all nice things that could possibly happen and your trusting tea companion wants to hear about them.

Worst case scenario, your friend will go about their day feeling pleasantly hopeful about their otherwise mundane existence until they forget what you said. Best case scenario, small children and the gullible will both revere and fear you as a witch. You will be left utterly alone to grow your dirty fingernails long and collect black cats, dancing naked under a full moon and flying through the night with only bats and the Angel of Death as your companions. You will end up growing strange herbs and reading books of secret knowledge in a haunted cottage deep in a black forest and you will never ever have to smile at people you don’t like or hear talkback radio or wear a bra ever again.

Good luck.



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