Cafe Leila serves up healing tea blends for troubled times

Moses Abughosh brings a rich Middle Eastern tea culture to Berkeley.

Teas and treats from Cafe Leila. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Cafe Leila
1724 San Pablo Ave. (between Delaware and Virginia streets), Berkeley

For most Americans, “tea and turmeric” don’t go together like scotch and soda. And even in Berkeley, most people wouldn’t think of grinding a healthy dose of black pepper into their matcha latte. 

And yet for Cafe Leila owner Moses Abughosh  —  who was born in the Middle East and has traveled the world studying tea — combining these unlikely ingredients is the key to building a healthy immune system and warding off disease. The resulting concoctions — with names such as Turmeric Matcha Latte and Inflammation Buster — have become increasingly popular at his cafe over the course of the pandemic.

In China, Japan and many other countries, the medicinal value of tea has been recognized and celebrated for centuries. That is not the case in the U.S., which is a coffee-drinking country. 

Abughosh grew up in a “tea culture” in Palestine, in his namesake village of Abu Ghosh, about six miles west of Jerusalem. “If I had a stomach ache, my mother would make tea,” he said. “If I had red-eye, she brewed tea, dipped cotton in it, and put the cotton on my eye. If I was bruised, she brewed tea leaves and wrapped my arm” in a tea-infused towel. In fact, Abughosh said he concocted his first herbal tea at the age of 10, when he had a stomach ache. He brewed peppermint and sage in an effort to avoid taking medicine. And it worked.

“Tea was also something that brought people together where I grew up,” Abughosh said. “If they had a big problem, big arguments, they got together and drank tea and solved the problem.” In Middle Eastern culture, tea is a drink of leisure and conversation. It is common to customize the tea leaves by adding mint, sage, rose leaves, or whatever is at hand, Abughosh said. “If you are offered tea, you are invited to drink and relax,” he said. “Coffee is a goodbye drink. Once you are offered coffee, it means your visit has ended.”

A plethora of lattes

Cafe Leila owner Moses Abughosh pours a cup of organic, fair trade tea from one of the 200 teapots in his personal collection. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Abughosh estimates that he has created more than 100 different blended tea drinks and lattes over the past few decades, “each for a different purpose.” He offers more than two dozen organic, fair trade teas at Cafe Leila, along with a dozen varieties of tea lattes.

It turns out that lattes were originally made with tea, and were popular in India as a cheap working man’s drink. The caffeine energized the workers, and the milk and sugar gave them fuel, so the British colonists found it a useful drink that increased productivity. Hippies brought the lattes stateside in the ’60s, and Starbucks eventually turned it into an expensive coffee drink.

Some of Abughosh’s specialty drinks include Turmeric Matcha, Sweet Matcha Green Tea Latte, Blueberry Rooibos Red Latte, Dulse Seaweed Matcha Latte, Hojicha Latte and Spirulina Matcha Latte. They come in an enticing variety of colors — orange-yellow from the turmeric, green-blue from the seaweed algae, chocolate from the Rooibos. The lattes are prepared with a choice of milk (regular, soy, almond or oat).

The house-made Chai is the most popular of Cafe Leila’s specialty drinks, although it does not taste like the chai of Indian restaurants. This chai is a much more complex drink that includes 12 spices and takes two days to prepare, Abughosh said. He starts with organic Darjeeling and Assam teas leaves, which are steeped for a full day.

The spices — which include cayenne pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and more — are then cooked separately and left to sit for two days. The tea and spices are then mixed, and once an order is placed, the steamed milk is added.

When asked who was most likely to buy the tea lattes, Abughosh answered before the question was even completed: “Women,” he said. “Women over 30. They are more open to the health benefits, and are looking for products that are healthy and not processed.”

Cafe Leila also offers “fresh teas” made without actual tea leaves, but with ingredients such as fresh ginger, fresh rosemary, honey, and lemon. The kinds of remedies our grandmothers might have brewed.

In fact, it was a personal health crisis that led Abughosh to develop an expertise in tea. “I used to have a lot of health issues, and I was sick for a long time,” he said. “I wanted something beside pharmaceuticals to heal me, and I started to experiment with teas and superfoods.” Abughosh attributes his eventual recovery to a yearlong tea regimen.

Tea as a healing elixir

Cafe Leila owner Moses Abughosh. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

While there are dozens of articles about the health benefits of tea (medical experts are mixed on the ability of tea to cure illness on its own, but some early research on green tea suggests it might contain antioxidants that reduce inflammation for some people), this would not be news to traditional and Eastern cultures. Japanese culture, for example, has historically seen tea “as a medicine with almost divine properties,” according to Alan MacFarlane, author of The Empire of Tea. The Chinese have traditionally grown tea alongside medicinal plants, to “deal with different complaints of the head, heart, liver and stomach,” he wrote.

Tea is unique in that it has both invigorating and relaxing effects. And because tea has to be boiled, people who drank tea in non-industrialized societies tended to live longer than those who drank disease-laden fresh water.

In fact, tea was so valuable along the Silk Road that “tea bricks” were created and used as a form of currency. “It had one great advantage over a silver coin or paper money — if one were desperate, one could eat or drink it,” McFarlane wrote.

Tea is the second-most consumed drink in the world, after water. And while Americans drink almost three times more coffee than tea, that balance is now shifting. Tea consumption has grown 20% in the U.S. over the past 20 years, and people under 30 now drink as much tea as coffee. Interestingly, 70% of those over 65 prefer coffee.

One plant, many teas

Some of Moses Abughosh’s many teas. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

All tea actually comes from one plant: the Camellia Sinensis. The four general categories of tea — white, green, Oolong, and black — are determined by the amount of oxidation the tea leaf undergoes. (Oxidation is the same process that makes the inside of an apple turn brown after a few minutes, Abughosh said.) In general, the more oxidized the tea is, the darker it will be: White tea and green teas are the least oxidized, while black tea has full oxidation of the leaves.

Abughosh considers himself a teaologist, although he readily concedes that there is no actual certification for that designation. Teologists are people who have considerable expertise related to teas, and can teach others about them. In addition to a lifetime of traveling the world and studying tea cultivation and culture, Abughosh attends events such as the World Tea Conference & Expo.

“When I first started attending there were maybe 50 suppliers, and now it’s bloomed out of control,” he said. “There are over a thousand suppliers, and many thousands of attendees.” 

Tea is now a $13 billion business in the U.S. As a British colony, America actually started out as a tea-drinking country. But the taxes levied by England resulted in the Boston Tea Party, and the colonists had no choice but to start drinking coffee in the name of freedom

From medicine to beverage

“Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage,” Kaduzo Okakura wrote a century ago in The Book of Tea. “Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. … It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

Those words feel as true today as they were then. Best to mull them over while drinking a nice cup of tea. Maybe with some fresh black pepper mixed in. 

Cafe Leila’s outdoor seating. Credit: Melati Citrawireja