For most fans, as well as most of the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Uncle Iroh is one of the most endearing and beloved people in the cartoon. As the brother of the Fire Lord, he was easily set up to be another antagonist; however, even in Season 1, when he was helping a not yet redeemed Zuko pursue the Avatar, it’s clear there is more to Iroh than meets the eye.
He is a bit wacky at times, and his priorities do not align with those of his nephew’s, but he consistently grounds Zuko, sees beyond the propaganda of the Fire Nation and provides life advice for anyone in need of help, regardless of how they align themselves. He’s got a good heart, clear mind and broad perspective, which could partially be credited to him trying to enter the Spirit World after he lost his son, Lu Ten, to the war. Iroh is also the biggest tea aficionado in the show.
While initially this seems like another quirk of his, with him risking his life by making tea from a potentially deadly plant, nearly exposing Zuko and him as firebenders in the Earth Kingdom to heat his drink and bickering with Zuko on several occasions over his nephew’s disrespect for tea, Iroh’s love for the drink, according to pat_speed 3 on Reddit, may have a deeper meaning. Tea is the perfect drink to represent all four elements coming together for the better, and Iroh knows this.
As the theory explains, clay made from earth makes the cups that hold the tea, water acts as the primary base of the drink, fire hits the water, as well as helps extract the flavor of the leaves and the air cools the tea, so people can enjoy it. Without one of these elements, the tea cannot be consumed, nor can it fully exist. Similarly, without all four elements in the world, the balance is set off, so tea to Iroh represents the balance he wishes to preserve, as well as being a relaxing drink.
While originally a respected general, who fully believed in the Fire Nation’s propaganda that depicted other elements as lesser, after Lu Ten’s death, Iroh went on a spiritual journey of his own, realizing how crucial each element is. He even uses waterbending techniques to redirect lightning, something no one else in the Fire Nation, aside from Zuko later on, can do. Iroh also betrays his nation when Zhao reveals his plan to kill the Moon Spirit. While the Moon Spirit is tied specifically to the Water Tribe, Iroh knows that killing a spirit and blocking waterbenders from their power source is detrimental to the world at large.
Iroh is a character who champions balance in the world, as well as in people. Throughout Season 2, he tries to help Zuko find balance within himself, so he can finally know peace. He also takes the time to get to know others, and one of his favorite ways to do so is over a cup of tea. Whether it’s with Toph on the mountain side, where Iroh gives her advice about accepting help; with the mugger in Ba Sing Se, where Iroh convinces him to pursue his real dreams instead of a life of crime or with one of the many customers at the Jasmine Dragon, Iroh finds the good in people and helps them on their path to self fulfillment, with tea often finding its way into the mix.
“Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights,” Iroh says to Toph in Season 2, Episode 8, “The Chase.”
Along with being a pleasant drink to accompany an interesting and enlightening conversation, tea represent exactly what Iroh stands for: balance, unity and peace. As a member of the White Lotus, a secret society that looks past the boundaries of the four nations in the name of philosophy, beauty and truth, Iroh has dedicated his life to preserving balance in the world, whether it’s through a counter-attack on an occupied Ba Sing Se or sharing a cup of tea with a stranger at the Jasmine Dragon.
Iroh's love for tea also connects itself to his desire to maintain balance and peace in the world as a member of the White Lotus.