Tea Culture and Tea Traditions of Iraq
Tea Culture of
Only a few things have a welcoming presence as tea has, in Iraq. Wherever you go, you will hear the words, “would you like some chai”, “chai” being an almost universal word for tea. Iraqis prefer their tea black, mostly without milk. Not unlike their neighbouring Turks and other Middle Eastern brethren, the Iraqi Kurds as well as Arabs drink a whopping 1.5 kgs of tea per year, elevating it to the second most popular beverage, next to water.
Tea History of Iraq
Due to the salinity of the soil, lack of water year-round and poor irrigation, Iraqis are facing difficulties when it comes to agriculture. Merely one-eighth of the total land is arable and their main crops include grains such as wheat, barley, rice, millet, and vegetables, fruits, tobacco and cotton. A crop like tea, which requires a mild climate and ample water is difficult to be grown in Iraq.
Nevertheless, tea found a way. Similar to the Arab world, where people have been consuming tea for centuries, in Iraq there were “Teahouses” from the 1940s. Tea in the historical aspect of Iraq is an extension of the tea drunk and celebrated in Turkey, Iran and other Arabic countries. They use the same samovarbrewed tea, another signal of the Russian-influenced beverage consumed by their Arabic counterparts. Iraqi tea bears unmistakable telltale signs of centuries of Persian and Ottoman influence.
Types of Tea consumed in Iraq
Iraqis prefer black tea as most of the people in that region. Their most popular choices include Ceylon Tea, or Assam (Indian) tea. Even though they add a pinch of milk to their morning tea, usually taken at breakfast, throughout the day tea is made with other ingredients.
Honouring their name-sake “blak tea”, Iraqi tea is truly, black tea. Only in Iraq they brew tea this way with the samovar on the stove for quite a long time, until the tea comes out very strong and very dark. It is then taken with ample sugar, offered as a few cubes in the side of the saucer (djlema), or as a thick precipitate yet to be stirred by the drinker of the tea (sheereen).
Brewed dark and strong, the day-to-day tea of Iraq is sometimes infused with a cinnamon stick. This adds to the flavour as well as the smell of it. They also add a few cardamom pods, to improve the flavour of the tea.
Other varieties of tea commonly drunk in Iraq include chamomile tea and dried lime tea (noomi basra). Tea infused with “shoe flowers” also known as Hibiscus is most popular in the South of Iraq. And similar to many other countries, Iraqis drink these teas for their medicinal purposes as well. Green tea is almost nonexistent in Iraq.
Tea Customs of Iraq
In Iraq, tea is a way of life and a social bond that ties everyone together. Teahouses are a central gathering place for all men. These establishments known as “Chaikhana” (Chai being tea and “khana” a word in Urdu used for “food”, “eating” or “eating place”) are standing for hundreds of years, even next to UNESCO heritage sites, playing a central role in the social life of the Iraqis. It is the oasis men come to discuss politics, talk about news and play dominos. Teahouses in Iraq have played a major role in main turning points of the country, housing men who went to war and being a heart of a place for all sorts of people – artists, clerics, politicians, labourers, intellectuals, and anyone who’d simply wander in.
The home stove would always be on with the samovar boiling, and tea is ready at a moment’s notice prepared by the women of the house, but the tradition was for them not to be allowed into the teahouses. It is encouraging to see this ritual changing now; Baghdad, Erbil, or Sulaymaniyah, in every corner of the city there is now a teahouse with some tables reserved for the fairer sex.
Iraqis enjoy their tea with a variety of cookies such as cardamom cookies known as “Hadgi Badah”, date cookies called “Kleicha” and lauzinaj, seemingly an Iraqi version of the Baklava.
Having tea as more than just a drink, Iraq has bought record numbers of tea from Sri Lanka; in 2018 they ordered 32,979 Tonnes of tea, emerging the largest buyer from Sri Lanka.
Tea ceremonies in Iraq
It is a tradition to have tea in many countries of the world. It is a conversation starter, a space for a gathering of like-minded people and a solemn ceremony of an act.
Tea will be served to everyone who walks in to a house. When it is prepared for a few people, generally on a metal tray, it is served with the sugar cubes in one cup. If a guest sets his cup upright, it indicates he is up for another tea. If it is set flat, then he is done with drinking tea, for that moment.
Families and relatives get-together and “have tea” at homes, and at teahouses. In a variation from Russian or other European traditions of drinking tea with cakes and sweets, Iraqis take their tea with cheese and bread, especially during the breakfast and dinner. Milk might be added during these main meals.
A popular tea ceremony is the one where a young groom-to-be meets his bride and her family to obtain both families’ approval for the marriage. Glasses tinkling with small spoons, smell of the added cardamom or cinnamon and a colourful Persian rug completes the tea ceremony of Iraq.
Despite the instability, teahouses remained a trustworthy place for gatherers of any rank and status. Even during Ramazan, there had been tea served in some teahouses. It is an umbrella which brings all races and religions together.
Teaware of Iraq
The popular two-kettle samovar is used in Iraq as well. Rather than a stove or a gas oven, the kettle or samovar is placed on a charcoal-powered cooktop. This is important to have that “strong-black” tea which is native to Iraq.
Tea is then poured to the characteristic “glass with a waist” or the tulip shaped glass, where the colour is clearly visible to the drinker. It is also served on top of a matching saucer, where the sugar cubes will be kept if it is not put into the glass itself, with a small spoon.
“Chai Istikan” also written as “Chai Stikaan” is what the Iraqi tea is called; istikan means glass which the tea is poured into. It is said the word “istikan” was coined during the time Iraq was colonized by the British. Apparently people asked for "East tea can," meaning a can, in which tea was sold in, imported from countries such as Sri Lanka and India. This phrase settled to “istkan” famously known as the small, tulipshaped glass which all Iraqis enjoy a hot, steaming tea in.
The tulip glasses come with decorations, a golden ring around the waist and the rim sometimes. The same golden ring continues in the saucer. They also use straight glasses, with no “waist”. These are decorated with many colours while gold colour has a central place.