Tea Culture and Tea Traditions of Iran


Tea Drinking Culture in Iran
Tea History of Iran
Iranians don’t just consume tea heavily, they also grow it. It is believed that tea was first introduced to them during the Safavid dynasty, (1501–1722) by the Chinese merchants travelling in the Silk Road. In the early years of Qajar dynasty (1789 to 1925), tea was tried out in Iran. This first effort was in vain. When Iranian diplomat Kashef-ol Saltaneh was sent to India, he managed to visit the tea plantations, learn valuable tips and tricks and hurry back home with a box of 4000 plants. Today, in Northern Iran, along the Caspian Sea shores tea is being cultivated, providing a part of domestic tea demand. This home-grown tea production covers up to about 30% of the demand; rest of the tea is imported and Sri Lanka is one of the main suppliers.
Types of Tea consumed in Iran
When “Iranian tea” is mentioned, it means black tea. Domestically produced tea has a distinct colour, a reddish-brown which is not usually seen anywhere else. Iranians also use loose tea leaves, it is sacrilege to even talk about tea bags! The intensity of the colour defines the quality of the tea. As most other Middle Easterners, Iranians are hesitant to add a lot of water to their tea, preparing a very dark and bitter version of it. Hence the usual practice is to sweeten it by sugar cubes called Ghand or rock candy, known as Nabat. The sweeteners are kept between the front teeth and sucked on, when the tea is drunk. Tea is usually taken without milk, throughout the day.
Herbal teas are popular in Iran similar to other Middle Eastern countries. They brew tea with various herbs and spices. The most common ones are cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron. Lemon tea or lime tea is another variant which is getting more attention. It is made with dried lemon. Due to the acceptance of flavoured teas, producers have tried to incorporate fruits, coming up with strawberry tea, apple tea and orange tea. Whether it is weak tea (chai kam rang) or strong tea (chai por rang), during any time of the day, you can taste a Chai (pronounced “Cha-ee”) in any home, shop or road-side bistros.
Tea Customs of Iran
It is customary to offer a tea to any guest who walks in your door. There is a tradition where tea poured out of the cup at first, is put back in to the pot before serving it. This is to ensure the colour, aroma and the taste is just right. To obtain the perfect colour and taste, Iranians leave the “samovar” or the kettles on the stove for close to 45 minutes at times. They believe the tea must be brewed for at least 15 minutes for the right reddish-brown to appear.
Tea is then served with sugar cubes, in a tulip-shaped glass. Mugs are usually a no-no when serving tea in Iran.
Tea houses in Iran have been existing from the Qajar era. Most of these ancient tea houses have their walls painted with scenes from the epic poem Shahnameh, written by the well-known Persian poet Ferdowsi. It is the greatest poem of Iran and patrons sitting around the “Takhts” – a sort of a bench, protected by rugs and crowded with pillows- tell the stories time and again over delicious cups of tea.
“Baghlava” or the Persian version of Baklava is a popular sweet served with tea. It is a pastry filled with an assortment of nuts and sweet syrup. “Baslogh” is another traditional pastry variety; “Sohan” is a sweet prepared with wheat buds. An aromatic and tasty pastry, “Reshteh Khoshkar” is an invention in the Gilan province and is a common snack served with tea.
Tea is a must in all Iranian celebrations; even in a tea house, a limitless amount of tea will be served to you, unless the glass is placed upside down, indicating you have had enough.
Tea ceremonies in Iran
Tea is a must have in any ceremony, be it a wedding, birthday or breaking fast. During special occasions, the party will start with tea, and served after meals, at the end of it, when sitting in front of the TV with family members and so on. It can be served with raisins, dates, dried mulberries, or any other type of sweet item.
Walk down any lane in any city and you will see many tea houses where the men folk gather around to chat over steaming cups of tea. Shopkeepers could be seen enjoying the morning with their first tea, perhaps exchanging pleasantries or embarking on the traditional “taarof” ceremony. Taarof is known as a ritual of talking, a politeness extended in the same manner for everyone so the playing field is flat for all.
Iranians love outdoors and spend many a holiday in the open. Even when they are out, tea is something that cannot be forgotten. During these times, they keep the kettles or the samovars on coal, to brew tea. It is believed that a well-defined smoky taste and aroma is generated when tea is brewed that way.
Tea is an omnipresent beverage as much as a national treasure. It defines times and brings people together, even if you are family or not.
Teaware of Iran
Tea traditions of Iran and most of the other Middle Eastern countries were shaped by the Russian practices. Russians dealt directly with China for purchasing tea. Samovar - the telltale sign of Russian influence - is a good example for this. The samovar is two kettles, placed on top of one another. Bottom kettle contains water and the top kettle has tea leaves.
To drink tea, Iranians use the tulip-shaped transparent tea glasses. The glasses are wider at the top, slim and concave at the middle, with a sturdy round for the bottom. They come in plain glass as well as decorated ones. Because the glasses are transparent, the drinker can see how dark their tea is; he can then adjust the strength by pouring more water, or tea. These glasses are handle-less, and contains a wider brim to hold and drink the hot tea without burning your fingers. Full tea sets with a handle also were used, paired with matching saucers and complete with a tea kettle. Glasses are intricately designed with silver or gold to make them more attractive.
Kettles, samovars, glasses and other associated teaware comes designed and carved by hand most of the time. Some of the older artefacts fetch quite a price in the market but the Iranians usually hold on to their heritage, brewing tea over tea, every day.