Canada lacks a tea culture. I mean, we all drink the stuff in one form or another, but you really don’t realize how much we lack a true appreciation for tea until you travel beyond the western world and experience…the tea house.
Tea is absolutely central to most Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. It is more than a drink; it is a point around which people converge. It is a break on a long journey, relief on a hot day, comfort on a cold day, companion to chess games and philosphical debates, the drink of celebration, the drink of mourning; the toast to a new day and the toast to a day ended. But always, it is social. I get wistful at the very mention of the word. Tea, chay, chai, cay, ti. It transports me to steamy tea houses, the loud clatter of cooper kettles, the sweet aroma of cardamon, orange blossom, mint; the banter of old men debating, school girls gossiping, and students planning to change the world. Tea is the centre of life abroad – not a hasty tasteless red-rose tea bag thrown into a plastic travel mug at work, as it is here.
The two greatest tea house experiences of my life were in China and Iran. In China, we were visiting the Wenshou Temple in the city of Chengdu when the afternoon heat hit us something fierce. We made our way to the outdoor tea house and, sitting in the shade of the ancient temple walls, literally wiled away an entire afternoon sipping jasmine tea, watching the delicate dried petals unfurl in the bottom of a blue floral-patterned china cup, while men lugged heavy copper kettles of hot water from table to table, keeping our cups constantly filled.
In Iran, we were in the city of Kerman. Having braved the intense afternoon heat at the Jameh mosque, we entered the bazaar. It seemed that everyone – vendors and shoppers alike – were moving sluggishly, as though weighted down by the heavy summer air. We decided to follow our guide into an underground tea house – we were thinking of a dark, damp and possibly cool subterranean cave-like place and were thus completely taken aback by what we met instead. In a converted hammam (bath house), the tea house was a massive chasm of archways and exquisite tile work, fountains showered with rose petals, copper samovars and gentle streams of sunlight filtered through the ceiling cracks. Upon entering, the man serving tea whispered to a young boy and sent him running out the door. He returned just as the man began to pour fragrant amber chay into our tulip-shaped glasses. Box in hand, he approached our table and set before us a mountain of saffron cookies, ornately decorated in a floral motif, and stuffed with fresh and succulent Bam dates and pistachios. If we thought we were already in Heaven, then I don’t know where we ended up next, as a group of five men sat down and began to play the most entrancing Persian melodies that echoed through the vaulted ceilings, taking me into a state of complete reverie.
I love tea, and when I travel, I consider an entire day of people watching while sipping tea, a necessity. I often wonder whether a tea house like the Kerman hammam or the Wenshou temple would work in Toronto. Could Canadians ever have the same love affair with tea that others do abroad? What I do know about tea, I owe to the world. I have borrowed the not-so-secret secrets of tea brewing from the places I have been, and brought them to my home. When my body aches to travel, I ease the longing with a cup of tea. When I travel, the only souvenir I seek to bring home is tea and – if I can – a tea set.
To make great tea, you should buy a samovar – trust me! We ordered ours from www.creativecookware.com and we love it. Or…you can cheat with a regular stainless steel kettle and a ceramic tea pot. You’ll have to find a heavy ceramic (not china or glass) pot that fits over the top of your kettle and rests snuggly.
You need real tea. Tea that comes from a place that knows how to drink tea. Leave Red Rose where it belongs – collecting dust on a supermarket shelf. Forget the expensive tea stores like Teaopia. Forget even your finer British teas. You need a good, imported, loose-leaf tea from an ethnic grocery store.
Sadaf – plain or cardamon infused. It’s cheaper than most teas you’ll find on your supermarket shelf, and definitely superior.
For Turkish tea, Caykur is available at Nader in Mississauga, and it’s very modestly priced. Your big challenge will be getting through the immense bag before it goes stale.
Whether you are making Persian or Turkish tea, here are the steps to follow.
- Fill your kettle with filtered water (to avoid calcium build-up on your kettle)
- Place a generous teaspoon of tea leaves in your smaller kettle (tea pot).
- Bring to a boil. The heat and steam will begin to open up the flavour in your tea leaves which are “cooking” on top. After the water has boiled a minute or two, add a tea cup of the boiling water to the top kettle (tea cup).
- Now, reduce the heat and simmer. Your bottom kettle should continue at a gentle, rolling boil, while the smaller kettle steeps on top.
- Do NOT allow your tea to boil and steep any longer than 10 minutes, as the tea will go bitter and acidic. I usually set the timer for 8 minutes.
- Fill a cup halfway with the steeped tea (which will be very strong) and then add half a cup of boiling water from the kettle.
- Your tea should be a deep amber colour if it’s Persian, and a rich brown colour with hints of red if it is Turkish.
It is a mortal sin to add milk or cream to this tea, so don’t risk spending an eternity in hell by doing this. Add a sugar cube if you like sugar, and if you want to be really Persian, place the sugar cube between your front teeth, and slowly sip your tea through the sugar cube. Then run for the toothbrush and toothpaste!