Tea rules & rituals (Iranian Style)Posted: 17 December 2011
Tea is the national beverage in Iran! It is an essential part of the breakfast and any type of gathering. As such, there are certain nonnegotiable rules about the preparation and the drinking of tea.
Here are some: 1. Real tea is black tea. Green, white, yellow and oolong teas are to be experimented with, but must never replace black tea. 2. Preparing tea involves the steeping and simmering (dam kardan or steaming) of loose, processed tea leaves. Teabags are quick fixes, and good only when you are feeling too down to treat yourself properly, or when you are obligated to serve an unwanted visitor. 3. One should sip tea from small, delicate glasses called estekan that allow one to see its translucent mahogany color while relishing its flavor. Not any shape of estekan though, but ideally the most authentic shape, the gold-rimmed kamar-barik with a curve in the middle, its name calling to mind a fine, “slim-waisted” woman. Drinking tea from simple whiskey glasses is permitted for Iranian exiles without access to the proper glassware, and drinking it from large, standard glasses is also allowed for down-to-earth, self-confessed tea addicts, but drinking tea from a cup or a mug is for other cultures.
There are also secondary tea rules as well as rules which applies to tea houses, or chai-khaneh, but I am not going through them here, as I am saving them for my (hopefully) upcoming book. Let’s get into preparation of tea instead. Oh, did I mention how a good tea is expected to taste and feel? It must be labriz, brimful, labsooz, lip-burning, and labdooz, lip-sewing or astringent (A “dare-to- drink saying!)
Preparing a decent tea, Iranian-style, is a simple yet delicate task that requires time and attention. The alchemy begins by crafting a blend of Iranian or imported tea, usually Indian Darjeeling and Asam black teas, to achieve the best flavor, color and taste. The water is brought to a boil in an enameled kettle, and added to the tea leaves in a china teapot. Some people rinse the tea leaves first by swirling the boiling water around the pot and pouring it out once. Others warm the teapot and estekans in this way as well.
Once boiling water has been added to the tea, turn the heat low and return the kettle to the stove, placing the teapot right on top of the kettle and allowing it to sit amidst the steam for ten to fifteen minutes. The idea is to keep the teapot’s temperature steady until the tea leaves have properly settled at the bottom. This can also be done by keeping the teapot close to the direct source of heat, or by taking it away and covering it with an eiderdown (damkoni) for a few minutes. By the way, a samovar is not essential to make a traditional tea, because a kettle and a pot do exactly the same job.
The amount of tea used per serving and the length of the steaming stage are both crucial in determining the quality of the final product. Too short a steaming process does not allow the release of the desired theine (a substance in tea, similar to the caffeine of coffee) in the black tea, while too long a process evokes the release of tannin, which makes the tea bitter. Tea tastes its best when it is sipped immediately after being freshly-steamed.