Tea is probably the most popular beverage in Iran. The tea tradition in Iran has a rich history. Today, tea is a definite winner against coffee in terms of both popularity and consumption. Numbers state that Iran is in the World's top 4 tea consuming countries, with a 1.5kg annual per capita consumption. As for coffee, it stays outside of the World's Top 30. However, it wasn't always this way. Being at the crossroad between established tea-drinking nations such as Russia, India, and China, Iran took its time before forging its own tea culture and tea-drinking identity. Let's explore the journey of tea in Iran!
The establishment of the tea tradition in Iran
The exact time of tea entering Iran is shrouded in mystery. One of Persia's (and the then-world) greatest scholars and thinkers, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, mentions tea in his tractate Ketab al-Saydana, written as early as the 11th century. In there, he talks about the tea plant (chay) and its use throughout China and Tibet. Al-Biruni divides tea by color (black, gray, violet, green, and white). He claims that white tea is the most delicious, rare, and has the strongest medicinal effect on the human body. Around the 13th century, tea finds its way into Persia through the Silk Road and the Mongol caravans. In the 17th century, another author mentions tea, again mostly as a medicinal herb, treating acute swellings and hemorrhoids, among others. By this time, coffee was largely preferred as a drink.
It wasn't until the 19th century that tea turned the tide, becoming a drink of choice for Iran - a position it still retains today.
The fathers of the tea tradition in Iran
Two men are credited for the permanent rooting of the tea plant in the culture of Persia. One is called Amir Kabir, a chief minister in the mid-19th century. He received two gift sets with silver samovars – from the French and the Russian government. This was the first time this tea utensil entered Iran. Seeing its potential, while the habit of drinking tea gradually formed in Iran, Amir Kabir arranged for a government subsidy to a known craftsman in Isfahan while at the same time granting him the exclusive right to produce samovars. By then, tea has already become a popular beverage in Iran. It was served in "coffee houses" or "qahva-kana" in major cities, villages, and along the main roads. Persia was importing black tea, mainly from India. The sharp rise of interest in tea increased the import by the year – it was time to think about home cultivation of the precious plant.
Enter Mohammad Mirza, also called Kashef al-Saltaneh, an Iranian politician and diplomat. At the end of the 19th century, he served as a Consul general of Iran in British India. While there, he started traveling to tea-producing areas, learning about tea cultivation and processing. There's a saying that – probably due to their own story of acquiring tea from China – the British had a very strict policy on everything related to tea cultivation. They kept this knowledge strictly confidential and restricted access to it for all non-Europeans. Ironically, Kashef al-Saltaneh disguised himself as a French businessman (which he confirms in one of his reports) to "obtain intelligence". Many believe he referred precisely to tea cultivation and processing techniques.
In the early 20th century, Kashef Al-Saltaneh managed to mail tea seeds and a book on tea cultivation methods to his home country. That is how he obtained his honorary title "Kashef al-Saltaneh", meaning "Royal explorer".
With the approval of the then-ruling Shah, Al-Saltaneh started the first tea plantations in Iran's Gilan and Mazandaran provinces. Those were the only regions suitable for growing tea. Although a bit slow, the expansion of tea cultivation was considered a success, raising the tea plantations area from a mere 100 ha in 1920 to 31,300 ha in 1971.
Tea cultivation and processing in Iran
Today farmers in Iran cultivate tea exclusively in the Caspian provinces. They feature a combination of mountainous terrain, abundant rainfall, good drainage, and slightly acidic soil. Tea plantations usually reside on steep hills above valleys planted with rice. The picking season starts in early April. Women are mostly engaged in fresh tea leaves' collection. The usual picking standard is a bud and two to three leaves, immediately sent for processing either at home or in the factory. According to the traditional technique, workers first dry the leaves under the shade. Then, they roll the leaves by hand and cut them into thin strips. The tea then ferments in a cool place until it gets black in color. The final drying is done on a heated metal tray.
Factory processing involves essentially the same steps. Some stages are handled by machines instead of human labor. The initial drying is either natural or by heating the leaves. They then go through machines for the rolling and cutting stage. The tea strips go through a series of strainers for sorting according to size. Fermentation takes place in controlled surroundings. The final drying is done in electric ovens.
Tea culture and tea customs in Iran today
Today, tea remains the drink of choice for every Iranian, regardless of age, social status, and ethnicity. Iranians drink tea around the clock, and tea consumption is a habit even for two-year-old kids. Apart from locally produced, Ceylon black tea (from Sri Lanka), along with Chinese and Indian black teas, are consumed. Recently, there has been a favor towards Chinese tea, whose import has grown more than twice. Import from India is still primary; however, its share has dropped significantly in recent years.
Tea tradition in Iran – local customs
Iranians have a strong preference for black tea – it is THE tea type consumed almost exclusively throughout the country. In Iranian tea's home places – the provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran – people add bits of dry lemon to the cup before brewing the tea. Another region, Fars, is known for adding fresh lime juice to freshly brewed tea. The Southeastern part of the country, near the border with Pakistan, is probably the only place in Iran where people add milk to their tea. It is common for Iranians to add rose petals or rose buds to their tea leaves before brewing. No wonder, as this is where the rose flower originated in the first place. Rose and rosewater are commonly used as a kitchen ingredient, and tea makes no exception. Another favorite addition to the tea leaves in Iran is the bergamot oil – similar to the much-loved Earl Gray, drunk in England. Sometimes they add saffron, which is another common cooking ingredient. Many Iranians love to throw in a cinnamon stick in the tea leaves before brewing. Cloves, cardamom, and coriander seeds round up the list of favorite add-ons to Iranian tea.
Tea tradition in Iran – the Russian influence
Being a neighboring country, Russia has exerted a significant influence over Iranian tea culture. The classic самовар (samovar) was a staple utensil for brewing tea. To this day, the tulip-shaped glass Iranians drink their tea in is called estakan (from the Russian стакан (stakan) meaning a glass). Like their neighbors, Iranians sweeten their tea not by mixing sugar directly into the liquid but by taking a sugar lump between their teeth and sip tea through it (people from Gilan and Kurdistan tend to add sugar directly to their tea, though). Generally, rock sugar (chipped from a sugarloaf) is preferred over artificially produced sugar cubes, as the latter dissolve too quickly.
Iranians have also developed their local version of a samovar. It's similar to a double decker and, much like the samovar, consists of two kettles put one over the other. The larger one for boiling the water is called ketri, while the smaller one, quri, is stuffed with tea leaves and placed over the larger one. Both kettles can be used separately too.
* Iranian samovar. Photocredit: ShopiPersia.com
How to make and drink tea in Iran like a local
- Put the water in the samovar, or ketri, to a boil.
- Wash the tea leaves with cold water (some sources suggest hot water for the washing), and put them in the teapot or the quri. Add a pinch of rose petals, a cinnamon stick, or some clove seeds, according to your taste preferences.
- Place the teapot over the samovar (the quri over the ketri); cover with a clean cloth and let brew for 10-15 minutes.
- Fill about 1/3 of the cup with tea from the teapot (quri), then fill up with boiling water from the samovar (or ketri) according to taste. Add more water for "pur rang" (light-colored or lighter tea) or less for "kam rang" (dark-colored or stronger tea).
- Serve tea with rock sugar or sugar cubes. Accompany with dates, dried mulberries, raisins, and dried figs.
Next time we'll explore the tea tradition in Turkey. As the country that tops up the list of the heaviest tea drinkers, it can surely offer some interesting insights into the global tea culture! Stay tuned!