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Friday, 12 July 2013

Traditional, Old Fashioned Mint Tea & Flavoured Water - Drinks from old traditions revived into new Ramadani traditions

Moroccan Mint Tea

"Whither resorting from the vernal heat
Shall Old Acquaintance Old Acquaintance greet,
Under the Branch that leans above the Wall
To shed his Blossom over head and feet."
- The Rubaiyat of Omar Al Khayyam

While coffee, especially Turkish and Arabic Coffee are very popular in most Arab countries, tea remains the widest spread drink of choice everywhere in the Middle East. Over here, people unwind in the afternoon with a cup of tea usually sitting in the front yard under the shade of a tree where the children play and the grown ups chat. And as they sit, they will greet passers by in the street as usually most people know each other. They will even insist they join for a cup of tea. Tea is also served for breakfast, dinner, before a meal, then after as a digestif. It is even the drink served when getting together with old acquaintances, and an absolute must with desserts.

One beautiful tea tradition, recently revived and brought back to life in many cities after having disappeared for a while, is that of Sabbabeen il Shai  صبابين الشاي  (the traditional tea sellers). Originally, in countries of the Levant and North Africa, it used to be very common to see tea sellers in bazaars, souks and some restaurants. These men characteristically wearing traditional Sherwal  شروال  (wide saddled pants), a red Tarboosh طربوش (a cylindrical-shaped red felt hat with a black tassel draping from one side) and over their shirts wearing a vest of leather straps holding a brass or copper tray containing compartments to hold several cups are known as Sabbabin il Shai (literally meaning the tea pourers) if they sell tea and Qahwaji  قهوجي (literally meaning the Coffee man) if he sells coffee. They will bend to pour you tea or coffee from a larger than life pot that they carry on their backs. Usually ultra sweet tea is served (the preference of most people), which can be flavoured with mint (mostly) or sage (in some areas). As the tea seller pours the tea, he will lower the cup, to allow the pouring tea to aerate, believed to allow tea to develop a stronger and better flavour.

Sabbab Shai or Qahwaji (Traditional Tea/Coffee Seller)
Photo by Jocelyn Gundan, author of Al Ain City Daily Photo

Nowadays, tea sellers are still very popular in some cities, but in most places are either only found in some restaurants as an attraction, or not found at all! During Ramadan however, especially in the recent years, the tea seller tradition is being revived and it is more common to see them in hotels, restaurants, some markets and even malls after Iftar.

In the Middle East, tea is often served before a meal, and always served to end a meal too. Most people will have several tea cups a day, and at times would sip on tea for hours in the afternoon especially in coffee shops (the term is used to refer to shops where you can lounge sipping on coffee or tea, which also usually serve shisha).

With that said, the Moroccan tea is the one tea tradition that had been most popularised in recent years. While it never used to be so widely accessible, Moroccan tea is now served in almost all coffee shops, Shisha places and restaurants. It is even becoming the tea of choice in most houses, known to be tasty but mostly famous for being stylish to serve; thanks to its dainty (at times colourful) and embellished cups and the good looking, fat-bellied silver tea pot (commonly referred to as the Manchester shape tea pot), all placed over an equally attractive silver tray with embossed embellishments. Moroccan tea is especially popular during Ramadan, where most people would have not just one, but at least three cups of tea after Iftar. The tea is then had throughout the evening, with Arabic sweets and at times with Shisha or during card or backgammon games. Moroccan tea is also flavoured with mint, usually spearmint, while other types of mint can also be used. The Moroccans too, enjoy their tea fairly sweet, however the tea can be had with little sugar or non at all.

Every one has a method for preparing Moroccan Tea but it generally goes as follows...

Morrocan Mint Tea
As per Paula Wolfert's instructions, which I found to produce very well flavoured tea.
Serves 6

You Need
750 ml water
1 tbsp Tea
70 g sugar
A handful of fresh spearmint leaves

Place the tea, sugar and mint inside the teapot, cover with boiling water then leave to steep for 3 minutes. Stir lightly at the end of the three minutes. Then serve, lifting the pot as you pour to aerate the tea.


Flavoured Water, The Old Fashioned Way

In Ramadan it is essential to stay well hydrated and those fasting have a lot of making up to do after a long day's fast. For the fasting, the thirst alone makes them reach out to water all through the evening, therefore a pitcher or a few glasses of water are always placed at the centre of a serving tray for guests to sip and rehydrate. Flavoured water has always been very popular in the Middle East, and it is an excellent way to serve water in Ramadan. While the most obvious method of flavouring water is to add fruits such as raspberries, sliced oranges, or peaches - or my favourite sliced cucumbers (trust me it is very refreshing with a few cubes of ice, heavenly!) - ulternatively, water can be flavoured with a tsp of orange blossom water or rose water...etc. But back in the day flavouring water was way more interesting!

In old traditions, people used to flavour water by flavouring the container or pitcher, mainly by smoking it with the aroma of burning bakhoor, frankincense, or mistka (AKA Arabic gum or mastic) or otherwise with the smoke of the burning skin of citrus fruits.

Basically, one of those ingredients will be placed over burning charcoal and once smoking the container or pitcher will be placed, upside down and slightly away from the heat, to absorb all the smoke (for a minute or so). This way the container will have the aromas which will be absorbed by the water. This is best done in a container that can be closed with a lid in order to seal the aromas. The easiest way to carry this out at home is by placing a piece of lit charcoal over a few folds of foil paper placed on a heat proof dish, then sprinkling the aromatics over it. Once smoking* place the pitcher upside down over the smoke and allow it to fill up. Pour the water in and seal with the lid. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

*Please note that this is best done in a well ventilated room, near a window, or you will be showered by fire fighting sprinklers!

Find more recipes for Hot Beverages on this link.
Cold Iced teas keep you hydrated too, find fab recipes here.


Food For Thought
Without and within don't always meet so we better not judge                                                                        

Hope you enjoyed this post and learning about some of the old Arabic traditions for serving tea and water. Do give this method of flavouring water a try, it is very tasty and impressively different.
Would love to hear your thoughts, let me know if you have ever flavoured water this way, also let me know if you prefer serving Moroccan tea. In your country do you have any such traditions that you would like to see brought back to life? do leave a comment and help me keep the conversation alive...

Come back tomorrow for a little food history with
Medieval Islamic Cooking :)

The world is beautiful, all its people are beautiful, all cultures equally important, and all the same in the end - all out there for us to explore...
Ramadan Kareem