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Tea in Islamic cultures

The country with the highest per capita tea consumption is not England, China or India. It’s Turkey, where the average is over 3,000 cups per person per year, nine a day. Morocco is in second place, at five, followed by Ireland and the Independent Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and only then the UK, where tea drinking is down by two-thirds from thirty years ago. Here are selected rankings, with producing nations shown in yellow and Islamic cultures in dark blue:

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So much for tea being “English.”

Of the top 30 consumer countries, 15 are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which now accounts for a quarter of global tea drinking. The world’s center for tea bag production is Dubai. Tea is as much an Arabic as a European culture and as much influenced by Islam as Asia’s was by Buddhism.

This MENA surge was relatively sudden and late. While records point to trading in tea between Arabs and China as early as the 9th century, it had not become part of the social fabric of Islamic nations. It coexisted with coffee and alcohol.

This obviously doesn’t fit the stereotypes of tea. How much does the average tea drinker or even the experienced Assamophile or Oolongist know about Turkish, Iranian or Moroccan teas? More importantly, are they worth trying? This last question presupposes an earlier one: why and how did it happen?

Quick answers are:

Why? (Persia, now Iran): Imperial China trade liberalization – let the camels caravan; Turkey: the loss of Mocha, the coffee trade port, in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; modern Iran, a savvy diplomat with a suitcase of tea seeds creating a new industry the same way the British did in India – stealing it; Morocco: the Crimea War with British merchants stuck with tons of green tea; Dubai: tax incentives and deep water ports; Bedouins: trade along the China tea horse road.

How good? Generally basic grade leaf crushed into small pieces to provide a flavorful base for mint (Morocco green tea) and sugar (Turkish black) and a plain full-bodied taste (Iran black). The teas use their own special equipment and brewing methods. They are an acquired taste, just as Ceylon black tea or Japanese matcha is and they are “different” but they are well worth trying for their freshness, sweetness and – well, their difference from your own everyday drink.

The tea is not distinctive or varied. It’s a commodity grade, with little effort to create varieties of flavor, style or quality. Turkey grows most of what it needs in a single region, Kuze. Iran is a heavy importer, with price by far the dominant factor, though imports of whole leaf tea are beginning to grow, from a tiny base. Its domestically produced tea is light; “purrang” – full-colored red – and distinguished from “kamrang” – little color. The mint in Moroccan tea has a soft, piquant flavor and appealing freshness that may be an attractive or complementary alternative to flavored and sweetened supermarket teas.

Ritual is as formal and historical – and, increasingly, nostalgic – as English high tea. Tea houses have been as frequent, casual and social as British taverns and French cafes, and like them gradually pushed out by Starbucks and its progeny. They formed around the daily calls to prayer five times a day.

In Turkey, two kettles are stacked, with one boiling the water and the top one heating the tea. The traditional pots are curved and made of silver, enamel or aluminum. The tea is boiled and mixed with sugar and then poured from a height that makes it foamy. Iran’s tea traditions were strongly shaped by Russia, which traded more directly for tea with China, as were Morocco’s; the samovar was in use by the early 1820s.

Antique teapots

Antique teapots

A conundrum: the major growers drink little tea

One hard to explain highlight in the table ranking countries by per capita consumption is that the major producing nations are relatively low in consumption. Not a single one of the Big Four – China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka – is even in the top 20 tea drinkers. (Turkey is fifth in production but like Japan, almost all its tea is consumed domestically, while the leaders are export-driven.)

The best explanation may be that tea was a trade good. Prior to the European discovery of tea, it traveled by caravan under strict policy control from China, first to the Northern steppes of Tibet to buy the horses its armies so severely lacked, which left it an easy target for Scythian and other hordes. Bearers often carried 50-60 kilograms of tea bricks wrapped in paper, the forerunner of puehr teas and a form of international currency. This was often heavier than their own weight.

The Old Tea Horse Trade road spanned 2,500 miles of tortuous mountain trails from Yunnan, the center of growing to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and the many nomadic tribes of the Northwest. The trade routes extended as far as the Sinai and Red Sea. As late as the 1940s, photos show porters carrying 150 pounds of tea, walking on crutches and stopping every quarter of a mile to rest. It took three weeks to travel 150 miles along the steepest paths, often as high as 4,000 feet in elevation.

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That trade was pretty much disrupted by the Mongol conquests. It wasn’t until the 16th century that China opened up the routes to Persia (Iran). Camels played a major role in spreading tea across the Arabian Peninsula, through the annual pilgrimages to Mecca. Travelers packed tea for their journey plus extra for trade.

European ships changed the nature of the tea trade. They were faster than camels and carried more in a single voyage than a thousand lumbering beasts of burden. The main routes were of course across the Pacific but cargo ships began to have major impacts on Islamic cultures.

Morocco and Turkey: from coffee to tea

The latent demand for tea was growing as religious authorities tightened formal and social restrictions on coffee and alcohol. When British troops landed in Tangiers in 1718, the luxury became an affordable commodity. Cargos of the green tea that was losing market share in Britain, due to the constant adulteration, counterfeiting and contamination, flooded into the port. Moroccan tea took on the distinctive addition of spearmint and sugar cube lightly held between the teeth as you drink.

When the ruler of Morocco banned both coffee and tobacco at the end the end of the 19th century, the ships were soon there bringing tea that was fresher than by camel service from Mecca. British traders had lost their Russian market because of the Crimean War and eagerly filled the new pipeline. Imports grew from 400 thousand to 5.5 million pounds in just thirty years.

Similar patterns were at work in other Islamic countries. Turkey had been a coffee drinking nation since the early Middle Ages and the center of its overland trade with Western Europe that preceded the tea surge by about fifty years. The key port of Mocha was lost, in 1923, as one result of the dismemberment of the once indomitable Ottoman empire. Tea replaced it. The building of the Suez Canal made Russia’s Odessa a new tea provider and opened up trade to Afghanistan. Tea now permeates every area of Islam societies, including Bedouin tribes that still live in the deserts.

Tea growing comes to Iran the way it did to India: theft

One minor, but intriguingly ironic, story is how tea growing came to Iran, where it remains a healthy but still small segment of the industry. The British had placed a ban on exports of seeds and plants from its monopoly base in Assam, India, just as the Chinese had. It took many decades of espionage, traveling in dangerous disguise and smuggling before the famous Robert Fortune successfully brought to India the loot that began the transformation of the global industry.

A young Iranian prince, Kashef Al Satani, the first mayor of  Teheran and ambassador to India, neatly turned the tables, albeit with less widespread impacts. He masqueraded as a French laborer to learn the closely guarded secrets of tea growing and in 1899 informally imported 3,000 Assam seedlings, protected from inspection of his bags through his diplomatic immunity. He created a substantial new industry.   

Tea had been more prominent throughout the history of Persia, once the largest empire in the world, post-1000 CE. The great scholar Rashid el Din tut-tutted in the 1300’s that the wine taverns of Persia’s capital city were the haunts of whoremongers, the coffee houses drew the poets, singers and storytellers and the teahouses the quiet ones who gathered to play chess.

As you can guess, rulers’ later bans on alcohol opened up the tea market. The prohibition was not as pervasive across Islam or as restrictive as established stereotypes suggest. It was more an issue of intoxication than abstinence. The most militant sects that conquered North Africa imposed the most stringent laws but coffee regulation was far more salient in policy and impacts.

The culture of tea: choose your style

There are several general points worth reflecting on in this brief summary of tea and Islam. The obvious one is that that coffee and tea are a seesaw; one goes up and the other comes down. This has been the pattern since the 1600s.

The second lesson is more directly relevant to your own exploration of tea. The very same types of tea – green and black – are adopted and adapted in very different ways to the degree that they create a distinctive style of drink. We tend to stay within the boundaries of the style we know best. So, for instant, US and European shoppers will range across the black teas of India and the greens of China, but not the mint greens of North Africa. Maybe, it is worth your expanding the styles not just the range of teas within your style.

The teas of the Islamic tradition are very different from what you’ll find on your supermarket shelf or local specialty store. They are really good – within their style. Moroccan mint tea can be a refreshing pleasure.

tea taste table insert

 

Here’s a rough summary of the main styles of tea cultures across the world. Try them out:

Try a good Moroccan loose leaf mint tea. Check your physical and digital list of friends with Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds and get invitations to tea from the first and Facebook comments from the latter. You may find a new  taste to add to your occasional or even regular favorites. 

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7 Comments

  1. Peter,
    I enjoy your writings and am amazed at your expanse and depth of tea knowledge.
    Would love to meet up with you some day.

    • Peter GW Keen
      Peter Keen says

      Thank you so much, Indi…. Who knows.

      I find that my enjoyment of tea is enhanced by writing about it. An inexhaustible pleasure in both regards.

      Regards, Peter

  2. Christine Bullen says

    At your suggestion in a previous article, I ordered a selection of tea from Rishi. WOW! the flavors are amazing. The Earl Grey Classic is like no Earl Grey I have ever tasted before. The instructions recommend reusing the leaves and tasting the difference in a second infusion. I am enjoying doing that and find that the second is lighter, but still delicious. I also ordered “Valerian Dream,” which I cannot describe- its wonderful. They sent a sample of “Scarlet” which is made of a wide selection of fruit and, in it, I have found another new favorite.

    Thank you for your recommendations!

    Best regards, Chris

  3. Hi I am Turkish and it’s great to know that Turkey leads with respect to Tea in Islamic culture. Great information by the way. Thanks for sharing.

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