Tea holds an unrivaled position as the most widely consumed beverage in Iran, where its tradition boasts a rich and fascinating history. When it comes to popularity and consumption, tea overwhelmingly triumphs over coffee in the country.
The Early History of Tea 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. Around the 13th century, tea finds its way into Persia through the Silk Road and the Mongol caravans. By the 17th century, another author mentions tea, mostly as a medicinal herb. 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 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. Seeing its potential, 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.
The other is 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. In the early 20th century, Kashef Al-Saltaneh managed to mail tea seeds and a book on tea cultivation methods to Iran.
Tea Cultivation and Processing in Iran
Today farmers in Iran cultivate tea exclusively in the Caspian provinces. The picking season starts in early April. Women are mostly engaged in fresh tea leaves’ collection. According to the traditional technique, workers first dry the leaves, then roll and cut them. Factory processing involves essentially the same steps, with some stages handled by machines. 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 Customs in Iran Today
Today, tea remains the drink of choice for every Iranian. Apart from locally produced, Ceylon black tea (from Sri Lanka), along with Chinese and Indian black teas, are consumed. Many Iranians love to add rose petals, bergamot oil, saffron, cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom, and coriander seeds to their tea leaves before brewing.
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). Like their neighbors, Iranians sweeten their tea with rock sugar, not mixing sugar directly into the liquid.
Generally, Iranians have also developed their local version of a samovar. It’s similar to a double decker and, used to boil the water and brew the tea.
How to Make and Drink Tea in Iran like a Local
Here are the steps 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 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.
- Place the teapot over the samovar (the quri over the ketri); cover 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 according to taste. Add more water for lighter tea or less for stronger tea.
- Serve tea with rock sugar or sugar cubes. Accompany with dates, dried mulberries, raisins, and dried figs.