As the seasons change, what’s more comforting than a nice cup of tea? Our food columnist Natalia Golumb reveals what makes Azerbaijani tea so special, from its unique history to the best way to brew a cup
Few things are as entrenched in Azerbaijani culture as tea. Originating in China, a bush of tea leaves is believed to have found its way to Azerbaijan via the Silk Road as far back as the Middle Ages. Yet, the first tea plantation in Azerbaijan was founded in the southeastern region of Lankaran only relatively recently, in the 18th century. At present it is also grown in the Masalli, Astara, Lerik and Zagatala regions. Just imagine, during Soviet times, Azerbaijan contributed more than 10 per cent of overall tea production in the Soviet Union and in just a century, tea became our number one tradition.
Azerbaijanis prefer to drink lavish, black tea, although at times we do make green or herbal tea – usually with wild herbs picked in the mountains. While our tea brewing ceremony is not as sophisticated as, for example, those found in China or Japan, it is, however, a long and enjoyable procedure with an emphasis on taking one’s time and enjoying the moment.
The most popular vessel for drinking tea nationwide is the small crystal glass known as the Armudu (which means ‘pear-shaped’). There are a lot of explanations as to where the glass got its shape: it is convenient to hold in the hand, it reminds one of the figure of a beautiful woman, and so on. In fact, the reason is quite pragmatic, for the tea at the bottom of an armudu glass cools down more slowly than at the top. This means the temperature of the tea at the bottom remains the same as at the very beginning of tea drinking – so no worry about your tea getting cold before you’re done!
My neighbour Adil Muallim, who used to have his own tea house, says it is important to pour some brewed tea into a prepared armudu glass, and then pour it back into the pot before serving. Since he told me this, I always do the same and it really does give a more balanced and bold aroma at the end.
Also, according to the tradition we do not serve tea with sugar. The sole exception is when a woman wants to say “yes” to a man who has asked for her hand in marriage – then she brings him a glass of sweet tea (which we call “shirin chay”) and it means “Yes!”. We do, however, serve tea with kelle-gend sugar on side – a special sort of hardy, uneven sugar, which does not melt immediately when it comes into contact with water. Before the first sip, you dip the sugar in the tea and bite a piece off!
So the question is, how to brew this special Azerbaijani tea? Traditionally it is brewed in a porcelain pot filled with boiling water from a wood-fired samovar. This method is still used in countryside regions as well as outdoor teahouses. It is hard to qualify in words, but samovar tea is more tasty than that made in a regular kettle, perhaps because of the infusion of wood smoke. Having said that, here are a few fun tea recipes to get you started:
Flavoured Black Tea
Fill a kettle with fresh water and bring to the boil. Meanwhile, rinse the inside of a porcelain teapot with hot, or boiling, water. Add three to four teaspoons of loose, black tea leaves into the pot. Pour boiling water over the leaves to fill the pot halfway. Cover with the lid and put over a very low heat, ideally for five minutes, without letting the water come back to a boil.
To this ‘base’, you can add rose petals, whole cloves, fresh or dried mint leaves, dried ginger, cinnamon sticks or even chamomile. I personally love a mixture of thyme and lavender (not an entirely traditional taste, I must admit), as well as rose petals.
Keklikotu (which means wild thyme) tea is the most beloved blend in Azerbaijan. In addition to its wonderful aroma it’s also used as a medicine to help fight colds, clear the respiratory system, fight off insomnia and relax the mind and body. The recommended proportion of black tea leaves to wild thyme is one to one, but you can increase or decrease the amount of thyme as per your preference.
Tea with Rose Water
Rose water (called gulab in Azerbaijan), on its own is virtually tasteless, but its aroma opens up tea in a unique way. Gulab not only makes tea particularly fragrant, but it also perfumes the air, which is why some tea houses here smell as if one were in a rose garden. The amount is up to you, but I personally add one teaspoon of rose water to my glass.
Traditionally we serve tea with lots of small rosettes of different sweet preserves: pomegranates, strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, cherries, olives, eggplants (yes, you read that right – sweet olives and eggplants), walnuts, watermelon etc. And of course, you can add some lemon slices to your glass of tea and choose some traditional sweet pastries as an accompaniment, such as pakhlava, sheki khalva or shekerbura.
So when is tea time in Azerbaijan? Azerbaijanis don’t need to wait until 5 o’clock. We drink tea in the morning, after dinner, during the day, with guests at home or during a backgammon game right on the street…
Azeri tea has its own bold taste. I promise you can try it once and will remember it forever.
Photography by Richard Haughton