Not a mere 30 seconds of entering my mother-in-law’s home and you will already be greeted with the ever-present aroma of saffron, cardamom, and rose water, which will stay nestled in your clothes long after you’ve left. You will also be greeted with many kisses on the cheek, and before you have even taken off your coat, the persisting questions of “are you hungry?” and “would you like tea or water?”. However you choose to answer those two questions is irrelevant, because as you make yourself comfortable on the couch, you will still be brought a tray full of fruit, sweets, and of course…a glass of tea.
Hailing from the Upper Midwest, tea was not the usual choice of drink for us North Dakotans. Dusty boxes of bagged tea were pulled from the back of the pantry only if our throats were on fire from winter colds. But, coffee. There was always coffee. Whenever I smell coffee brewing, my mind goes to back to sweet memories I have of my Grandma Jean’s kitchen where a fresh pot was always sitting. Coffee in styrofoam cups was paired with chocolate chip cookies in church basements and always poured into mugs as neighbors stopped by for visiting.
On the other side of the world, tea (or chai, pronounced “cha-ee”) is embedded into every aspect of life and is a huge staple in the Middle Easterner’s diet. In this area of the world, the consumption of black tea starts at an early age. My husband has memories of his mother mixing tea and sugar into his bottle as a toddler, as it is said to aid in settling little one’s stomachs. It is drunk all throughout the day and oftentimes well into the night if guests are visiting. Here in Turkey, I’ve been offered tea in homes, of course, but also at the police station, the cell phone store, in an antique shop, and by complete strangers on the street.
Iranians boast that Persian chai is the best in the Middle East. And with its simple black tea made up of distinctive spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, it sure does pack a punch and is a great pick-me-up right after lunch (or anytime you wish!). Tea is always served in clear glasses so as to tell the coloring – the darker the tea the more strong it is, the lighter, the weaker. Instead of stirring cubes of sugar into the piping hot tea, Iranians usually place a cube of natural sugar (called ghand) between their teeth. While they sip, the hot tea will slowly melt the sugar.
How to Make Persian Chai (for 2 people):
1. Boil about 4 cups of water in an electric tea kettle or over the stove. (A double teapot is most widely used, but not necessary.)
2. Once water is boiling, add half the water to a teapot, along with 1/2 tsp of loose leaf tea. (If you’re feeling fancy, you can add either some cardamom pods or a stick of cinnamon during this step.)
3. Let the tea mixture simmer over low heat for 10 – 15 minutes.
4. In a glass cup, pour the tea mixture until about 1/3 of the cup is full. Fill up the rest of the cup with hot water.
5. Pop a sugar cube or two in your mouth and enjoy your chai with a friend.