Updated: Oct 25, 2021
In 1895, Iranian diplomat Kashef-ol-Saltaneh left Paris, where he studied and learned French, and arrived in India. There he introduced himself as a French businessman, learned how to deftly trade in the Indian subcontinent, and as a true gentleman had a walking stick. The advantage of sticks like this is that it is hollow inside and smuggled into it one of the biggest treasures of the British colony: tea. Tea seed and tea itself thus arrived in Iran, so Kashef, later known as Prince Mohammad Mirza, began the industrial production of tea in the northern, Caspian provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran. Today he is known as the father of Iranian tea, and his mausoleum in the Gilani town of Lahijan is also the Tea Museum. High above his earthly resting place, tea fields continue to spread across the green slopes of the vast Alborz mountain range.
The experienced Middle East traveller will watch with pleasure the horrors of Western tourists hustling to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran, hoping for the wonderful flavours of coffee. But these are countries where tea flows in streams, and probably half the country would die instantly if tea disappears for a single minute. A cup of tea is obtained at every opportunity, everywhere. They drink it an average of seven to eight glasses a day. With no questions asked, tea is served before the guest, comfortable appearing at the beginning of the meal and following the end of the meal, it is carried with you wherever you go, even if you buy something at a local store the owner will offer a glass of tea. All this is possible because the Iranians have perfected the samovar, the Russian invention of the ingenious maintenance of fresh and warm tea. As the name implies (and taken by the Iranians themselves), this device itself boils, that is, maintains in its large volume almost boiling water, which heats and develops tea in the kettle on top. Warm tea is thick and strong, so it is diluted with water. Interestingly, they do not call it strong or weaker tea, but what colour it has; full-colour por-rang is strong tea, and less-colour or kam-rang is weak tea. The kettle is regularly smaller in volume because it is not good when it oxidizes too much. The biggest sin is not to change the tea in time, so one must wait for a new one to be made. These are the moments where the proverbially peaceful Iranians get nervous!
There is little to say that tea is an Iranian national drink. Unlike all other beverages, tea is a taste of Iran. The legend of Prince Mohammad Mirza is somewhat accurate, but tea became present in Iran shortly before. Nasir al-Din Shah's famous vizier, Amir Kabir, has played a major role in introducing tea to Iran since he received two tea sets, including samovar, in 1850. One was a gift from the French government and the other from a Russian merchant. Amir Kabir gave a monopoly to produce samovar to government loyalists in the glorious royal city of Esfahan. The rest, it is said, is history. Tea shops began to open everywhere, but rarely where will the name of the "chay-khane" (tea house) be found to this day, because they have all left their old name - ghahvekhane (coffee house). Coffee used to be brewed extensively, following the Arab example, but it seems that tea has so overwhelmed the minds of Iranians that they have forgotten to change their name from coffee house to tea house. Do not be confused, there is no coffee in such a "coffee house". Only tea, in endless quantities.
India was apparently somewhat angry with the Iranians for breaking their world monopoly and destroying the hopes of the British world rulers, so they did not export tea to Iran and Afghanistan for years. But through Bukhara, tea arrived in Kabul and Tehran from China. Imports were needed because plantations on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea are not enough for all of Iran. After all, it is green and mild black tea (chay-e siyah), and Iranians mercilessly consume strong black tea, mostly of Indian origin, because the Indians quickly grasped the thirsty Iranian market. Still, it is nice to drink Iranian green tea in the Gilan plantations, in the vicinity of the city of Lahijan. High above the shores of the Caspian Sea and fertile rice fields in the valleys, slopes are full of wonderful tea, which Iranians call bagh-e chay or tea gardens. Tea is grown only here in Iran because it is the only climate-friendly area, with a large amount of rainfall, good irrigation and somewhat acidic soil, which all favours such plantations. For the most part, delicate Assam and Chinese tea are grown here.
I'm driving here with my friend Oleg, a Russian who has lived in Bandar-e Anzali for years, a town with a free trade zone on the Caspian coast. He speaks fluent Persian, but with a Russian accent, which often leads Iranians to a salve of laughter. Crazy rides along winding roads, with every inch of green space occupied by large Iranian families with their friends. Next to the barbecue, which is often prepared by the mountain rivers, with the necessary carpet or thick blanket, there proudly stands the samovar. The old-fashioned way is to heat water and tea with charcoal, though often the whole gas bottle is also carried, to which a gas-powered samovar is tied. Oleg and I greet the visitors that, of course, immediately offer a glass of tea.
Yes, a glass of tea, not a cup, because cups are not used to drink tea. There are various tea glasses, but traditional ones are small glasses (called estekan) that can often be seen in the hands of fresh tea vendors in the squares of Iran. Many have beautiful curvy ornaments or pictures of Qajar rulers and princes offering a whiff of times past. Surprisingly (or not so strangely), the glass is an integral part of the interior of many taxis and buses, where the drivers’ cockpit, in addition to the unavoidable taspih (prayer rosary), the Panjah (also known as Fatima's hand), paper towels, there is a glass which is the personal property of the driver and who pour hectolitres of tea into it while driving. Not infrequently, while driving around the wide Iranian plateau, I poured tea from a thermos flask to driver Mohsen as we drove towards Shiraz, realizing the importance of this drink to the driver in much the same way as fuel to the car.
During the time of Ashura, one of Iran's biggest Shiite holidays, when devout Shiite Muslims remember the tragedy and killing of the third Imam Hussein, streets and squares are filled with stalls where food and tea are distributed free of charge. In fact, food (so called nazri) is more prevalent in special houses of worship - hosseinieh, as well as in individual family homes, and tea is still ubiquitous. But this is a special tea, it is called chay-e mohammadi. In it float petals of Damascus rose which in Persian is called Gol Mohammadi. The beautiful rose scent gives this tea an exceptional aroma and is served on truly special occasions. If you come to visit an Iranian family, at least two or three different types of tea will be served, just as Mrs. Mehri and Mrs. Tahere do, two women who always make sure I get fat while in Iran. Usually these teas are of the type Ceylon or Darjeeling because they are rich in taste, aroma and potency.
Tea is served without any additives - unless it is chay-e shirin or literally sweet tea. Such tea must already be sweetened before. The worst thing to do is to put a sugar cube in the brewed tea and drink it. Instead, a larger piece of sugar cube (called ghand) is held between the upper palate and the lower row of teeth and the tea is literally sucked through that cube. You will probably have a few sweet tries before you learn to drink tea. Only in the area of Iranian Kurdistan is it possible to get traditionally already sweetened tea. Lemon tea can be found in the northern provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran, while in the Fars province, lime tea can also be found. In the far southeast of the country, along the border with Pakistan, Baluchis drink milk tea, which is already a tradition of the Indian subcontinent. Instead of sugar, you can use nabat, crystallised sugar that comes often with a saffron flavour.
There are more and more cosy, almost melancholy, tea and coffee shops in the big cities of Iran. The modern expression of pleasure in tradition brings with it a variety of different tea. So here, under the dim light of these nice places, you can try chay-e babooneh teas (chamomile), chay-e golab (rose tea), chay-e na'na (mint tea), chay-e helli (tea with cardamom), chay-e darchin (cinnamon tea) or chay-e za'ferani (saffron tea). Each has a wonderful, somewhat unusual taste, so it is nice to taste these "alternatives" as well. Welcome to Iran, the land of tea!