Iranian tea culture has been around as long as the silk road that first brought tea to the Persian region. What makes it unique is the blend of practices from Russia and China, as well as a little espionage that brought tea to Iran in the late 1800’s and allowed Iran to build its own traditions around the consumption of tea.
History of Tea in Iran
Tea entered Iran via the Silk Road back in 453 BCE when the Silk Road connected to the Royal Road, which had been built earlier in the Persian Empire and well maintain as a postal route through the empire to allow for fast (9 days by horseback) postal communication. With tea becoming easier to obtain than coffee, it became the staple beverage in society around the 1400’s CE and gave rise to chaikhanehs, or tea houses. Chaikhanehs are built for large social gatherings around pots of tea and sweets. Originally they were for men only. So much like European practices, the women gathered in homes for their socializing and tea drinking. That has changed and now you will find all genders and ages in chaikhanehs through out Iran.
Tea was not grown in Iran until the late 1800’s, after an Iranian diplomat, by the name of Kashef Al Saltaneh, smuggled back from India over 3,000 samplings to plant in Iran. (Given that the English stole from the Chinese to grow tea in India, I guess it is fitting to have their tea stolen as well.) His story is an interesting one, as Kashef was educated in Europe and serving in India in the Iranian consulate. He decided to smuggle back the samplings to plant in his home town of Lahijan in the northern Gilan region of Iran (on the Caspian Sea), which had the perfect terroir for tea. He succeeded in smuggling as his diplomatic position prevented the British military from searching his suit cases and trunks. After six years of trying, he got his product to market and Iranian tea traditions have not been the same. Tea plantations are still in full production today in the regions of Gilan producing tea in the traditional orthodox fashion. Demand for tea far outstrips the supply in the country, so tea is still imported from Africa, Middle East, and India.
Drinking Tea in Iran
Tea is brewed very much like the way Turkish or Russian tea is brewed. The tea is brewed in a Samovar and kept warm all day. This causes the tea to be very dark and bitter. It is often diluted with boiling water to help soften the flavor. It is always served with sugar cubes, some have saffron in them along with the sugar. Those cubes are placed in your mouth, between your teeth, then you sip your tea. This allows the sugar to melt in your mouth, removing the bitterness. Before you think how are you supposed to talk and sip your tea at the same time if you are balancing a sugar cube in your mouth, these cubes are shaped more like rectangles and are skinny and small, making them very quick to dissolve.
As tea has traveled the globe it has brought a beverage that is common among varying cultures and beliefs, and hopefully one day it can help to remind us all that regardless of our differences there is nothing like gathering with our fellow humans to enjoy a cup of tea.