Tea in Arab Countries

Trade with China and Japan had brought knowledge of tea to the Arabs starting in the 9th century. Certain of their ancient tales mention the drink. However, their interest remained dormant until the 19th century.

Production of tea in India soared during the 19th century due, among other things, to mechanization of the plantations. The English began to worry about possible overproduction. As they searched out new markets, they thought that if they introduced tea to the Arabs, they could divest themselves of their surplus. At the time the Arabs were in the habit of drinking mint or absinthe; they welcomed tea, as it blended in well and attenuated the bitterness of their infusions.

Tea met with such success that it was soon being consumed at all hours. It became a national drink, intimately associated with hospitality and sociability. Of the 20 nations in the world that consume the most tea, half are Arab countries (Turkey, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia). Most Islamic countries, including Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia import and consume black tea, while Morocco and Afghanistan are the two main consumers of green tea.

Hospitality in Three Rounds

The Arab Tradition

In the Arab countries, mint tea or na-naa is the ritual drink of hospitality. Besides helping to digest spiced or fatty food, it is thought to comfort the anguished spirit, calm the insomniac, awaken the slumbering, sharpen the senses, constrain the over-exuberance of youth, and soothe the ills of old age. It is served in palaces and it is served in the most modest of rooms, in offices, stores, markets and cafes, at all hours of the day and night. One never refuses tea.

The tea ritual in these countries is exclusively masculine. The man of the house or the oldest son is responsible for preparing and serving. He places three teaspoons of green tea in a teapot and pours boiling water on top, then strains it off immediately in order to clean the leaves and remove a little of their bitterness. He then once again pours boiling water over the tea (often gunpowder) and adds the mint leaves, which have previously been washed. Once the whole has been left to infuse, he adds pieces of sugar broken off from a sugar loaf. He pours out one glass, immediately pours it back into the pot, and may repeat this operation a second time. The tea is poured from very high up in order to oxygenate it, then it is served in large painted crystal glasses.

Tea is always served in three rounds. While the guests are drinking the first round, which may not contain mint, the master of the house adds tea, mint and sugar to the leaves already in the pot, and allows this blend to infuse. This second preparation will be more robust than the first. The third round proceeds as for the second, and will be stronger yet. Sometimes a fourth round, made without the addition of tea, will be prepared for the children.

An Arab proverb expresses the spirit of the three rounds: