Africa, Food and drink

A cup of culture

irabel8

Morocco’s love for green tea is a symbol of national identity and hospitality, but the rituals of serving the drink strongly differ from those in Europe. 

 

The British are renowned for appreciating a good cup of tea, but such pleasures extend not only to drizzly climates. In Morocco, tea is everywhere: markets, bars, shops, hotels and restaurants. It is served on almost any social occasion, at any time during the day. The Moroccans even have a saying about its daily taste: “The first glass is as gentle as life; the second glass is a strong as love; the third glass is as bitter as death.”

Green tea is the default social beverage in Morocco, particularly because alcohol is not allowed. Men often enjoy it in bars; women in their homes. Families drink it several times a day, with or without food. “Tea also represents the basis of their hospitality, which is extremely important in their culture and religious values,” says Monika Sudakov, author of Moroccan Tea Ritual: Religion, Gender, Socio-Economics and Hospitality. “Offering and sharing tea with guests is tantamount to social identity in Morocco.”

The fact that tea connects with social identity means it can practically be served anywhere and to anyone. “It is etiquette to offer tea to friends, special guests, unexpected company and even brand new acquaintances,” says Christine Benlafquih, a Morocco-based food writer. “Casual business meetings might be held over a pot of tea, and Morocco’s numerous cafés, which cater primarily to a male clientele, serve up a steady supply of tea all day long.”

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While Morocco’s passion for tea is unquestioned, the way in which it occurred in the first place is. One theory claims that, since Morocco was not part of the Ottoman Empire, which had a strong coffee culture, it was able to hold onto its tea. Some believe tea was imported in the 12th century, others via traders in the 18th century. Sudakov says that, during the 18th century Crimean War, British ships would dock in Moroccan ports and introduce it. “Moroccans already had a habit of drinking what are called ‘tisanes’ or infusions of hot water with various herbs and spices, mostly for medicinal purposes,” she explains. “The addition of tea was a natural fit and thereby adopted readily.”

Whatever happened, Morocco quickly embraced the drink. The most common type is called ‘gunpowder tea’, which, when harvested in China, is rolled into tiny balls and dried. It contains a lot of caffeine and antioxidants, providing a welcomed energy boost. For Moroccans, tea also helps the body adjust to warm temperatures. They usually serve it loaded with fresh mint and sugar. (According to Benlafquih, other herbs may also be added, such as lemon verbena, sage, wormwood and pennyroyal.) However, says Sudakov, the tea becomes less sweet the further south you go, seeing as sugar is harder to come by in poor villages.

The Moroccan service varies wildly from European norms: boiling water in a cup and chucking in a bag of tea is no good here. “It’s fairly standard for households to have several tea services – pots, glasses and trays – ranging from casual set-ups for daily family use to expensive, engraved teaware which is reserved for special occasions,” says Benlafquih. She also explains that, while the process of making tea used to be a formal, drawn-out process in front of the guests, the preparation now takes place in the kitchen. There, the tea is steeped in boiling water, washed, then steeped once more, during which sugar and fresh mint leaves are added.

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When serving, Moroccans pour the tea into a drinking glass – then pour it back into the teapot. They repeat this four or five times, to ensure the ingredients are fully mixed, and that the sugar is dissolved. They fill the glasses by two-thirds – no more, no less. They also pour the tea from a height, a move aided by the teapots’ long necks. “This does two things,” says Sudakov. “Besides making for a super show, it helps to aerate the tea as well as to cool it. You’ll notice it forms a nice head, kind of like beer, which accentuates the flavor and infuses air into it.”

Indeed, the tea served in homes beats that in bars and hotels, says Benlafquih. “If tourists receive what they interpret to be a sincere invitation to come for tea or a meal at a Moroccan home, they should leap at the opportunity,” she advises. “Tea drinking in the scenic outdoors, particularly in the dessert or in the mountains, is also a memorable experience.” However, whichever family’s invitation you chose to accept, remember that refusing a glass is considered impolite. Be ready to drink in volumes. “Most of the time three glasses are consumed at one sitting,” Sudakov recalls from her travels. “So you can imagine, after a day of visiting, we drank a ton of tea.”

Photos: bensliman hassan, irabel8, rometheus72 [all via Shutterstock.com].

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