Every morning, in houses all over Iran, a gas burner flickers to life under a kettle that will continue to boil all day. It boils through morning prayers, lunches of rice and kebabs, afternoon conversation and late into the evening meal, sustaining talk of politics, gossip and news well into the night.
The kettle contains tea, one of the most important cornerstones of Iranian culture, and the tea house is its centuries-old keeper.
Tea houses, or chaikhanehs, have been in existence since the Persian empire. They gained prominence after the 15th century, when coffee was abandoned in favour of tea leaves that were easier to come by through China’s silk road.
Though once the purview of men, chaikhanehs have increasingly become frequented by all members of society, and especially by Iran’s large youth population. In a country that officially prohibits clubs or bars, the chaikhaneh is one of the closest public things to a “chill out” venue teenagers can retreat to.
Even in socially conservative cities such as Yazd, a centuries-old cultural stronghold in the middle of the country, mixed groups of teenagers will stop for a tea and a meal at the local tea house.
Iranian tea comes in a variety of subtle flavours, but its defining characteristic is its deep reddish-brown colour, which tea-drinkers can choose to dilute with water depending on their preference. Despite its cultivation in the country’s northern provinces, other teas from Sri Lanka and India are also widely consumed as the country imports a majority of its tea in order to meet the large demand.
Most chaikhanehs will serve tea on the stronger side unless otherwise indicated by the drinker. The stronger the tea, the higher the concentration of tannin and caffeine, so a good cup of tea is like a good cup of coffee for those who take it straight. Because of its bitterness, many prefer to have sugar with their tea. The traditional way to do this is to take a sugar cube and place it between your teeth. You then sip the tea and allow the sugar to melt. Iranians, especially in colder regions of the country, find this a convenient way to drink multiple cups. Crystal, or rock sugar, can be found throughout the country and bought in spice shops for this specific purpose.
The taking of tea is a ritual unto itself: most meetings or formal occasions will begin with the offering of tea, and most meals will end with it. In the chaikhaneh, tea can be served after a meal or with a water-pipe (though water-pipes are now technically banned in public places); it is rarely served before or during a meal. Some chaikhanehs have takhts, or low-rise platforms covered in rugs and pillows that you may recline on. Remove your shoes before doing so; most meals are served on a tablecloth laid at your feet.
Traditionally, tea is served from a samovar, a heating vessel originally imported into Persia from Russia. Literally meaning “self-boiler”, the samovar is used to keep water hot for prolonged periods of time through a fuel-filled pipe in the middle of the structure that heats the contents surrounding it. Made from copper, brass, silver or gold, the samovar is still used throughout Russia, central Asia and Iran, and ornate versions from the -Qajar dynasty may still be found in use.
These days, companies like Tefal and Kenwood sell modern electric versions. The industry is so competitive that celebrity endorsements – such as the footballer Ali Karimi who plays for Bayern Munich – adorn billboards advertising the tea-making devices.
Chaikhanehs come in all shapes and forms, from the simple kitchen-turned-tea room in villages to ornate venues in urban centres, and from underground venues to popular tourist destinations. The Azari Tea House in Tehran is one of the more famous chaikhanehs known to tourists and locals, with its detailed architecture and traditional decoration. In existence since the 14th century, this chaikhaneh on Vali Asr street (the main boulevard in Tehran) contains one of the more interesting embellishments to emerge from tea house culture: teahouse painting.
A continuation of the royal paintings from the Qajar era, tea house paintings illustrate religious and mythical themes, with Hakim Abu’l Qasim Firdawsi’s poetic epic, Shahnameh, often the focus of many such illustrations.
Shiraz is another gorgeous venue in which to find memorable chaikhanehs. Until recently, there was a chaikhaneh in the garden grounds of the tomb of Hafez, one of Iran’s most celebrated poets. Even though it’s now closed, you can still wander the grounds and sit among the well-cultivated flora of a Persian garden and reflect upon the lyrical master’s works. Further towards the centre of town, above Darvazeh Ghoran, or the Qoran Gate in Shiraz, is another tea venue that many enjoying escaping to when they want to get away from the bustle of the city.
Not exactly a chaikhaneh, it is an outdoor, multi-tiered tea venue which is accessed by climbing up a steep set of stone steps. Once at the top, there is a crisp and breathtaking view of the city. So, weather-permitting, take your shoes off, climb atop a takht, order a cup of tea, and enjoy the moment.