I grew up in a family of tea drinkers: hot tea for breakfast, iced tea in summer, even decaf tea in evenings. Although my mom might hesitate over a choice of English Breakfast or Earl Grey, both she and my grandmother gravitated toward black teas, unsweetened and unadorned.
As soon as I was deemed old enough to drink hot, caffeinated beverages, I saw it as my duty, as a mildly rebellious teenager, to develop a coffee addiction. But once my independence was established, I added tea to the mix. Traveling only expanded my repertoire. In Great Britain and Russia, I continued the family tradition of daily mugs of black tea, learning to love a bit of sweet, creaminess in some cups. Morocco brought another twist: hot green tea to fight the ambient heat and seal a business deal or friendship, with so much mint and sugar it resembles a breath mint.
Moroccan-Inspired Mint Tea
4-1/2 cups water
3 tablespoons brown or cane sugar
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
Add the tea leaves to a clean, dry 1- to 1-1/2-quart teapot. In a kettle on the stovetop, bring the water to a boil. Pour 1/4 cup of water over the leaves in the pot and let it sit for about a minute before pouring the rehydrated tea leaves into a glass; set aside. Pour a fresh 1/4 cup of boiled water into the pot, let it sit another minute, and then rinse any remaining tea leaves from the pot by swirling the water and pouring out and discarding the dirty liquid and leaves.
Return the rehydrated leaves from the first pour to the pot. Add the remaining boiled water, and then let the tea steep for 2 minutes. Add the fresh mint, pushing the leaves down with a spoon until submerged. Stir in the sugar, and then continue steeping another 3–4 minutes.
Mix the tea by making 4–5 successive pours into a small glass and then returning each to the pot. Start the pour close enough to the glass that you land the tea inside it, and then raising your arm straight up to finish the pour, forming foam on the surface.
To serve, pour the mixed tea in the same way, pouring from an arm’s length into each glass until it is about 3/4 full. Makes 6 glasses.
Tips & Tricks
- “Gunpowder” refers to shape, not flavor; the dried Chinese tea has been compressed into pellets. Although it’s rare to find multiple gunpowder teas in American shops, if you have a choice, look for the most compact, slightly shiny leaves for ideal quality and freshness.
- Although the tea leaves will be dried for any tea (see below), the mint leaves are best fresh. When you must use dried leaves off season, home dried will give the best flavor.
- Moroccan tea is meant to be cloyingly sweet—I drank it at that strength because politeness demanded it in country. Once home, I found it impossible to brew my own with the traditional 1/3 cup or more of sugar per pot. The 3 tablespoons of sugar listed here are still more than I put in any other tea, but they bring back memories of glasses of tea in Sefrou, Er Rachidia, and Marrakesh while remaining drinkable.
- Getting the traditional pouring technique that creates a beer-like head on the tea will be a challenge without the proper pot. If you don’t own a traditional pounded silver kettle, choose one with a thin spout, the longer and more curved the better, so that you can hit the glass from a distance.
Twice as Tasty
My travels also taught me that yes, the Brits take their tea seriously. But they also keep crumpled teabags in their desk drawers, sweeten their cuppa with spoonfuls of white sugar, and pour in dollops of milk so highly pasteurized that it needs no refrigeration. When I lived in London, I saw a lot of electric kettles, but the only teapots I saw in use were in teashops—and even then in ones mainly catering to tourists.
The Russians can devote the same or as little attention to their tea but show more formalities when foreigners are present, even at a homey afternoon chat. When I lived in St. Petersburg, tea would be served from an heirloom pot as often as a utilitarian one—always to guests first. It primarily differed from British tea in how it was served: Nearly everyone I knew in London drank tea heavily diluted with milk and sweetened with sugar, but the Russians almost all preferred their tea unadorned. It also varied in strength: Brits would wait a few minutes before pulling the bag, whereas in Russia, either a couple of tablespoons of fresh tea leaf were steeped for less than a minute or заварка (zavarka), black tea concentrate, was premade and diluted to taste.
The real beauty of Russian tea shone on long-distance trains; samovars of hot water were found at the end of each carriage. Teabags were available once aboard, but experienced passengers carried their own flasks of заварка. For a country known for its homogeneity, I was surprised by the personalization of tea in the former Soviet country.
But in England or Russia, getting people to agree on the best way to brew black teas is like asking for a preferred ale or favorite brand of vodka—and discussion can turn to argument just as easily among the overcaffeinated as among the inebriated. But a few consistent rules emerged: Choose a black tea. Boil the water, but only once. Add the tea before the water. And use a real cup or a подстаканник (podstakannik), a glass set in a highly decorated metal holder.
The other thing they agree on? Tea means snacks. In England, tea seemed a chance to sneak a “digestive,” a commercially made, prepackaged biscuit that ranged from hard and dry to chocolate coated or jam filled. In Russia, snacks were never optional; serving tea without a nibble was almost rude. My Russian friends usually pulled out a dish of chocolates—my favorite had currants or raisins, a new-to-me twist. But when we visited their babushkas, anything from fresh bread and cheese to layered cake almost magically appeared. In Morocco, I was typically served several cups of tea on its own before discussing a business transaction, but among friends, tea was always accompanied by honey-heavy sweets.
Tips & Tricks
- My mom always cooked pasta by adding a handful per person and one for the pot, and the same count generally applies to tea, substituting teaspoons for handfuls. Two teabags per pot, or 1 heaping teaspoon of loose leaf per person, is a widely given recommendation. Once you start making tea, you’ll find the quantity that suits your tastes.
- My dad is a teabag dunker; my mom accuses him of enjoying tinted water but can be easily distracted once the bag’s in. Consensus among the more discerning Brits is that 3–5 minutes is best; impatience is rewarded with weak tea, forgetfulness with bitter.
- Although my travels emphasized black or green tea, homegrown isn’t possible in my climate. Instead, brew straight homegrown herbs when you want a local, caffeine-free twist. I often end my day with barely boiled water poured over a teaspoon of dried mint leaves or chamomile petals. Lavender, rose petal, lemon balm, and jasmine—with or without tea leaves mixed in—are other delicious options.
- Tea isn’t just for drinking. Black tea leaves lend their flavor and pickle-crisping tannins to jams and spreads, such as Tart Cherry Butter with Chai Spices, and fermented cucumbers. Or brew a light cup of black or green tea in the cooking water for basmati or jasmine rice under Wasabi-Marinated Shrimp. Tea in the dough or batter can also put a new spin on your favorite baked goods.
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One thought on “Three Cups of Tea”
Great column! I recognized some of those cups and pots. Good photography! I chuckled when I read your comment about Dad the dunker. Another thing I remember is when I was a child, I had a china tea set. Sometimes I was allowed to brew weak tea in the tiny pot – my first “adult” drink. Blessings, Mom