Finding balance in the second half of life

Raising a Glass of Tea to the Women of Iran

In Community on March 8, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Today is International Women’s Day. And today I’m thinking about the women of Iran, and women all over the world, who are protesting peacefully in the streets, taking great risks to stand up for equal rights for themselves, their daughters, their mothers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Iranian women these past few months since I began auditing a course in graphic novel writing at our nearby college. In the course we are exploring long-form storytelling in sequential art forms, and of course reading great graphic novels as we go. This has me rereading Marjane Satrapi’s amazing novels: Persepolis, Persepolis 2, Embroideries, Chicken with Plums.

My mind is reeling with memories of my own college years, which coincided with the events in her first book — Satrapi is 10 years my junior (just a kid, really.) And also, my work includes writing about the sexuality of midlife women, and so Embroideries has long been on my radar. It’s a wonderful revelation of woman-talk around the Samovar. What happens when the men leave the room and the subject turns to sex. Of course sexual politics in Iran are intense and unsettling in ways that are different from the intense and unsettling sexual politics of the Midwest United States. But it’s easy to feel kinship and recognize sisters and mothers and daughters across miles and cultures.

And the samovar is an important character in this book. The tea is a character. I had a bunch of folks over the other day and, inspired by Satrapi’s Embroideries, I decided to make what my mother called “Persian-style” tea. What she meant by that was simply that you brew up a super-intense tea-brew, and then mix it with hot water throughout the day to make stronger or weaker tea as you or your visitors wish. This was a trick she picked up as a girl in Istanbul, where tea was made, as it is still made in many areas of Iran and in Russia, in a Samovar.

A Samovar is essentially a big water boiler with a spigot. There is generally room at the top to hold a teapotful of intense tea, keeping it warm. And tea from a samovar would be made just this way, a bit of the super-dark tea poured into a tea-glass, hot water added to reach the preferred consistency for the drinker, and then sugar lumps or honey or milk or cream offered, along with, of course, tea treats. The tea itself was the hostesses’s performance. She might have her secret recipe, her tea may be wonderful or awful. Reputations made and dashed on her ability to carry off a good cup.

Samovars themselves can be quite ornate, quite beautiful, a small fortune in silver or brass, or rather simple, homely, tin devices. They generally carry a central chamber where fuel, which might be charcoal, burns to keep the water around that chamber, hot. Nowadays they are, of course, powered by electricity or gas or have a chamber for a concentrated fuel. I approximate the samovar with a Zojirushi hot water pot and a teapot I keep warm on the stove.

Because of the way the tea is brewed, the flavors are really very different. For some reason the resulting tea is more smooth. That’s the best way I can explain it. Smoother tea. A friend describes it as a deeper flavor. Smooth and deep. That seems right.

Now the recipes for samovar-style tea can be as varied as for any steep. One of my favorites is just black tea with rose petals. Another favorite, which I’m sipping as I write, is Moroccan style — green tea (I use a Sencha) with peppermint. And then you can have a blast trying all sorts of chemistry experiments in the chai-style teas by boiling spices in your water before adding tea, to make a rich, spicy tea-brew. And there is no reason to flavor your tea at all. Especially if it’s a really great tea. You can pre-sweeten your tea mix with sugar or honey, but I leave it unsweetened, adding stevia drops to my tea to sweeten any of them, but especially the chai, whose spices will be very shy without sweetness to bring them out on the tongue.

Brewing tea in this way can be a great deal more convenient if you’re apt to drink a lot of tea throughout the day at home or at the office. Brewing your tea just once in the morning and then mixing spoonfuls of your tea brew with hot water throughout the day, or making iced tea by mixing the brew with cold water, is just a very fast and efficient way to make great tea quickly.

The tea brew, absent a samovar, can sit in a teapot on the warm top of my stove while serving friends, or I might mix it up in the morning and put it in a small pitcher in the fridge, where I can pour off a few ounces at a time throughout the day, to mix with hot or cold water, depending on how I want to consume or serve tea in the moment. I usually toss the morning’s brew at the end of the day, because I was told once by a Japanese friend that next-day tea is very bad for you. She told me this with such conviction that I shook in my boots and developed a kind of phobia about it.

So. If you’d like to try this, here are a few quick starter-recipies. Keep in mind that you should feel very free to adjust and experiment to find a tea-brew style that suits your tastes. These suit mine. If you don’t like my tea, feel free to whisper behind my back about it. Heh. Or better yet, write in the comments, because I am neither Persian nor Moroccan, and suffer no pretense that I’ve got it remotely right. I live to learn.

Right. Start with a good loose-leaf tea. We have some local spice merchants who sell nice ones. I like Mighty Leaf right now, and use their Ceylon and Sencha for these recipes. I start by waking the tea up by rinsing the leaves in a covered teacup. You can do this with a cup and small saucer, but the best tool I have found is a gaiwan, which is a simple Chinese tool for brewing tea. I place about 8-9 teaspoons of tea leaves in the gaiwan, fill it with hot water, and after just a few seconds, pour off that water. I have awakened the leaves and also washed away a bunch of caffeine.

Then I fill an 8-cup stainless pot with 5-6 cups of water. If I’m going to make chai-style tea, I place the spices in the cold water, and bring the water to boil, letting the water boil for a full five minutes with the spices before adding the tea. Longer is fine. I tend to lose patience. If I’m not going to spice the tea, I simply bring the water up to a boil for black tea, up to steaming for green tea (never to boiling for green tea), then place the tea and flavoring herbs or flowers into the pot, reduce the heat under the pot to its  very lowest setting, and let the tea sit to steep/cook for 5 full minutes for black tea, 3 minutes for green.

Then I pour this very dense, dark tea through a tea strainer into the holding pot. And that’s about it. When I want to pour a cup of tea to drink, I pour about a quarter of the cup full of tea brew, three quarters with hot water (or make it as strong as you like it), add stevia to sweeten, milk if I’m in the mood, and… delicious!

Moroccan style: 8 rounded tsp. Sencha, 4 rounded T. Dried peppermint.

Rose Ceylon: 8 rounded tsp. Ceylon, 3 rounded T. Dried rose petals (culinary grade) (Lavender is lovely too.)

Chai style: 8 rounded tsp. Darjeeling or Ceylon. In the water: 3 cloves, 3 Cardamon pods, crushed, half a stick of cinnamon crushed, a pinch of fennel seed, a pinch of cumin, 3 black peppercorns, and a T. of grated fresh ginger.  Instead of adding any water to a chai mix, you could add warm milk, or heat the chai mix with the milk together in a microwave.

There. Experiment with it. Invite a bunch of women over. Talk about sex. And when you have your tea in hand, I hope you will raise a cup to the women all over the world who have risked their lives to stand up for their rights today.

  1. Thanks as always for your great thoughts, Julie. Who knew that tea had to be awakened? Hugs!!

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