“Foodie Fridays” are dedicated to my two great loves: food and Fridays. In these posts, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorite varieties of Moroccan and North African cuisine.
My first experience with Moroccan mint tea (atay bil naânaâ in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic) came not when I first arrived in Morocco, but when I first dined at a Moroccan restaurant—some number of years ago. I vividly remember watching the server lift a plump silver teapot (called a berrad) high above his head, and with sniper-like precision, pour a delicate stream of amber fluid from a narrow spout into a small, gold-plated glass, nearly two feet below. At the time, I naively presumed this to be a party trick unique to this one server, at this one Moroccan restaurant. However, little did I know that this “party trick,” and everything it represents, is demonstrative of the collective spirit of millions of Moroccans—past, present, and future.
The importance of offering tea to guests is so fundamental to Moroccan hospitality that it has long been described as being in their blood. In Morocco, food preparation is almost exclusively the woman’s domain, but the art of crafting the perfect cup of Moroccan tea is something that nearly all Moroccans learn and pass down to their children. Many families serve the markedly sweet beverage several times a day, and drop-in or invited company can expect to be offered tea as a welcoming gesture. Most families also own at least one fine tea service for special occasions, while a more casual pot and glasses are for daily use. Tea starts the day and ends it; it precedes a meal and finishes it. The culture surrounding tea in Morocco is also one of the earliest examples of globalization in cuisine.
The origins of tea in Morocco are slightly debatable; the first origin story suggests that tea may have been introduced during the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672-1727), potentially as a gift from Queen Anne of England for releasing a group of English prisoners. The second story suggests that tea arrived in Morocco in a somewhat inadvertent manner: with the closure of Baltic ports during the Crimean War (1853-1856), British merchants were left with an excess of Chinese gunpowder tea from the Zhejiang Province. The “gunpower” refers to the appearance of the leaves, which are compressed into tiny pellets. In an effort to find new markets, the merchants offloaded some of the Chinese tea in Tangier and Essaouira. Now, just 150 years later, tea culture has become one of the most ubiquitous aspects of Moroccan life, and the country is considered to be one of the largest importers of Chinese green tea in the world. According to the Moroccan trade ministry, Morocco imported more than $56 million worth of Chinese tea during the first half of 2006.
When Chinese tea was introduced to Tangier and Essaouira—ports in the far north and far south, respectively—the sheer mileage between the two cities created regional variations in tea preparation. For example, Fes is known for a golden, aromatic version—lighter toned and subtler, while Amazigh people in the High Atlas Mountains prepare a bolder brew with plenty of wild herbs. In the deep south, the tea is stronger, darker, and served in smaller glasses. However, regardless of the location, each variation of the tea is titillating, and mint tea of any variety is a lovely addition to an already rich and ancient culture. Further still, Morocco alone doesn’t lay claim to the concept of mint tea. In fact, the entire Maghreb (“sunshine”) region of North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania), plus most of the Arab world and Israel, are known to enjoy variations of sweet mint teas. Even parts of the Sahel, France, and Spain put their own twists on the Maghrebi favorite. In Spain, the body of the tea remains similar to that of the Maghrebi region, but it’s usually served as a chilled summer beverage.
Regardless of slight nuances and locations globally, all of these tea variations have one important feature in common: Mint (naânaâ).
Mint is key. Historically, the herb was grown in rich swathes of farmland around Meknes, the imperial capital during Moulay Ismail’s reign. Today, Meknes remains the main producer of the herb, and spearmint, with its billowing, emerald leaves, is a favorite among Moroccans. However, mint doesn’t always stand alone. During the winter months, when mint may be scarce, tea is supplemented with other herbs: pennyroyal (fliou), wormwood (sheeba), lemon verbena (louiza), thyme, sage, and geranium, to name a few.
As a self-proclaimed tea connoisseur, and as an enormous fan of atay bil naânaâ, I’m here to explain how YOU can make Moroccan mint tea, just like the professionals. Cue catchy infomercial tune.
|1 Ceramic Teapot||Serving tray (Siniya)||Plenty of Sugar (Sukkar)|
|1 Moroccan Teapot (Berrad)||Tea cups (Cas)||Fresh Spearmint (Naânaâ)|
|1 Strainer||Chinese Gunpowder (or Chun Mee) Tea (Atay)||Other Herbs [Recommended: Lemon Verbena (Louiza) and Wormwood (Sheeba)]|
Step 1: Wash your mint. The most effective way to wash mint and other herbs is to immerse them in a bowl of water, swish them around, then lift them out to drain. You can also just wash them under a spigot. Something tells me this part isn’t difficult, so I’m giving you some liberty here.
Step 2: Heat water in the ceramic teapot.
Step 3: Rinse your berrad with boiling water.
Step 4: Add the gunpowder tea leaves to the berrad. Two rounded tablespoons for a one-liter capacity pot are sufficient, but you can use more or less depending on how strong or weak you want it. Moroccans generally measure the leaves in the palms of their hands.
Step 5: Pour a cup of boiling water into the berrad from the ceramic teapot. Swirl the hot water around, pour the water into a tea glass, then discard it. This water is only meant to wash the leaves. Washing tea leaves with boiling water is common in the Maghreb region, and is thought to prevent bitterness.
Step 6: Pour a fresh cup of boiling water from the ceramic pot into the berrad. Let it sit undisturbed for a minute, then pour the water into a tea glass (do not swirl). Notice the amber-colored liquid in the cup; it’s much lovelier than the murky discarded liquid from Step 5. DO NOT discard this cup. It’s lovingly titled the “spirit” or “soul” of the tea, since it contains full flavor from the water’s initial contact with the leaves. It will be added back to the berrad later.
Step 7: Fill the berrad about two-thirds full with boiling water from the ceramic teapot. Leave the lid open, and place the berrad on a burner over medium-low to medium heat. If you’re like me, and your gas-powered stove options are exclusively “some fire,” or “more fire,” try turning the knob down so only a small flame glows. Pour the reserve “spirit” back into the pot.
Step 8: You will begin to see bubbles form on the surface of the tea. When the bubbles form, add a handful of fresh naânâ, then gently push down on the leaves to submerge them.
Step 9: Add the sugar. In Morocco, two varieties of sugar are common: The first is called a “sugar cone,” which weighs 2 kg. These cones are often the choice of tea traditionalists, and large fragments are chiseled from the cone as needed. The second option is the “sugar brick.” Each brick contains 30 kg of sugar, and three of these bricks are roughly equivalent to 7 tbsps of granulated sugar. I suggest making your first berrad of atay with only three bricks, or 7 tbsps of granulated sugar. Most Moroccans don’t believe this is enough sugar, but they’ve arguably been desensitized to sugar since birth.
Step 10: If the water level hasn’t risen to within an inch of the brim, top off the pot with more boiling water from the ceramic pot. Leave room for more boiling.
Step 11: Leave the tea on the fire until it comes to a nearly violent boil. You’ll first notice that the mint leaves rise to the top, but eventually the tea leaves will break the surface, too. Observe to see if they’ve absorbed water and have started to bloom.
Step 12: Remove the berrad from the stove. Use a cloth or napkin to pick it up, because it will be scalding. DO NOT STIR.
Step 13: Pour the tea into one glass, then pour the tea back into the pot. Repeat this a few times to mix the tea thoroughly.
Step 14: Lift the berrad at least an arm’s length above your desired glass. Berrads have long spouts which assist the pourer in perfecting his or her aim; they also have built-in strainers. However, if your teapot doesn’t have this feature, a simple strainer held over the glass will work sufficiently. Pouring from a distance creates the iconic foamy head (kskrsha) that is famously Moroccan, and this pouring style is known as ragwa.
Step 15: Enjoy your tea with nuts, cookies, cakes, meals, or by itself. The possibilities are endless.
When it comes to traditional service, at least three glasses of tea are served, as this famous Maghrebi proverb states:
|The first glass is as gentle as life,||Le premier verre est aussi doux que la vie,|
|the second glass is as strong as love,||le deuxième est aussi fort que l’amour,|
|the third is as bitter as death.||le troisième est aussi amer que la mort.|
The preparation of Moroccan mint tea involves patient ritual. It’s sometimes grand, sometimes modest, always artful, and never fails to leave me awestruck. The arduous act of Moroccan tea preparation is a constant reminder that friends always come first, and that my fast-paced American life needs to decelerate a bit. I hope this post gave you a small peek into such a profound part of Moroccan life, and I encourage you to attempt to brew some for yourself.
Big thanks to Peace Corps Third Goal for sharing my post on the official Peace Corps website!