Differences in tea culture in Azerbaijan and Turkey

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

One of the first things I noticed when I tasted Turkish tea for the very first time ages ago was how bitter it was. Now, having spent some 20 years living in this country, I always ask two things when ordering tea here — whether it has been freshly brewed, and whether they can make it lighter. Otherwise, the taste is too bitter for me. Back home, in Azerbaijan, the tea is bright and light. The tea leaves are also much bigger. In fact, the whole tea culture, from brewing to serving, is vastly different.

Azerbaijani teatime

In Azerbaijan, the process starts with boiling water. Once the water is boiled, a ceramic teapot is rinsed with freshly boiled water. Next, come tea leaves—the amount depends on how many portions you're preparing. A generous spoonful of tea leaves (or more, depending on the number of guests) goes into the teapot. The next step is adding the freshly boiled hot water and leaving the teapot on low heat on the stovetop.

The magic is in not missing the boiling point, which requires checking the teapot regularly. The tea has brewed once all the leaves start floating on the surface.

The freshly brewed tea is then poured into a special tea glass (depending on how strong guests prefer their tea), and filled about halfway. You top up the rest of the glass with plain boiled water. But in Azerbaijan, we rarely drink tea just by itself, and a glass of tea is often accompanied by a treat — usually anything from dried fruit and nuts to sweets. A more sophisticated tea spread (cay desti) includes various jams (white cherries are the best), nuts and dried fruits, sugar cubes, and lemon.

In Azerbaijan, usually, the only time you add sugar to your tea is during breakfast. The rest of the time, if you must use sugar cubes, you must follow the following steps: You take one cube of sugar, place it on your tongue, and then take a sip of freshly brewed tea. Let the sugar melt as you keep sipping on your tea.

After moving to Turkey, whenever I have guests over in the afternoon, I usually try to have at least the basics — some sweets, dried fruits, and, of course, lemon slices. We do love a slice of lemon in our tea. Or some thyme (kəklikotu).

When I was little, my favorite way of drinking tea was either with jams or with one slice of lemon and one sugar cube. We would place a sugar cube on top of a lemon slice, take a bite, mix sweet and tart, and then take a sip of tea.

Turkish tea culture

In Turkey, the tea-drinking culture and the brewing technique are very different. For starters, there are typically no snacks or accompaniments, the glasses are smaller when served the traditional way (although to be fair, plenty of places serve their tea in glasses that come in all shapes and sizes), the tea is much darker and bitter, and sugar cubes are added to the tea glass before drinking it. Sugar is an absolute must in Turkish tea—perhaps as a way to take away the bitterness of the brew.

There are, of course, alternative tea leaves these days. Turkey has come a long way in diversifying its tea production and offering a wider selection. But in most places, people still prefer the traditional black tea.

I often ask friends who visit Azerbaijan to bring me some tea from home, because the difference is massive.

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