Explaining Tatars tea-loving nature, and the ‘never-ending teatime’

Tea this time — black Ceylon — was served in Turkish glasses (‘Armuts’) and an Uzbek-style tea set. Photo from the author's family archive, used with permission.

One of the biggest cultural shocks for a Turkic person in Europe often occurs when ordering tea in a café or drinking it at a European friend’s home. A Turkic person might struggle to hide their facial expression — surprise and disappointment — when they receive tea in a tea bag. This is because freshly brewed loose-leaf tea is not just commonplace for a Turkic person, but also a measure of hospitality.

In the life of the Tatars, tea drinking occupies a special place. Tatar sayings such as “The tea table is the soul of the family” or “Tatar tea never ends” illustrate the importance of tea in everyday life. Tatars drink tea several times a day.

If you ask, “What is Tatar tea?”, then you will receive several answers to this question at once with the statement that this particular type of tea is considered truly Tatar. Black, green, herbal (with mint, oregano, thyme), floral, with honey, with milk, with milk and salt, with mint, tea made from fruits (apples, pears) or berries (strawberries, raspberries), but also from leaves of berry bushes. Perhaps the reason behind such a wide definition of “truly Tatar tea” is the group's cultural and geographical history.

Tea from berry leaves served with Cheburek (Crimean Tatar fried pie with minced meat). Photo from the author's family archive, used with permission.

The most popular option is tea with milk — not to be confused with the popular English method. In fact, even though there was seemingly no direct communication between English people and Tatars, there are some theories about the ancient connections between modern English people and Tatars. The roots of Tatar’s choice, nevertheless, are different. Initially, adding fatty milk to tea satisfied the practical needs of the Tatars: due to their constant employment with heavy physical labor associated with agricultural work, they did not have enough time to prepare a variety of dishes and long meals. Therefore, a tea break was a source of recuperation and energy.

Tea officially came to the Tatars from China in the 17th century, although it is believed that it was brought even earlier, in the 13th century by the Mongols, and was initially considered an elite drink. Everyone knows the word “samovar” (from the Russian samo — “self”, var — “to cook”), which migrated to other languages, including Turkish. This word actually came into Turkish through the Tatars in the 18th and 19th centuries, when seeking to protect their religious identity (Islam) in the Christian Russian Empire, the Tatars decided to move to the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the tradition of drinking tea among the Tatars has taken root more strongly than among the Russians. Tea has become an integral part of folk culture; it is impossible to imagine someone in a Tatar family inviting you to drink something other than tea. For Tatars, drinking tea is commonplace during business discussions as well as casual hangouts with family and friends. Ethnographer and historian Karel Fuchs, for example, noted that most Tatars drink at least four cups of tea per day, and every wealthy Tatar has his own samovar.

A common feature of the Tatars is the “festive table,” wherein every tea is joined with simple treats. “Tatar chae berkaychan da betmi” or “Tatar tea never ends,” is said about such meetings of guests and festive treats. Tea is accompanied by a treat of jam, honey, dried fruits, sweets, talkysh-kaleve, as well as pastries. The latter include Gubadiya, Balish, Elesh, Peremech, Uchpuchmak, Baursak, Chak-Chak, Kosh Tele, and more. The pastries are filled with vegetables, fruits, and meat, then baked and fried.

Tea drinking begins after the main course with the serving of sweet and savory dishes and effectively transitions from lunch to dinner, where tea is only postponed for a while so that freshly brewed tea can be served again for further treats. Tatars historically don’t put sugar in tea, but eat it only as a bite so as not to spoil the taste of the tea.

Kunak ashy – kara karshi” or “Guest treat is mutual.” Hospitality has been considered one of the main virtues since the times of Volga Bulgaria. It also goes back to Islam, where food must be shared with a neighbor, guest, or needy ones.

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