For as far back as I can remember, the samovar was always on the stove, ready for breakfast. It was there in the afternoon, ready to make an unexpected guest feel welcome. Today, my samovar is the one thing that makes my house feel like a home.
A typical day at our house starts like this: I fill the large samovar with water and bring it to a boil. I then fill a small teapot with black tea and hot water. They simmer together, the teapot resting on top of the samovar, lapping up the hot steam that brews the tea leaves as we prepare breakfast, wake up the night owls of the house, and decide whether to eat inside or out in the yard. One of us pours the tea matter-of-factly as we plan our day: a splash of tea from the teapot and hot water from the samovar. Yardwork, visiting nearby aunts and uncles, shopping, studying, writing, reading, watching TV, nothing is too mundane to discuss over a cup of tea.
And when everyone goes off to have their day, that samovar stays on a low, steady simmer. Whoever needs a break uses it as an excuse to pause and have a small cup of tea. Best of all is when an aunt or friend stops by unexpectedly. They will most often say that they were just passing by, that they are in a hurry, that they don’t want to stay. But then you pour them a cup a tea, and this interruption becomes the most welcome part of everyone’s day.
Finally, a sage piece of advice: If you ever find yourself in the awkward position of needing to end a party, just stop serving tea. If there’s one thing Iranian hospitality has taught me, it’s that while a hot cup of tea is a lovely way to greet a guest, a final cup of tea is a gracious, classy, and very clear message that the party is over. Not offering to refill an empty tea cup signals that it’s time to wrap things up, sober up, and head on home. It is the polite equivalent of putting on your pajamas and turning out the lights.
Equipment to Make the Tea
Teapot: A porcelain or ceramic teapot
Strainer: A small strainer to put over the cup to catch any errant tea leaves
Samovar/large kettle: A traditional samovar was heated with hot stones or wood. Today’s samovars are either stovetop versions that sit directly on the burner or electric versions that plug in. I recommend everyone get a samovar, as it will quickly become the warm, beating heart of the kitchen. If you don’t have one, you might be able to make one with everyday items at home: Remove the lid from your kettle and sit a teapot securely on top of the opening. You’ve essentially made a makeshift samovar.
Small glass teacups without handles: Okay, this isn’t necessary, but it’s a good idea. Diminutive cups encourage small, frequent sips, about four per cup. Your guest will finish a small cup faster than a big cup, giving you more opportunities to be generous by constantly offering to refill their cup. You can fill any awkward silences or change the subject with a simple, “Would you like more tea?” Social anxieties are real, and we must combat them with grace.
Loose leaf tea: The blacker, stronger, and more aromatic the leaf, the better. Any Middle Eastern store will have loose black tea.
Additional flavorings: Tea receives spices and aromas so well that you should experiment with what you like. Some of my favorites:
- Cardamom: Crack 2 or 3 pods of cardamom and brew in the teapot for at least 20 minutes.
- Lemongrass: 1 or 2 green stalks of lemongrass brewed in the teapot for the full 20 minutes will give a pleasant lightness to the tea. Crush the lemongrass stalks to extract maximum flavor from them. Find it in Asian and Middle Eastern grocers.
- Fresh mint: Throw a few sprigs of mint into the teapot a few minutes before serving.
- Dried rosebuds: A few buds will perfume your home and lend a subtle floral note to the tea. Find them in any Middle Eastern grocery.
How to Make the Tea
Fill the samovar with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Put 4 tablespoons loose tea in the teapot. When the water boils, pour hot water from the samovar over the loose tea. You may hear those shriveled tea leaves, that were picked and dried, screaming back to life under the scalding water. Put the lid on the teapot. Place the teapot over the samovar. Reduce the heat to low.
Maintain a gentle flame throughout the day, so the water remains hot. The steam will bathe the base of the teapot, blooming the tea leaves into a potent brew. Let steep for at least 20 minutes before serving.
How to Serve the Tea
When it’s time to pour, prepare your tray: Place your teacups on the tray. Place your preferred form of sugar—sugar cubes, fresh dates, or Nabaat (page 202)—on the tray. If you are feeling particularly grand and the occasion calls for it, cookies or cakes or sweets are a nice accompaniment. If I am coming over, I will want those cakey French pastries—different-flavored cakes layered thickly with cream, or éclairs—as they were fashionable and ubiquitous during my childhood in Tehran. We call them “wet cakes” (shirini-taar).
Fill a teacup one-third full with the concentrated tea from the teapot. Top it off with hot water from the samovar. You don’t want it too strong, as you will likely pour many cups. (Ideally, your concentrate will be very potent, so each cup holds just a splash of tea and plenty of hot water to dilute. If you’ve gone too far and find it’s too light in color or weak in strength, add a bit more concentrated tea.)
Be prepared for what will happen next. Teatime will bleed into snacktime, snacktime will bleed into dinner. Even if you started at 11:00 am. Even if you didn’t plan on it. Even if you didn’t really have anything in the fridge. These things have a way of evolving when we are together, just passing the time. Hot water and tea leaves and company make magic.
Excerpted from Yogurt & Whey: Recipes of an Iranian Immigrant Life by Homa Dashtaki. Copyright © 2023 by Homa Dashtaki. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.