Tea is black in Azerbaijan, and fresh, thank you very much, brewed from loose leaves, in a teapot called a çaynik, and served in small curvy glasses without handles, the glasses widening at the top for the purpose of letting the tea near the top of the glass cool while the rest of the tea below remains hot. To drink, you first select sugar, small wrapped candies, or a syrupy jam called murebbe as your sweetener of choice. If it's sugar, you take a cube and place it between your front teeth, and sip the tea through that as if it were a strainer. (No, people's teeth here are not in good condition. They blame this on the lack of iodine in the water, rather than on the sugar and on the fact that they rarely brush).
With the candies, of which there is a whole hierarchy of quality and price of which everyone is aware, the more expensive candies being saved up in a back cabinet for the eventual appearance of a guest, you put the candy into your mouth and sip your tea as it melts. If you choose murebbe, you spoon some into a small dish, and then stir this into your tea, whole fruit pieces included. Jam making is the activity for women after the ripening and gathering of each fruit; they spend hours stirring over smoky fires until the murebbe reaches just the right consistency. The jam comes from the fruit trees right outside the window, sometimes the same fruits that are distilled into homemade vodka, which, unlike tea, is for the consumption of men only. Cherry, fig, peach, pear, mulberry…What, you don't have fruit trees in America? they ask me. Not like this….
"Süzüm çayÄ±nÄ±?" Shall I pour you more tea? Will be the question, and you will probably accept, once you are used to the tea drinking custom here, especially if you are presented with cake or pastries to accompany the tea. This may be before the multi–course meal, so forget about whatever ingrained belief you have about sugar spoiling a meal and just keep your stomach roomy for what is to come.
Men sit in suits all afternoon at the tea house, sipping glass after glass, playing backgammon, and talking about the latest cell phone. The pace of life is slower here, so there is always time for sitting and talking, time for tea to cool. If you are really in a rush, though, you pour some tea onto your saucer, swirl it around, and drink directly from the saucer.
At first I did not like the feeling of drinking hot tea during the sultry days of summer, and I amused my host family by making iced tea. Now, however, I visualize the evaporation of the sweat that comes after ingesting the scalding liquid as a true cooling system, and it's fine. The Azerbaijanis seem to be afraid of anything cold, as the wisdom is that it will make you sick, no matter the season. Even in the summer, whenever I wanted to sit on the floor or on the grass in the yard, my host grandmother would come rushing with a mat or cushion. "You will catch cold!" she said. Out of concern for their health, babies too are given tea to drink, not water or juice. And when the chicks hatch before the spring holiday of Novruz, during which young and old still jump over bonfires to bring health and luck for the year ahead, even they are given tea to drink.
Tea in America is just not the same. No murebbe, no ceremony, no understanding. Individual teabags make tea drinking less homey, less of a communal experience, more of a packaged, convenience deal. Food and drink in Azerbaijan is not about convenience, it is about quality and care and tradition. Everyone knows what the national meals are supposed to taste like, and expects certain dishes for visiting occasions. If Azerbaijanis routinely went to restaurants as Americans do, they probably would not be attracted to a menu item having a side note announcing, "New!" To them, that would be an indication that the meal did not have the appropriate, time–honored flavor.
So, what was Azerbaijan like? I breathe in some plastic and French fries and think: tradition, family, carpets, weddings, and a distinctive, ornate folk music. Shekerbura pastry and lighting the fire.
Two words? Okay. Azerbaijan was chickens and tea.
Carla Seidl is a graduate of Harvard University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan from 2006 to 2008. Her anthropological memoir about her experiences in Ecuador, The Sophisticated Savage, was recently released from Inner Hearth Books. Carla is also an emerging singer–songwriter and independent radio producer. Read and listen to more of her work at www.carlaseidl.com.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Mountain Biking Down the World's Most Dangerous Road by Carla Seidl
In the Offering: Two Sides of a Turkish Sacrifice by Jennifer Eaton Gokmen
Syria: Never Judge a Country by its State Department Warning by Bruce Northam
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: