It was impossible to ignore the importance of tea for an Azeri. From early in the morning till late in the night, the tea cafes were always brimming with tea drinkers. They could be found anywhere – busy streets, under the ground, in the garden, at the park, and even in the woods or on the river (which could be flooded and immersed in the water during rainy seasons) – as long as there was some possibility of human presence. While there could be some exotic selections in big cities like Baku (we tried tea with red wine and tea with Bailey at Cavid’s Radio Cafe), the traditional tea always came in a porcelain pot and a set of slim tea cups shaped like hourglasses. There were numerous ways of adding sweetness to the tea; one could keep some sugar cubes (which usually came in a red plastic container with some other candies) in the mouth and wash the hot tea over to melt the cubes, or directly add two huge tea spoons of refined sugar into the cup and stir the tea vigorously. Sometimes marmalade syrup was used instead of white sugar to add a tinge of fruity flavour to the black tea. There were also different methods of drinking the hot blistering tea; one way was to suck at the rim of the tea cup and make sure to leave some gap between the upper lip and the water so that your mouth would not get burnt, while another way was to pour some of the tea into the shallower cup holder to increase the area of exposure and rate of cooling and drink from there instead. Such ceremonies were performed with such a religious reverence, that any deviation from the customs such as adding less sugar (there was nothing such as one and half spoons) could risk insult to the most sacred culture.
Figure 1: tea with red wine at radio cafe
Figure 2: early in the morning at Lankaran – no restaurants were open yet except this tea house
An indispensable part of drinking tea was the games. Besides their penchant for drinking tea in the nature, Azeri men were unusually fond of games. They loved to make loud noises with the chess plate either by tossing the dice with an abrupt twitch in their wrist or bringing down a domino tile with the force of their sinewy fingers. Women were usually excluded from such social interactions and if they were present by slim chance, they would snack on some confectioneries or chat with each other in subdued voices, with a tacit agreement to distance away from their concentrated other halves while also keeping a side glance on the progress of the game without hurting the men’s ego.
Figure 3: a traditional game that Toni played with the garden owner at the hill top
Figure 4: apple tree garden at Lahic
Figure 5: Toni played the same game again with the hotel guest at the apple tree garden
Figure 6: the rest of his family cooked tea and shared their roasted sunflower seeds (they were so crispy and addictive that each of us had a small mountain of shells in front of us during the game) with me and another family who arrived a bit later that day. In the middle of the game, the sister suddenly commented to me that Toni was really good at the game even though we were talking about something totally different at that time! Such a shrewd observer… Toni won the game in the end and was beaming with happiness and satisfaction.
The power of Azeri tea did not only lie in its rejuvenating potential on a tired body, but also in its catalytic effect in drawing strangers together. On our way to the Istisu (a local hot spring resort) at Lankaran, an old grandpa got on our taxi and clung to us throughout our stay there. From ordering tea and bread for us at the entrance, to demonstrating and forcing us to follow his tea rituals (which was to mix lots of sugar with the tea), asking us questions and telling our stories to newly arrived guests, to teaching us the rite of bathing (which was to switch between soaking and cooling in the air), bathing at the hut next to us, and knocking on our door and letting us know that he had finished bathing, he exhibited the natural flair of a hospitable host except for the part of paying for the bill. After the bath, we saw him sitting at an outdoor cafe and drank tea again with this exuberant grandpa, sweating profusely on his forehead and smiling at us with his gold teeth. During our silent tea appreciation, he told us that he booked a taxi for us to go back to town (to our surprise), and when we told him that we preferred to go back on foot in the woods, he calmly called the driver to cancel the ride and chatted up with another group of guests so that he could ride their car back home…
Figure 7: tea hut at Istisu
Figure 8: the hitch hiker grandpa