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Tea Culture: Egypt

Tea Culture: Egypt.

Tea in Egypt is more about creating and maintaining connections with friends and family than it is about the quality of the tea.

Egyptians drink tea morning, noon, and night. And when I say “night,” I mean late into the evening and early morning hours at cafes while neighbors smoke sheesha (hookah) and old men play backgammon.

It’s brewed hot in the summer and the winter, offered at every occasion with every food, it’s the be all and end all of drinks. Basically, it’s a necessity just like bread or water.

Unfortunately, the tea Egyptians sip really isn’t impressive.

Egyptians use the same homogenized black tea dust in tea bags that we do here in the States. 

The bitterness of these homogenized teas is covered up with handfuls of fresh mint leaves and spoonfuls of sugar.

But to a 21-year-old college girl who had never left the country before, this mishmash of tea, sugar, and mint held an exotic mystery.

Years later, I had questions.

Why did everyone I saw sip it with such fervor? And why was I suddenly drinking tea at every opportunity?

 

tea egypt, Khan el-Khalili
El-Fishawi in Khan el-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt.

Creating connection one cup of tea at a time.

Any time of the day or night, you’ll find men (and some women) playing backgammon and drinking tea in cafes. They talk about their days, their families, the latest football game. They create a connection with their loved ones by spending time with them, and tea provides a great way to do that.

My friends and I walked to cafes serving tea, sheesha and so-so Americanized food. We always ordered shay bi nyanya (tea with mint). It was our way of connecting with ourselves and the new world surrounding us.

Tea in Egypt is always brewed hot. It doesn’t matter how hot it is outside. Not once did I see chilled tea in Egypt, although this probably has to do with customers trusting boiled water and the expense of using bottled water for ice.

 tea egypt, Pyramid and camel

Tea makes strangers into friends.

Egyptians can be the nicest people in the world, which makes them natural salesmen. Walking through Khan el-Khalili, the historic marketplace was a delight to the senses. Throughout the maze of alleys are vendors with fresh spices and fruits, street food and touristy knickknacks.

Shopkeepers know a tourist when they see one.

They’re delighted to see foreigners walking through the alleys. This was especially true after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the States, which is when I lived in Cairo. Shopkeepers offered us tea to spend time in their stores and talk. Of course, we always purchased something to be polite. But they were not selling things, they sold an experience. Who cared about the knickknacks when we could spend an hour hearing stories weaved by the shopkeeper.

And let’s not forget Fishawi. Fishawi is the cafe where the Nobel Prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz hung out, drank tea and wrote novels.

When you sit at a table in the alleyway by Fishawi, you’re approached by men selling watches, toys and even glasses with a plastic nose and mustache a la Groucho Marx. (Yes, this happened.)

tea egypt, Sphinx

Tea makes time stand still.

Whether you’re with friends or making new ones, taking the time to sit and create a connection with someone is essential. In Egypt, tea is a tool to create that connection.

It’s not just a tool to make connections with others, but it’s also a way that we can connect with ourselves.

We don’t always take the time to know others or to even know ourselves.

Happy sipping,

Dina Cataldo
Founder & Tea Traveler
Sicilian Tea Company

tea egypt, Sphinx and pyramid