Summer heat: 'Bathing in Tea' or 'Swimming in the River'

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Right now it is pretty-darn-tootin-hot - and

as I am a cold weather person

- it has required some painful (whiny) adjustment on my part. The (hot) tea, is not one of them.

Writing about tea in Azerbaijan is daunting. Tea is everywhere, and always. A phrase I've heard when refusing a second glass of tea is "

Çay nedir, say nedir," 

which literally translates as "What is tea, what are numbers?" Meaning, roughly, you shouldn't count the glasses - just keep drinking (like a river).

Most Azerbaijanis feel tea to be an important part of daily life and this too is a question I often get: "do you like tea?" Luckily, I do. Tea in these parts is so very much the "big show" that The Economist even wrote about

the quest for a great cup of Azerbaijani tea

.

According to one article, Azerbaijanis drink a considerable amount of tea - something like

2.5kg per capita

- which puts it high on the world list of tea drinkers (can't imagine drinking 

more

tea in a day). The usual cup of 

çay

 (pronounced 'chai' but nothing like the coffeeshop namesake), is a black tea grown in the northwestern region of Zaqatala or the southeastern regions of Lenkeren and Astara - and, I'm told the northwest is the best (by those from the northwest, of course). Tea production has declined considerably in the last couple decades - obviously certain events have shaking things up around here (such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the conflict with Armenia). From 134,000 hectares in 1985 to just 8000 hectares in 2011 (and productivity dropped from 43300 kg to 9800 kg per hectare, according to the

State Statistical Committee

).

Back in Montana,  tea preparation involved either those bags of tea soaked in hot water, or the giant jar set out in the sun. In Azerbaijan, tea preparation is a bit more involved. First, the tea leaves are put into a small kettle called "çaynik," along with just-boiled water - the tea itself isn't boiled. For best result, the çaynik  should be ceramic. The tea leaves soak to form a rich, dark broth called dəm (or sometimes the Russian "zavarka"), and this is used throughout the day. The dəm is also referred to as "the color" (rəng) - for instance, someone might ask for a little more "color" in their tea.  The dark brew is poured less than halfway into a glass, and then topped off with freshly boiled, scalding water.  The water is usually the product of a somewhat larger tea-kettle (çaydan).

Another option for your boiled water needs is the 

samovar.

 Now, samovars are big deals around here, some older models sell for a small mountain of 

manat

. Samovars are common in other tea-drinking cultures, like Morocco or Russia, but there is evidence that the

Caucasian region is the primordial birthplace

. While attending a "

yaz

" (a mourning ceremony occurring over the course of several days after someone's passing), the water was prepared in these tall, fat, metal samovars. (At many funerals, tea is the only beverage served.) My friend informed me that most people consider the tea better if prepared with a samovar - and, he added, some people will claim they can tell the difference. Every once in a while, I do have an exceptionally good cup of tea, so maybe?

Even after living here for the short-while that I have, tea is infused with my daily routine, I'm even a bit bummed if I fail to imbibe at least once a day. When trying to make connections, and get to know people - grabbing tea is a valuable ritual. Most will offer when you walk through the door, and if you refuse, they may assume you are being polite and bring you some anyway. As a guest, many interactions in the street will involve an invitation for tea. Men set up wood boxes with tea beside the road, and drink outside small shops, or behind the counter at the butcher. Çayxana (lit: the place with tea; Tea-house or tea-room) are dotted throughout small and large towns alike. Most are modest open-air shops, with plastic lawn furniture, but some are set up like a pub and serve food. Generally, 1 AZN is enough for one full round of tea with all the trappings. During the day, jobless men and retirees populate the çayxana, many playing dominoes or nard (similar to backgammon). In my region, women and families tend to come out later in the summer evenings, and the party dies down around midnight.

Even more consistent than fruit murabba, the sugar cubes, the pear-shaped glasses, the lemon slice and the saucer is the temperature. Tea must be served hot. If the tea gets cold (because I am gabbing instead of guzzling), it's not uncommon for the host to throw out the tea and serve more. My ears have captured several reasons as to why. The first one, was because drinking cold tea contributes to weight gain, unfortunately my language skills were poor and the causal explanation was lost. I vaguely remembering something, somewhere in my life references the weight-loss impact of drinking hot tea after a meal, but alas, my search was futile. (Searching Google Scholar, it would appear there is surprisingly large amount of studies looking at the connection between tea and weight, however there is no meta-analysis and I'm not going to read all those studies.)

The scalding hot tea became a much looked-forward-to morning ritual of mine. That light burning on the tongue smacks me in the face, and leaves my tail bushy. The tea stayed scalding hot even when the weather was equally blazing, which I somehow failed to notice (the tea, not the weather). This reminded me of yet another something, somewhere about chili peppers being paradoxically more common in hotter parts of the world because they cool you down. Assuming this was the case in Azerbaijan, and contently drank my hot beverage.

It is not very often that I am not asking questions about life in Azerbaijan, but it seems the great Flying Spaghetti Monster (among other things) really wants me to get answers anyhow. In the span of a few weeks, three of my local friends felt compelled to tell me why the tea is always hot: "at first you will get hot, but after ten or fifteen minutes it will cool you down."

And then, NPR writes a short article about both the chili peppers and the hot tea!

As it turns out, ice-cold drinks (in general) might be a strange American idiosyncrasy (anyone from another part of the world, feel free to chime in).

Slightly off topic: If in Baku, and you have some money burning a hole in your trousers, a great dining experience is the Asian-Mediterranean restaurant "Chinar" - named after the enormous, ancient hardwood trees - next to the new Azerbaijan Carpet Museum. It is here that you can sample an interest tea-experience - the "Secret Blossoming Tea," which are hand-tied, and open when placed in the water to steep.

And to top it off, I leave you with a funny story of linguistic befuddlement. One time after coming home from hiking in the mountains, my host mother asked me "

çayda çimdin?

" I was terribly confused. While I knew the dictionary definition of these words, I was used to hearing these words in two very separate contexts. One meaning of "

çayda

" is "in tea" and one meaning of "

çimdin?

" is "did you bathe?" At first, I thought I stumbled onto a whole 'nother level of tea culture. Well, "

çay

" is also "river" and the verb "

çimmek

" can also be used for "to swim." My translation: "did you bathe in tea?"  What she was really asking: "did you swim in the river?" I suppose, anything I can do to beat the summer heat.