A few winters ago in Rabat, while working on a book about Moroccan food, I went to spend the morning cooking with the family of a friend. There had been a mix-up over the address, and we were getting a late start on four elaborate, long-cooking dishes that would be our lunch. But instead of heading straight into the kitchen and getting to work on the leg of lamb, handful of kid goat shoulders and pair of plump chickens awaiting us, I was ushered into the formal sitting room for mint tea.
My host brewed the tea without hurry, eventually pouring it back and forth between the pot and a glass as the flavors blended and bloomed and the liquid turned golden amber. Once she tasted the perfect balance of strength, sweetness and mintiness, she held the silver teapot high and poured it out into small, ornately patterned glasses rimmed in gold.
Only after a leisurely second cup and too many almond-filled cookies and intricate pastries, steeped in honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds, did we move from the divans and plump silken cushions and into the kitchen.
I’ve experienced dozens such scenes in the 15 years I have been traveling in Morocco, but this is the one I remembered recently in Tangier: I was sitting in Cafe de Paris with a friend on a drizzly morning over — what else? — thé vert à la menthe (atay bil naânaâ in Moroccan Arabic). The importance of offering guests tea is so fundamental to Moroccan hospitality, I remarked, that it had come to be the very symbol of it for me.
“Not offering tea is a sign — a sign of. . . ,” my companion said, unable to find a strong enough sentiment in English. “You must,” he finally blurted out. “It is in the blood. It’s in the culture.”
Tea’s position as the country’s most beloved beverage has never been challenged. “Tea is drunk at the slightest pretext every hour of the day,” wrote Madame Guinaudeau in her classic 1950s work on Moroccan cuisine. It starts a day and ends it, precedes a meal and finishes it, and for some dishes gets served with it, too.
In Rabat, when we finally ate the kid that had been slow-cooked with copious amounts of ground coriander seeds, cumin and garlic, my host insisted that sweet mint tea not only paired perfectly with the bold flavors of the goat but also helped to digest the large meal. A month later, celebrating New Year’s Eve with my wife and daughters in Chefchaouen, the famous blue city in the Rif Mountains, we tore off pieces of spit-roasted lamb with our hands, dipped them in bowls of ground cumin and, at the urging of the cook who argued in identical logic, ate it with scalding-hot mint tea.
Tea was probably introduced into Morocco during the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672-1727), perhaps as a tribute from Queen Anne of England for releasing a group of English prisoners, but it didn’t became popular until the mid-19th century. The closure of Baltic ports during the Crimean War (1853-1856) left British merchants with an excess of tea from China, and in their efforts to find new markets they offloaded some in Tangier and Essaouira.
Although still a luxury in the 1840s, it then filtered rapidly down through the classes and across the country and had become a staple by the early 1880s, when tea and sugar combined to account for about one-quarter of Morocco’s total imports.
The tea itself is loose-leaf Chinese gunpowder green, with its tight, granular roll. To that Moroccans add sugar (until recently, in chunks broken from conical loafs), skip the milk and stuff generous handfuls of fresh herbs into the teapot. Mint is key. The area around Meknes, the imperial capital during Moulay Ismail’s reign, produces the country’s most vibrant mint — technically spearmint, Mentha spicata — with narrow, brilliant green leaves. But it is not always the only herb in the pot. In winter, it’s typical to include pale, silvery absinthe leaves (wormwood), marjoram, sage and verbena as well.
Slight differences in the tea glass are found from region to region. Fes is known for a golden, aromatic version, lighter toned and more subtle, while Berbers in the High Atlas mountains prepare a bolder brew with plenty of wild herbs. In the deep south, the tea is stronger and darker and served in smaller glasses. Tradition once required drinking three glasses, and there is a saying about this that sometimes gets attributed to the desert region:
The first glass is as bitter as life,
The second is as strong as love,
The third is as soothing as death.
The tea that wet morning in Tangier had a blend of herbs, including sprigs of absinthe, with their hint of warmth and bitterness. Fragrant, brilliant white bitter-orange blossoms floated on the surface. The tea was perfect: minty enough to tingle in my mouth, sweet enough to make me a touch thirsty.
Although ingredients used in preparing tea tend to be added with a generous hand, they are not simply dumped into the teapot and steeped. The preparation of mint tea in Morocco involves ritual. Patient and measured, sometimes ceremonious, always artful, it becomes stylized as the tea is poured, from high above, into small colorful and patterned glasses. It’s theatrical and, as the tea doesn’t spill all over the table, always impressive.
But the high pour is more than just a party trick. The scientific- minded argue that boiling the water “flattens” it and this re-aerates it. Some say it is done to cool the scalding tea, still others say it is for the small bubbles that form and cling around the inside curve of the glass. “They give the tea a bit of texture,” explained my companion in Cafe de Paris.
And then there is that soothing, cascading sound that adds another layer of senses to the experience. After hundreds of glasses, I have learned to see that gentle sound as a way of saying, “Attention! Your tea is ready!” And: “Pay attention to your host!”
Just as with the preparation, tea is drunk equally without hurry. “It’s not — ” said my Tangier friend, pausing to mime gulping down an espresso, “but sipped, drunk slowly.” There is, no matter what needs to be done, always time for friends — and for tea. For him, the two remain intricately linked.
Many of my strongest memories in Morocco include glasses of tea, a key experience of traveling there. It’s a way that Moroccans make visitors feel welcome. It wooed me when I first went and has drawn me back over and over.
This past spring, after spending a year and a half writing a book about Darjeeling and its celebrated tea growing on the steep Himalayan slopes, I headed to Tangier for a break from my desk and from thinking about India and, perhaps most of all, for a change in tea.
Darjeeling tea, with subtle, fragrant aromas and flavors — delicate, even flowery, hinting of apricots and peaches, muscatel grapes and toasty nuts — is served without milk, sugar or, because of its slight natural astringency, even lemon. Many of the world’s finest teas — silver needles from China, fine Taiwanese oolongs, sweet green teas from Japan — are treated in similar fashion: steeped and appreciated for their nuanced and unadorned flavors.
My last tea in Tangier before returning home was taken alone. I was staying in a small house at the end of a twisty lane in the Kasbah. Narrow as a subway, five stories tall, with a garret at the top that acted as lounge and office, it offered views out over the medina and on down to the old port and the wide, sweeping golden beach beyond it. Into the pot I stuffed mint (crushing it slightly against the bottom with a spoon), absinthe leaves and some orange blossoms as rain splattered the windows and softened the geometric shapes of the roof patterns of the medina sprawling below.
With Darjeeling, I had learned that the tea itself — its final flavor — was the most important.
And that, it seems, is another key purpose of the elaborate ritual of preparing Moroccan tea: to achieve the perfect, final cup.
As the tea cascaded into the glass from the pot, the sound said, “Pay attention!” But, in the quiet house, it meant to the tea itself.
Jeff Koehler is the author of several cookbooks. His next book, “Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea,” will be published by Bloomsbury in spring 2015.