By HANNAH NORMAN
RABAT, Morocco – The air is still cool, but the tea is hot. Morning has arrived, accompanied by the sun’s harsh rays penetrating through half-drawn kitchen curtains. The hissing of boiling water and the zestful aroma of fresh mint being rolled engulf the cooking alcove. In her household, the 52-year-old mother of three, Nezha Ben Ali, always has a bucket of green leafy stalks handy.
“When I don’t drink tea, I get headaches,” said Ben Ali, who has been hooked on tea since childhood.
Her consumption habits come as no surprise, considering the prevalence of mint tea, or “atay,”in Moroccan society. Served alongside daily meals, with the welcoming of guests, and in nearly every café, the warm beverage is an integral part of the national identity. With the average person drinking around four cups per day, Morocco even tops the world in tea consumption per capita, according to a recent study.
Gunpowder green tea, the basis for the concoction, made a relatively late appearance to Morocco in the 1850s, thanks to British traders.
“Prior to tea, they drank a lot of what are called teasans, or diffusions,” said Monika Sudakov, author of Moroccan Tea Ritual: Religion, Gender, Socio-Economics and Hospitality. “They would take various herbs and spices, brew them in hot water, and use those for medicinal purposes. The green tea was a natural addition.”
And many Moroccans believe tea’s curative powers hold true today.
“The tea soothes my stomach, helps clear my sinuses, and cools me down when it is hot,” Ben Ali said.
In the public sphere, drinking liquor is considered taboo for Muslims, as alcohol is prohibited in Islam, elevating tea as the preferred social beverage.
“I would equate tea in Morocco to beer culture in the United States or in Britain,” said Sudakov. “Guys go to cafes to hang out, and that’s just their vice.”
For women, in the home, mint tea is synonymous with hospitality.
“I always serve tea when somebody comes over,” said Ben Ali.
Opening the top of her sterling silver teapot, she tossed in an assortment of green tea pellets, mint leaves and sugar. Next came the hot water. Ben Ali placed the mixture on the stove to simmer, but “shwiiyya,” she said—only for a little.
Her mint tea has no standard recipe. Ben Ali usually uses “na’na’” (spearmint), but sometimes spices it up with “fliyo” (peppermint), “ellouiza” (grey verbena), or “merdedouch” (marjoram), each found at the nearby market, or “souk.” All these herbs are grown locally, within the Rabat region, and trucked in straight off the farms.
Fresh mint, however, is not accessible everywhere. In the desert and rural areas, dried mint is much more common. The amount of sugar differs nationwide as well because of its cost, according to Sudakov.
Regardless of the tea’s exact blend, Moroccans actively drink it up. Ben Ali gracefully grabbed her embellished teapot, raising it high above the cup before tilting the spout. Bubbles gathered at the top, allowing the tea to aerate.
“Sharb!” she said. “Drink!”
Here’s the step-by-step recipe, as prepared in the Ben Ali household:
1) Boil about six cups of water, the amount that fits in a standard Moroccan teapot.
2) Lightly roll the mint for full flavor.
3) Put 1½ big spoonfuls of gunpowder green tea pellets, around 7-8 stalks of mint, and 10 cubes of sugar (by preference) into the teapot.
4) Pour the hot water into the teapot over the ingredients.
5) Let the mixture simmer on the stove for 2 minutes with the top open.
6) Pour some tea into a cup, and then return the liquid to the teapot. This allows it to fully mix.
7) Raise the teapot at least 6 inches above the cup when serving to allow for aeration.
8) Drink up!