Updated: Jan 9
The Middle East & North Africa have some of the oldest trade routes in the world, ferrying spices from all corners of the world. As the crossroads of history & civilizations, the region has cultivated a rich tea culture. Here are a few of the most popular teas of the region:
1. Moroccan/ Maghrebi Mint Tea
Camellia Senensis, doesn’t naturally grow in North Africa. Instead, the gunpowder green tea used in this tea has been traditionally imported from China. This is likely a result of centuries of traders like Ibn Battuta, moving between the Maghreb & the East. Theories about how tea appeared in Morocco include:
Tea might’ve been a gift from Queen Anne of England to the Moroccan Sultan for releasing English Prisoners of War
The Crimean War in the 1850s also impacted Morocco’s Tea consumption as Balkan ports closed forcing merchants to seek new markets like Morocco
The ceremony to prepare this tea is quite intricate, with up to 7 steps. Traditionally the male head of the household would be the one to prepare the tea as a welcome to guests though traditionas have become flexible over time. It’s consumed throughout the day, with strangers & family as a form of hospitality & bonding.
In traditional Za’atar tea wild thyme, Origanum syriacum, is used for the brew. It has a complex taste described as a mixture between thyme & oregano. Wild Thyme is particularly hard to find outside of hills in the Levant as it exclusivly grows in this hilly region.
Mint teas are known as common home remedies, and thyme is a member of the mint family arsenal, used in many households as a remedy for sore throats, coughs & bronchitis. Thyme is also packed with Vitamins A & C, per 100g, thyme has more Vitamin C than Oranges. Sprinkle a little extra in your pot next time you make a stew.
3. Shay Bil Maramiya
A common Palestinian drink, Shay bil Maramiya is found after meals to cleanse the pallet & warm up your body. Sage is a native herb of the Mediterranean region, with tea traders criss-crossing the region for centuries, the combination of the two seemed inevitable. The earliest known use of sage is in the treatment of infertility in Ancient Egypt and it’s also known help maintain oral health & conteract bad breath.
Christian monasteries have grown sage as a staple for centuries in Monastic Gardens. These gardens serve as a medicinal source for the community and sage was a necessary treatment for ailemnts & regiligous ceremonies. Even today, many monasteries grow sage in their monastic gardens, a living history showing the evolution of medicine.
4. Yerba Mate
Yerba Mate is extremely popular in South America, ingrained into the social fabric of many countries like Paraguay, Argentina & Bolivia. It made its way to Syria & Lebanon in the bags of migrants. Political & religious instability in the then Ottoman Empire forced people to flee in the 19th century. eg. Conflict between Druze & Christians in the 1860 Mount Lebanon Civil War lead many Druze to settle in places like Argentina.
~46,000 Syrians & Lebanese went to Argentina by 1913
Many Syrians & Lebanese started to return in the 1970s as political upheavals & dictators surged in South America, taking Yerba Mate with them. The Druze community are the carriers of the Yerba Mate tradition in Syria & Lebanon since they were the main groups fleeing in the 19th century. Today the practice of sharing Yerba Mate has seeped into social groups outside of the Druze community, making Syria the largest importer of Yerba Mate outside of South America.
South American vs Syrian/ Lebanese Tradition
Mate is serves in narrower gourds in the Middle East, sometimes in small glasses/ ceramics as well with short bombillas
The mate bombilla is cleaned between users in the Middle East, typically a slice of lemon is rubbed on the mouth of the bombilla
Yerba Mate is consumed with sugar in Syria & Lebanon, stirred into the gourd to make a sweeter tea
5. Kahwe Bayda (White Coffee)
White coffee is neither white nor caffeinated, instead it’s an aromatic tea made from mixing hot water with Orange Blossom Water/ Rose Water. Throughout the region, these waters are essential in flavouring pastries, skincare & folk medicine. During Ramadan rosewater is particularly important as it’s usually the 1st drink after a long day of fasting & used in many religious ceremonies.
Folk medicine: rosewater has been used to treat sunburn & orange blossom water can be sprayed in the face of persons who feel ill and also consumed if someone has indigestion
6. Loomi Tea
Loomi is a dried lime, the technique is native to Oman and common throughout the Persian Gulf region. A loomi starts as your common lime that’s then boiled in salty water for 3-5 mins then left to dry in the sun until brown/black. The tea is made by boiling the dried limes & mixing the water with honey. In folk medicine it’s thought to help any digestion issuse one may have like diarrhoea & nausea.
Loomi isn’t only for tea, its also used in cooking dishes like Machboos (Majboos) or soups like shorba (chorba) adding a sour & smokey citrus taste If you’re trying to figure out the spice in your favourite Omani dish, you can consider loomi