The History and Cultural Impact of Tea in Egypt

 

The art of drinking tea has made a significant influence in many different regions and cultures for centuries. We have learned about the initial discovery of tea in China, as well as its migration through Europe and India. Each of these origin stories has positively impacted the evolution of tea. Now, this beloved beverage is consumed and celebrated all around the world. Egypt, known for housing some of the world's most famous monuments, is one country that is often overlooked for its tea consumption. Over time, it has established a civilization of tea drinkers. So much so, that tea is considered Egypt's national beverage!

 

Egypt's Tea Market & Drinking Culture

So, what do we know about Egyptian tea? Not much, I imagine. I admit that I was uninformed before my research. Tea was valued in the surrounding countries of South East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (we will discuss their origin story in a future blog). Egypt has come a long way from being a communist country to a republic country. Ever since their political change in the early seventies, the government established a new lifestyle for consumerism. Tea arrived in Egypt towards the 16th century, and it became easily attainable for everyone socially and economically. Egypt's close proximity to the Asian mainland and African border allowed for the convenient introduction and accessibility of tea. In Egypt, tea is known as "shai," and it is known as the nation's superlative beverage, even more so than coffee. Egypt consumes 65,000 to 75,000 tons of tea, including imports of earl grey, green tea, Assam, and flavored teas. The consumption average per capita is around 800 to 1000 grams. Since Egypt does not produce tea, the tea consumed in Egypt is primarily grown and imported from other countries, like Kenya and Sri Lanka.

 

Tea has become a symbol of Egypt, and the consumption has been embedded in their culture from the beginning.  The focus is placed more on the act of drinking tea with loved ones, than the actual quality of the tea. Unlike British or Chinese tea culture, where tea is primarily enjoyed at specific times or during intricate ceremonies, tea is drunk morning, noon, and night in Egypt. Tea is known as an everyday necessity and is served with every meal and is enjoyed by every social class. In fact, tea is the second cheapest beverage after water! Along with drinking at home, it is common to spend morning or evening hours at cafes sipping tea, smoking hookah, and playing backgammon or dominos. Egypt's Islamic values and influences (which prohibits alcohol consumption), combined with the economic affordability are the main reasons for Egypt's thriving tea-drinking culture.

 

Egypt's Favorite Tea Beverages 

The tea that is brewed is far from fancy. For convenience, tea bags filled with ground-up tea leaves are often brewed. The bitterness from the low-quality tea is usually masked by adding sugar and fresh mint. Tea is often accompanied by a pastry, like baklava or basbousa (cake filled with cream). There are two main Egyptian tea varieties; Koshary and Saiidi. Koshary is popular in Northern Egypt and is a black tea brewed with cane sugar and fresh mint leaves for a light and refreshing drink. Saiidi tea is commonly consumed in Southern Egypt. Black tea is boiled over a hot flame for an extended amount of time, giving it a very bold and bitter flavor. It is also sweetened with spoonfuls of cane sugar to balance the bitterness. As you can see, Egyptians drink black teas overwhelmingly more often than any other kind of tea.

 

Along with enjoying tea from the actual Camellia sinensis plant, herbal teas are widely consumed in Egypt and many other Middle Eastern countries. Egyptian cuisine is known for its diverse flavors and innovative dishes. The way they have experimented with tea and herbs is just as unique. Many custom tea beverages unique to their country have been created and enjoyed for years. Three of the most popular Egyptian drinks are called Sahlab, Karkade, and Yansoon. Sahlab is primarily enjoyed during the colder months and is made from the grounds of an orchid bulb. It is combined with milk, spices, and chopped pistachios and can be comparable to a chai tea latte. Karkade is brewed hot or cold and comes from boiling dried hibiscus leaves. Sugar is sometimes added for a sweet and tart treat, reminiscent of cranberry juice. The last beverage, Yansoon, is often used as a remedy for cold and sore throats. It is very rich in flavor and is made from aniseeds. For a more traditional, Western-style black tea, Egyptians order a "Shai Lipton."

 

In Egypt, the action of drinking tea is more than the drink itself. It is about taking the time to sit, enjoy a cup, and create deep connections with others. I love their focus on culture and community, and how tea is used to enhance their way of life. The lifestyle in America is so busy, and there is an emphasis on pursuing the "hustle and bustle." Learning about Egyptian tea culture is a great reminder to slow down and cherish the simple things in life. Next time you drink a cup of tea, whether it be on your own or with a loved one, remember to sit back, relax, and do as the Egyptians do.

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