I believe it is accurate to say that Iranians have more tea running through their veins than blood. Perhaps for many it has even replaced water. To take away an Iranian’s tea is like taking away a Malaysian’s belacan (shrimp paste). It is the very essence of their existence and identity. I happen to like both tea and belacan. But this is a story about tea; perhaps another time belacan can be the hero.
It is no secret that my house loves to fling its doors wide open to guests, admittedly more than I am comfortable with; so much so that my friends call it a hotel. Although, a ‘paying’ guest would be a great insult to the hospitable cultures from both my parents’ sides. More than often these guests happen to be from my father’s part of the world, Iran, which hints at which culture has managed to dominate our household.
When the guests arrive, usually an hour after the agreed time, I am propelled into my single most hated social etiquette, the tea-serving ritual. A meal without the prerequisite of tea would be extremely rude, thus tea should be the first thing served to an Iranian guest. Never forget this. The girls of the host family are required to carry out this ritual with utmost care and grace, as one of the guests might be looking for a new addition to their family. This ritual can be thought of as an unspoken audition for potential brides. Tea-serving is serious business.
The moment the guests rest their royal bottoms on a seat, the number of cups must be allotted to the number of guests. The tea must be served piping hot, never warm, must have absolutely no traces of bubbles, for that resembles, pardon my language, donkey urine, as my friend explained once, and must have the color of mahogany, and of course, must be poured into transparent glasses so the guests may evaluate the color for themselves. My mother used to serve tea to my father in opaque mugs and he would complain about the tea being tasteless. He found the same tea infinitely more delicious when she switched to clear glasses.
Tonight, I will be serving nine people. If my younger sister was here I’d force her to do it for she made the terrible mistake of letting me know how much she detested serving tea and I exist purely for her misery. Alas, she is studying in another country, probably even missing tea-serving if it meant that she could stay home.
The tea is poured, the tray is wiped, and my shawl is fixed and ready to go. It is important to remember that no matter how many hot steaming cups of tea one is carrying, one must never let on to how heavy the tray really is. Women are good at hiding things like that with a smile, I was told. It is the server’s job to assess whether the guest would prefer their cup to be placed in front of them or if they’d like to take it themselves. I bend down with the tray easily accessible to the guests, careful not to reveal anything that is not to be revealed. I lower myself in front of each individual, the ultimate humbling gesture. They each murmur a ‘thank you’ and I mutter ‘khahesh mikonam’ in reply, nine times. I place 3 small bowls of sugar cubes at arm’s length, one for every 3 people. Silently I retreat to the kitchen to prepare the next batch of tea for one cup is never enough. In a traditional household a samovar would be used but it’s too big and bulky to bring from Iran. I’ll have to make due with a small electrical kettle instead.
Since my elder sister got married, she has come to group herself among the guests rather than the hosts and I guess I am ok with that since I wouldn’t know what to do if I was not serving tea. My younger sister and I are closer in age and find it more difficult to be included in the host-guest exchanges than our elder sister. You can say she is more Iranian than us. I often wonder how I would have turned out had my mother not enrolled us in Malaysian public schools and let us finish our schooling in the Iranian school like my elder sister did. Would it be easier to find us nice Iranian husbands? It is usually in between servings that I begin to regret my poor cultural background, robbed by television and the internet like most other children of my time.
Before I know it, it’s time for the second serving. Almost always people go for a second round, the third is reserved for the die-hard tea addicts which I suspect are the males of the group. I was just about to take the thermos out to refill their cups when my sister stopped me short. “What do you think you’re doing?” Innocently I answer “I’m going to pour tea.” “You can’t just pour it in front of them!”
“But I poured Mr. M’s tea like that the other day.”
“Maybe for Mr. M it’s ok, but not for Mrs. Z!”
Until then I had foolishly thought that I had mastered the art of serving tea; I was wrong. I collect the guests’ cups and ask who would like more tea. The men, as suspected wanted refills. I deftly collect the cups, arranging them in order or the guests seating arrangements and dash to the kitchen for another batch. Until recently I wasn’t a huge fan of tea and that made me resent the act of tea serving. Then a poured myself a big glass of fresh tea and figured if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I pick up the tray for the last time tonight and head to the living room. After serving tea I pull up a chair and join the guests, wishing my younger sister was there to share my silence in a sea of conversation. Next time, she will serve.