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The secret to making an inexpensive tea worth savoring.
Moroccan mint tea defies many of the best practices employed by tea lovers: the tea leaves are often low-quality and should be boiled before adding heaps of sugar.
"The method we use to make tea is really unusual," says Mourad Lahlou, chef of Aziza and Mourad in San Francisco, CA (Lahlou is a Morocco native). "If you were to tell a tea connoisseur about the kind of tea we drink in Morocco, they would be utterly appalled."
That said, Moroccan mint tea — an intense, sugary, herb-charged sip — is one of the most addictive and refreshing versions of the beverage you'll find anywhere, and practically a daily ritual in much of North Africa.
Moroccan mint tea came into fashion during the 19th century, when spice traders relied on the country as an ideal stop en route from Asia to Europe. When Baltic ports closed during the Crimean War (1853-1856), enterprising British merchants sold their leftover Chinese gunpowder tea (a rolled green tea) in Morocco. Moroccans would combine the strong, bitter tea with local mint leaves and the requisite sugar. With its overwhelmingly sweet flavor, this tea could function as a post-meal treat, or a satisfying drink between meals throughout the day.
Lahlou calls Moroccan mint tea the country's national beverage, as it is known to represent "a lot of love, and the good things in life...Growing up as a young boy in Marrakesh, it was a daily ritual," he says. "You are always mesmerized watching the person making it. It brings people together."
Tea is served at birthday celebrations, in business meetings and to those visiting the Medina (Marrakesh's vendor-filled old city). "For people in Morocco, if you want to close a deal, they won't even want to talk to you until they have tea with you," Lahlou says. "And if you go to the Medina and visit a dozen shops, you might leave the market with one piece of clothing and having had a dozen cups of tea."
There is even a saying in Morocco, according to Lahlou, that goes something like, "I don't know them, I haven't had any tea with them."
How to Make Moroccan Mint Tea
The standard version of Moroccan mint tea starts by boiling water, adding copious amounts of gunpowder tea (usually six to eight tablespoons per four-cup tea kettle; the cheap stuff will work just fine), and simmering the mixture until it becomes extremely bitter. Then come the fresh mint leaves — usually spearmint or peppermint — along with a lot of sugar, about a fourth of a cup per pot. Herbs like lemon verbena, sage and artemesia get thrown into the mix when they are in season, to add bitter, woody notes.
Lahlou admits that for his daily tea, he prefers to omit the sugar. He opts for a version that's more like an infusion: high-quality mint leaves and lemon verbena steeped in hot water, and topped with a few pine nuts.
How to Serve It
The equipment used to make and serve Moroccan mint tea is extremely particular: the tea is brewed in special kettles made of pounded silver that, as Lahlou says, look an awful lot like the magic lamp from Aladdin. Glasses, not cups, are the proper drinking medium for the tea. The equipment plays heavily into the tea's highly ceremonial serving process. As Lahlou describes: "The tea kettle has a nozzle, and the person making the tea will start from the bottom where the glasses are and raise the teapot so high that it forms a head on the top of a tea glass, like a pint of beer. That cools down and aerates the tea." Glasses are typically refilled at least three times, with each subsequent serving getting stronger and slightly cooler.
But the most important part of the tea drinking ritual, Lahlou says, is savoring each glass. "You're supposed to take your time and take little sips," he says. "It's like drinking a glass of bourbon. It's a phenomenal experience."