A Guide to Zavarka, Russia's Traditional Tea
The drink we tend to associate with Russia is vodka—but tea, in fact, is the much more universal beverage of choice throughout the country. In Russia, the most common preparation of tea is called zavarka—and the key here is that it's not about what kind of tea you brew, but how you brew it. Get acquainted with the intricacies of Russian tea etiquette, a fundamental component of the country's social culture.
Zavarka, which is essentially a strong tea-based concentrate, is likely a product of the Russian Civil War in 1917, when the Red Army took over several large tea warehouses in Moscow, Odessa, and St. Petersburg. Before then, tea was pretty sparse—something that only the über-wealthy could afford to drink. It's difficult to poinpoint the origin of zavarka, which means "to brew" or "to cook" in Russia; but at some point in the 1920s, workers discovered that it was most economical to brew a large pot of tea concentrate, and then have each individual dilute it according to preference. Subsequently, this became the standard way of enjoying tea in Russia—and not just for the working class.
Tea as it's traditionally made in Russia lives and dies by the samovar, a heated metal container with a spigot used to boil and dispense water, and often an attachment that holds the tea concentrate. According to Bonnie Morales, chef/owner of the Russian restaurant Kachka in Portland, OR, "The samovar is the centerpiece of the Russian table. Everybody has one." In Russian famlies, the samovar is considered a precious heirloom—for rich families, it can even be made out of precious metals, featuring intricate workmanship.
To make the tea, the samovar is filled with water and placed over burning coals (nowadays, standard stoves are used). Once the water boils, some of it is poured into a smaller compartment of tea, creating the tea concentrate, or zavarka. To serve the tea, everyone is given a small quantity of the zavarka, and then they serve themselves the desired amount of boiling water from the spigot to dilute the tea depending on their tastes. The beauty of this method, Morales says, is that "you basically have the makings of tea for the rest of the day, because you can pour a little bit of the concentrate and water out for you or your guests whenever you want tea." And, she reminds me, back in the day, before the time of stoves, it was a big production to get water boiling. This way, both the tea and the water were always available, and without the risk of the tea becoming cold or too strong.
There is no particular variety of tea that's used for zavarka—fruit-based tisanes and herbal teas are both very common, typically made with local berries and plants, as is black tea (though it doesn't grow in the country). As a result, the tea can taste exactly how you want it to—weak or strong, fruity or bitter. Anyone can make his or her ideal cup.
In addition to the samovar, the other key piece of servingware for zavarka is the podstakannik, metal and glass goblets that, like the samovar, are often decorated elaborately. Morales says that elements like the samovar and podstakannik are largely ornamental these days, as the Russian tea making process has become a lot more modernized, with electric tea kettles and porcelain cups. Even at Kachka, Morales' family samovar is not used to serve tea; it's just for display (though the tea at Kachka is still served in traditional podstakannik from Russia).
Zavarka and Russian Culture
In Russia, when you say you are having tea, or as the Russian saying goes, "a sit by the samovar," the assumption is that you are having a light meal, which will be accompanied by tea. Whenever someone comes over, no matter what the hour of day, it is customary to offer tea and snacks. The snacks often consist of sliced charcuterie, cheese, and Russian sweets like sushkie, a ring-shaped cross between a bread and a cookie that's meant to be dipped into tea. "You would never have someone over for dinner and not offer them tea," Morales says, noting that the converse is also true: "It would be an insult to turn down someone's offer of tea." She recounts a time when an electrician stopped by her family's house to give a quote for an upcoming job: "My parents found out he was Russian, and immediately, he stayed for tea."
Another sign of the vitality of tea in Russian culture: on the country's train system—an experience that used to represent the pinnacle of luxury—much of the opulence has been downsized, but the one element that has stuck is the tea service, which still uses podstakannik (the tea, Morales laments, usually comes in the form of tea bags). And though Morales can't remember the last time she used her samovar, she still reminisces about the way in which tea bonds people together in Russia, turning casual meetings into meaningful social connections: "When you have people over for tea in Russia, people tend to start to unwind and gossip and relive stories over the samovar," she says. "It's really a lost art."