Life revolves around tea in the Balkans

Food & Drinks

It can be easily confirmed that in the Balkans, especially in the old squares and bazaars of Istanbul, Sarajevo, Skopje, Vushtrri, Prizren and other parts of the region, everything runs around its tea. Family and friends get together for a cup of tea. Guests are offered tea as a sign of hospitality in almost every household. It does not really matter what part of the day, tea is always served, and especially in the morning, in Skopje and Istanbul, tea is always served with breakfast. The activity of tea-drinking is an important cultural practice, dating back to the Ottoman times. Here tea is known as çaj in Albanian, çay in Turkish and čaj in Bosnian.

Tea is very popular among locals, more so than coffee. It was not always like this though. Although tea passed through the Ottoman Empire as part of the Silk Road trade in the 16th century, it did not begin to become a part of daily life throughout the empire until the early 20th century, when coffee was hard to obtain and became extremely expensive. Tea became a cheaper alternative to coffee. This cultural practice has spread to southeast Europe like wildfire.

Tea is traditionally made in a special tea pot (also known in Turkish as çaydanlık), which is assembled from two pots. The lower pot is bigger and is used to boil water, while the upper pot is smaller and is used to make strong tea concentrate. After the water is boiled, the lower pot is used to dilute the concentrate in the upper pot before traditionally serving it in small tulip-shaped glasses. When served, the remaining hot water is used to dilute the tea on an individual basis, giving each person the choice between strong or weak. Then, some prefer it with sugar or thin lemon wedges and then stir it with a small spoon, what can be heard as jingling, the most typical sounds in the old squares and bazaars for sure.

When served, generally you have to hold the cup by the rim to save your fingertips from burning, because tea is served boiling hot. The idea behind these small tulip-shaped glasses is scientific, as its curvy shape keeps the tea warm and at the same time prevents it from cooling down quickly. Smart, eh?

There is no clear explanation why tea is served in the tulip-shaped glasses. However, there is a theory that probably started in the Tulip Era, when people in the Ottoman Empire started to trade with tulips from Persia, which were sold further on to Europe. Tulips were so important back then that the tulip-shaped glasses probably originated from that period.

Tea has become an integral part of social life. Drinking tea is a social ritual and it is common to see people sitting together and enjoying tea while they catch up. One important aspect of tea-drinking activity is that tea initiates conversations, because your hands are busy holding the cup, so it is a way to get away from checking your phone or stay busy on any other communication technology. Tea equals socialization.

Regardless of who makes it, this particular drink served boiling hot has only one name: tea, or çay, çaj, čaj. Unlike coffee, tea unites!

Finally, below is a map of the history of the word tea if by sea, cha if by land, which you may find interesting. There you can see that the words that sound like “cha” (çaj in Albanian, çay in Turkish and čaj in Bosnian) spread across land, along the Silk Road, reaching all the way to southeast Europe.

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