Coffee versus tea: Which team are you on?

Time out: Girls chat over a cup of tea and a cigarette in a cafe.
Time out: Girls chat over a cup of tea and a cigarette in a cafe. 

The streets of Tehran are as manic as ever, a cacophony of cars, pedestrians, shop-owners and restaurateurs all battling for their little slice of a smoggy city. People stream past on the pavements on all sides, headed towards the bazaar, or away from the bazaar, or somewhere else entirely.

There are beeps and honks and scrapes, yells and chatter, distant sirens, the wail of a call to prayer.

It's chaotic and usually a little intimidating out here, but right now I don't care. Because I have in my hand the perfect Persian beverage, an elixir for all that ails you: tea. Rich, red Iranian tea. Heavily sweetened, piping hot goodness.

It's a ritual and a passion around here. Everyone has a cup. It's the drink that accompanies all social occasions. It's the opiate of the masses.

And right now it's giving me sweet succour from another crazy Tehrani day.

This is only a recent passion of mine. Ordinarily, I'm not on Team Tea. Tea isn't a beverage to get excited about. It's what your parents drink. It's the sort of thing you turn to only when you're sick.

On a grand scale it's not something people tend to get too worked up over.

Coffee, on the other hand, is. And in the hot beverage Olympics I'm on Team Coffee. That's a drink to get passionate about.

In Iran, however, I've been drinking tea. Not just because it's the done thing, because you rarely see an Iranian without a cup of tea being raised to his (and, on the streets, it is usually his) lips, but because here it tastes so good.

This particular cup of tea is nothing fancy. It was sold to me by a humble street vendor, presented in a plastic cup and accompanied by the signature stick of sugar, a small wooden spike coated in sweet yellow crystals. You dip the spike into the hot tea and stir until your desired amount of sugar has dissolved.

Inevitably, this desired amount is all of it.

In a country where alcohol, the usual social lubricant in my culture, is banned, you drink tea to socialise. Yesterday, from morning till evening, in hotels and teahouses and at little street stands, I drank tea.

Last night I drank tea at a place called Jeanne d'Arc, the sort of consciously cool hipster venue that in any other country would be a wine bar, with its dark lighting, antique wooden furnishings and modern art splashed on the walls.

I sat there surrounded by the Iranian capital's young and trendy, with couples holding hands, girls pushing headscarves to the back of their hair, people smoking and chatting. And drinking tea, perfect little cups of it, long into the night.

There's something great about the simple drinking of tea in countries where it's so revered. For a traveller it has dual benefits: it's a way to join in a cultural ritual, but it's also an excuse to sit down, relax, watch the world go by as you sip from a glass.

You don't have to be in Iran. Neighbouring Turkey is all about the humble cuppa, another red brew served in small, tulip-shaped glasses and sweetened with blocks of white sugar.

Turks take tea on almost any occasion - sometimes with no occasion. The country is dotted with teahouses and restaurants and even service stations that take the serving of this beverage very seriously.

Try taking a tea break in Morocco. Or drinking chai in India. All of a sudden the drink that Mum and Dad like has a new significance. It's culture in a cup. It's thousands of years of refinement distilled into a small glass.

For the few minutes it takes to consume the beverage you can convince yourself that you're a local. You can sit back in the venue in which everyone else conducts their ritual and share in the experience, surrounded by the burble of foreign conversation, a TV in the background, the beep of traffic and an occasional window of quiet.

Back in Tehran, I don't even have a seat to enjoy my drink. This is succour on the run - I'm just standing on the pavement, an island of calm in the sea of commuters, watching as the vendor dishes out more and more cups.

Soon I'm finished and joining the crowds headed for the bazaar, fortified, ready to wander the labyrinthine passages in search of bargains and cultural oddities.

There will be time to chat with stall owners, and time to haggle. And it will inevitably involve tea.

Have you switched from coffee to tea, or vice versa, depending on the country you're travelling in? What's your preference? Post your comments below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater


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