Cultural Discussion and Advice From A Fellow Student
Drinking Tea in the Arab World and Navigating Cultural Differences
While coffee is a popular choice of drink in the Middle East for residents as well as tourists, tea is most commonly drank on a day-to-day basis and holds cultural importance in many countries. It’s customary to be offered a cup of tea when you enter someone’s home, sit down, greet neighbors, or even when visiting a tourist attraction. You could be walking down the street and a random tea vendor, store vendor, or citizens will insist you sit down and drink with them. It’s a way of creating connections, relaxing with friends and family, and welcoming people into their culture. Thus, tea has become a symbol of Arab hospitality.
Tea is had and offered at all times of the day, it’s often served before and after meals and during get-togethers. Most Arabs will end up drinking several cups of tea throughout the day. While tea is popular in big cities, cultural traditions surrounding tea originate from Bedouin communities. Returning from a long day of work in the desert, Bedouins will take a break by boiling tea over a wood fire, a technique called Shai Al Hatab. This is considered the best way to make tea, as it produces a more distinct and strong flavor. If you go on an excursion into the desert or to a Bedouin camp, you will most likely enjoy Shai Al Hatab during sunset while sitting on top of a sand dune. Furthermore, tea is traditionally served during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims can’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. However, during Iftar, a meal that is eaten by Muslims after sunset, tea is served throughout the evening with a variety of Arab sweets.
Yet, while all Arab societies enjoy tea during get-togethers and holidays, each society has its own variety. Cardamom tea is the most popular tea in the entirety of the Arab world and is known for aiding digestion. For this reason, cardamom tea is often served before meals to prepare your digestive system for those carb-heavy Arab dishes. You’ll especially find cardamom tea in Bedouin culture, where mint tea is mixed with cardamom to create a distinct flavor. This tea is often served in a small bowl-like cup called a finjan. Karkadeh or hibiscus flower tea is the most famous herbal tea in Egypt and is known for being both sour and sweet. Moroccan mint tea is a traditional green tea made from spearmint leaves and sugar. This type of tea is popular in North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Not to be confused with Morrocan mint tea, mint tea made from mint leaves is popular in the Levant region. This region includes Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. This tea is commonly served during get-togethers or sitting in front of the house with family and friends late into the night. Finally, black tea is the most common tea that you’ll see in stores and is especially popular in the Gulf region.
As students traveling from the United States to the Middle East, it can be daunting to be offered tea all the time. Especially since tea doesn’t have the same symbolic meaning in the U.S as it does in Arab countries. I remember one day when I was walking down the streets of Amman, Jordan, I stopped and asked two men where I could find a tea shop. It turns out that the building right in front of me, which had no labels or signs, was a hole-in-the-wall tea and coffee shop. The two men- who turned out to be the owners-immediately offered me a cup and had me sit down. I was super nervous and scared at first, but those feelings quickly faded. I sat in front of that tea shop for what felt like hours, just talking to the two men and other locals that came in. Everyone was so genuinely welcoming and wanted to make sure I had the best Jordanian experience. When I finally got up to leave, I asked the owners how much the tea was and they told me not to worry about the price. I was shocked and uncomfortable, how could they just give up their time and product for free? This is when I realized the extent of Arab hospitality and what sitting down and having a cup of tea really means. While I don’t usually recommend going into random shops that aren’t labeled, the story serves to demonstrate that being offered tea is a sign of respect and hospitality that Arabs take very seriously. It’s the experience and the people that you meet over a cup of tea that matters, not the tea itself.
As a study abroad student, you may face a similar experience that will put you in an unfamiliar situation. As such, I will provide some suggestions that may help to navigate through cultural differences. For instance, some students may not like tea and coffee or are not able to drink them for religious reasons, resulting in them feeling uncomfortable saying no. In this case, I would suggest keeping an open mind and communicating with those around you. Your hosts will not be offended if you tell them you don’t like something or that you can’t drink it for religious purposes. They may be confused at first, but it is always important to be honest and to try to communicate. For example, when I first arrived in Jordan, my host mom would make me tea any time I sat down. At first, I felt bad because I didn’t like how sweet the tea was, so I often left my glass half full. However, after asking my host mom if she could make me tea without sugar, I found I liked it a lot better! As I began to drink more and more, tea became a staple in my day-to-day life and I learned what types of tea I liked and what types I didn’t. I would highly suggest trying different types of tea and buying the ones that you like. Tea makes a great gift to bring back for family or friends and can be found at any major supermarket. You can also buy unique homemade tea blends at souks or Friday markets. It’s cheap, easy to transport, flavourful, and is just overall better than any tea I have ever had in the U.S.
Overall, tea is steeped in a rich tradition of Arab hospitality and there are many different types of tea across the Middle East. As students, it’s important to be aware of the importance of tea in creating connections, but also don’t be afraid to speak up if you have dietary preferences or if you want to try something new. Plus, if you don’t end up liking tea, coffee is always a great option too! Finally, as they in Jordan, صحتين, or enjoy your tea!
https://www.livinglanguage.com/blog/2013/01/16/tea-in-the-middle-east/ Tea Time: The Role of Tea Arab Culture https://stepfeed.com/6-popular-beverages-from-around-the-arab-world-4541 https://www.dimasharif.com/middle-eastern-tea-traditions/
- If you are driving or walking past some shops and you see a young man waving a silver platter in the air, that means the shop serves coffee!
Food Around The Arab World
Check out the following map where you can click on different Middle Eastern countries and find out what the most famous dishes in that country are. Maybe you’ll feel inspired to take a trip to try out all the amazing dishes offered!
Food Culture in Saudia Arabia: Written by Sara Bakari
While many people think of the Middle East as a collection of countries that have similar practices, foods, and traditions, there is actually a lot of diversity from country to country! I am from Saudi Arabia and I wanted to share some unique facts about food and the culture around food in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
- Unlike other cultures, Arabs approach how and when we eat food very differently. In Arab culture, we don’t eat food in a hurry and barely anyone eats alone. It’s very important that families eat together and friends are often invited. Eating food is like a celebration where everyone shares and relaxes after a long day.
- Arabs show their generosity and hospitality by offering food. When a guest is over, we will move the meat or any other important dish to the guest’s side of the table. Guests always come first. It is also commonplace to share one big dish of food, we do not usually eat off of individual plates. However, you may find this in some households and at restaurants.
- It’s very common in an Arab country to see friends fighting over who gets to pay the bill at a restaurant. And it’s considered rude to let the guest pay anything.
- Arabs enjoy eating with their hands. Mostly men. Rice and meat can be scooped up with bread and rice can be rolled into a ball to eat. It is also polite to eat with the right hand, as this is what prophet Mohammed advised Muslims to do. Specifically, with three fingers, the “thump, index finger, and middle fingers”. But some people also eat with 4 or 5 fingers. You can cut food using both hands, but to bring the food to your mouth use should use the right hand only. I find it very fun to touch the food before eating!
- Muslims eat only “Halal” food. This means that the food doesn’t have any ingredients of ham, pork, alcohol and that the animal is slaughtered in a way that limits the pain and makes sure that the animal can’t see the knife or the blade. There is a slight difference for “Halal” food between the Sunnah and Shi’a sects of Islam.
- A typical Arab family has a common time that they gather to eat. We usually gather for a small breakfast after the fajr prayer and before school/work (5 am – 7 am). This usually contains foods we call “نواشف” or فول قُلابة , which is cheese, green or black olives, boiling or scrambled eggs, and other things along with تميز, a hot bread that my dad bring home after the fajr prayer. This can be seen in the picture below.
- Here are some examples of other foods we like to eat. I will attach Youtube links for each recipe
- قلابة: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K7U3i2fMK8
- فول: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHoYFAD3Ibw
- تميز أو تميس : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDfhtWm57DY
- Tamees is an Afghani recipe, but it is very common in Saudi Arabia and all people absolutely love it. They even have a song for it, showing the influence of the Tamees and Foul culture from Afghanistan and Sudan. In this song, they use the Arabic dialects of Afghanistan people and Sudanian people.
- Here are some examples of other foods we like to eat. I will attach Youtube links for each recipe
- Then, after the Dhohor prayer and after coming back from school/work, sometime between “1pm – 3pm,” we gather for a large lunch. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, which is different than in America, where the biggest meal is Dinner.
- Dinner is kind of similar to breakfast. The family gathers Between 9-11 or 12 for a small meal. In my family, we usually eat dinner from local restaurants. Food such as, مطبق، فطائر تركية، البيك، زلابية.
- There is an evening tea or coffee gathering (depending on the family) after the Asr prayer. Below is a video about Arabic coffee or Saudi coffee. I called it Saudi coffee because you can only find it in Saudi Arabia. Other countries have different kinds of coffee and their own way of doing it.
- القهوة العربية أو القهوة السعودية: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUwOKWXGXDA
- My family is from Algeria and we enjoy tea after lunch. Below are some videos of the tea we like to drink called Moroccan tea, الشاهي المغربي
11. Writing about Saudi Arabia’s culture of food, I see now that coffee is more preferable. It is also so important to serve the Saudi coffee to the guests with some dates and sweet/Dessert. Tea is usually served after the meal. Either lunch or dinner.
12. The ways that Muslims eat and drink come from Islam.
- Before eating or drinking, Muslims start by saying the name of Allah: بسم الله which means (in the name of Allah)
- When finishing eating or drinking, Muslims thank Allah for the food and the health by saying: الحمدلله
- Muslims must eat with their right hands