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Culture Trip: Chay time, Azerbaijan

Tea is the occasion for much ceremony in Azerbaijan. 

In Azerbaijan, the sweetening (or not) of tea is vital to changing families’ lives.

When a man’s parents visit the home of the girl whose hand he seeks in marriage, only shirin chay (sweet tea) is good news. Tea served without sugar means the answer is ‘no’. These and other tea-drinking rituals are important elements of Azerbaijan’s culinary traditions and life in general.

  • The chaykhana (teahouse) is a corner at which people gather to drink tea, socialise, and just while away the day over cups of tea; young people smoke shisha and older men play backgammon. 
  • When served, the tea should be a deep, rich red colour. In the days of the Silk Road caravans, chay was made in smuzer, copper containers. Today, the samovar, with origins in Russia, is vital to Azerbaijani tea culture, and used to boil water, which is then poured into porcelain teapots. Heated on top, often coddled with Azerbaijani silk, the tea is then set aside to brew. 
  • There are many versions of Azerbaijani tea, from flavoured black tea to thyme tea and tea with rose water. 
  • Azerbaijanis like their tea sweet; they dunk a sugar cube into the tea, then bite off a piece and sip the tea. This method dates back to medieval times, when rulers who were afraid of being poisoned had their tea tested by dunking a piece of sugar in it: if the liquid did not react, it was all good. 

Expect to spend a lot of time over this long-drawn and delightful ceremony as armudu istekan refill themselves, as it were, because, as Azerbaijanis put it: “chay nedir, say nedir,” which means “drinking tea has no limits.” Enjoy!

For more information on Azerbaijan, check out LPMI’s March 2020, issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.