I had my first taste of authentic Moroccan tea (known as ‘atai’ in Morocco) about four years ago on a trip to Rabat. I was instantly taken by the country’s most well-known drink, and I was equally fascinated by the rich tea culture. This July I was back in Morocco visiting Marrakesh, and I was extremely happy to down numerous glasses of tea and learn a bit more about the country’s thriving tea culture.
Moroccan-style tea is well known around the world. It seems like every tea company carries a blend of green tea and mint that they’ve labelled ‘Moroccan tea’. Calling it Moroccan tea is really a bit of misnomer because green tea with mint and sugar is drunk throughout much of north Africa, and it would be more accurate to call it ‘Maghrebi mint tea’. Perhaps this style of tea has been called Moroccan tea because Morocco’s per capita tea consumption is amongst the highest in the world. Euromonitor International found in 2013 that Moroccans consumed approximately 355 litres of infused tea per year, which is about twice as much as the average Brit.
Making Moroccan tea
To make Moroccan tea you need three components: gunpowder green tea, fresh mint (spearmint) and sugar. Typically the tea, mint and sugar are all put into the teapot and left to steep for a few minutes before being served. Some places, and this seems mainly for tourists, do not add sugar to the teapot. In this case, a bowl of sugar cubes will be brought to the table with the tea.
In Morocco, gunpowder green tea and mint are both ubiquitous and cheap. At supermarkets and at kiosks around cities, tea is around seven to 20 Dirhams (approx. 50p to £1.50) for 100 to 200 grams of tea. Supermarkets not only carry numerous brands of tea, but various qualities, which influences the price. Fresh mint can be found at the numerous vegetable stands around the city for pennies. In cafés and restaurants, the price for a cup or a pot of tea ranges from four to 20 Dirhams.
Traditional Moroccan teaware consists of a metal teapot, various shaped glasses and a serving tray. The metal teapot, which is probably the most iconic symbol of Moroccan tea service, is made out of various materials which impacts the price of the pot in shops and souks/markets. Spending a bit more on a good teapot is advised, as it can rust easily. You may also want to invest in a kitsch handle guard/cosy, as the handle becomes extremely hot when water is added to the pot. A small towel will suffice if you cannot find a handle guard.
Glasses vary in shapes and sizes. Some have a tulip shape that I most commonly associate with Turkish teaware, while others look like mini pint glasses. Occasionally glasses are decorated with paint or they are wrapped with decorative metal. Glasses hold approximately 150 to 200ml.
The serving tray is not only vital for bringing the tea to the table for service, but it is necessary for pouring the tea. Trays are typically circular and large and sturdy enough to hold the teapot and all the glasses, and perhaps a sugar bowl, spoons and a few sweet treats. Servers use the tray to pour tea the traditional way. They hold the tray near their waist and start slowly pouring the tea. As tea is filling the glass, they raise the pot high above the glass – sometimes about two feet above the glass, depending on the server’s skills. Pouring at such a high distance causes bubbles to develop on the top of the glass. It is also quite an impressive show for the tea service.
Tea and social life
I can’t speak with complete authority about the role of tea in Morocco society (especially in the home), but I do know that tea is an integral part of social life. When checking into a riad or a hotel and filling out an excessively long government form about your trip to Morocco, you will probably be served tea (and perhaps a sweet treat). When trying to strike a deal with a market vendor in a souk or a small shop, tea is commonly offered, but don’t accept it if your not completely genuine in your intentions to buy something. And at the Jemaa el Fna night food market, tea is typically served for free with meals. I asked one food vendor how much their tea costs (always ask if prices are not displayed), and he gave me a lecture that tea is always free for guests in Morocco. I love the strong link between tea, hospitality and making business.
Sweet, minty and refreshing
In north Africa, where the temperature regularly hovers around 40 to 45C at the height of summer and drops to near freezing in a place like Marrakesh during the winter, mint tea is an ideal drink. I find that the mint and sugar make it a refreshing drink in the summer heat, but the mint and the bitterness of the tea make it equally comforting when there is a nip in the air. While I think Moroccan tea is something that would appeal to almost everyone, I really found myself craving a cup of black tea after a few days, especially when I needed a stronger caffeine kick or something that wasn’t so sweet. Espressos and café au laits are served in almost all cafés, but nothing in my world is a substitute for a strong cup of black tea.