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The Perfect Water for Tea


19 Jan 2011 23:41Comments
TwoMenCaspianResized.jpg[ personal history ] There were dead at the bazaar, at the Kashani Nassaji factory, and at the Shah Maydan. They had fallen to what would be the first bullets of the uprising against the Anglo-American-backed Pahlavi dynasty. Everyone was stunned. The news arrived via farm workers returning from the city where they had gone to sell the daily harvest of summer fruits and vegetables. They talked of continuous volleys all afternoon.

The farmhouse guests lounged on wooden platforms covered with futons and large pillows beside a reservoir near a gushing deepwater well. Everyone had been aware of the rumbles of the past few days. Those with a financial interest in the stability of the system were in denial. They made dismissive comments about this being another waste of blood and resources. The land owners were ambivalent about the Shah, as his White Revolution had reduced their holdings and status. There was a sense of impending change, for something hopefully "not much worse."

One guest that afternoon in summer 1978 was a barely mature 29-year-old visiting home from an American university. A few months before, he had watched on TV as the Shah and the U.S. president wiped away tears brought on by the reception the D.C. police were giving anti-imperialist demonstrators. Like everyone, he was hoping that pressure from the U.S. administration would aid the cause of democracy in Iran. Politically active -- to a degree -- he imagined himself an aware Iranian, at least within the compatriot groups at school.

Yet, today, he was dumbfounded by the news. It was arriving at the wrong time, intruding on his dreams. Absorbing the deadly yet hopeful implications of the news for the country's future confused his efforts to imagine the hosts' attractive daughter in his own. He hoped no one would ask his opinion of the events in the city, as it would have been a mush, a porridge of dread and promise.

Perhaps it was the slight greenish tint of her skin, likely inherited from her Shirazi forebears and matching his own, that most attracted him, or the classic crown of dark brown hair that framed the piercing gaze of eyes the color of the emerald he had always loved on his mother's wedding ring. Classic images from Iranian painting and poetry swirled in his mind. Those visceral, almost primal, associations mixed with the immediate pressures of the national and political and made it difficult to fix a sense of place and time, except that she had to be in it, yes, with him and the glasses of tea she had offered everyone, arranged on an exquisitely inlaid tray of eternally replicating geometric patterns.

By the time she had gotten to him, there was only one glass left, allowing her to linger a bit longer. The tray was bare after their encounter. The tea was the best he had tasted in years.

The sips of tea brought a third set of associations: the picturesque farm with its luxuriously large reservoir of water amid the hot, arid plateau, and the wish that the whole of humanity could experience the universally embracing peace laden in that liquid.

The rush back to the city, waiting at checkpoints, dodging trees uprooted by huge tanks in narrow streets in their quest to find a friend's house for an overnight stay and arranging return transport to Tehran broke all those associations that had coalesced there on the farm, at least for the moment. Today, a fresh glass of tea, over thirty years later, returns all that vividly to my mind, the tea, the girl, and the first shots of what would become known as the Islamic Revolution, and I believe that young man could have been me.

That essence of all Iranian womanhood, past, present, and future, and the first shots of the uprising in Isfahan remain fixed points of personal and national history respectively, available for review and contemplation. The tea, though, like a stream that flows through past and present, and accompanies us into the future, no matter what turns history may take, pervades all recollections. It remains the essential catalyst for both random flashbacks and inspirations.

Each time I have tea, alone or with friends, unexpected memories bubble up in association with a certain glass, always held with the rim between the thumb and the forefinger, and balanced on the edge of the pinkie. The flashbacks are to events that tea has somehow impressed upon the memory better than any other device. The memories are like pictures tagged by the teas that were experienced then.

One such episode occurred a year prior to that day on the farm. Frustrated with not finding a good cup of tea in the ten years that I had been in the United States, I called the local Domino Sugar Company in Syracuse, having somehow reached the conclusion that sugar was the culprit. My brews always tasted harsh, the tea thrashed by strange tastes that pierced the tongue like shards of broken glass from some benighted factory.

To my astonishment, Domino sent a local chemist to my student dormitory to see what in the heavens I was complaining about. They were sincerely interested in my quest. I ranted about how they made sugar from cane and not from beets, which would have the right minerals to make the tea clear and help it float freely in the water. The gentleman tried to explain that sugar, and especially refined sugar, is just sugar and no more. He drew me a diagram of the sugar molecule to prove to me that the specific cane or beet minerals were long gone by the time the sugar was refined and put into white, yellow, and blue packaging.

Since I had arrived in the United States from Iran and come to the Wild West city of Worcester, Massachusetts, I had craved tea. Of course, tea the way I remembered it -- clear, crisp, brilliant, and separate from the water. The water was not part of the tea, it was there just to extract the right essences and bear them forth in the most neutral manner.

There was very little information around about tea. I read in a book that the Chinese believed that certain minerals were key to a good result. At the time, there was no real quantitative data available, and the book I had found certainly didn't get into that. Of course, most tea in the United States came in paper bags that dangled at the end of the sort of string that we used to wrap pastry boxes with in Iran. We called them pastry strings and would never have thought of soaking them in our cups.

My experiments in the chemistry lab at Worcester Tech produced nothing but tea that smelled like it had been passed through a goatskin wine sack, or had the consistency of brown mud with which you could paint permanent calligraphy on walls of roughest plaster, and everything in between.

Neither did my experiments with varied brewing temperatures offer any results but serious migraines when the brewing water was below 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Similarly, emptying the tea bag contents into porcelain pots as close in shape as I could find to those my grandmother had used back home, sans paper bag and pastry string, was effort spent in vain.

With the advent of bottled water, I wasted a lot of my allowance from home and teaching fellowships on plastic jugs filled with miscellaneous liquids, purportedly crystalline water from somewhere in Maine to somewhere else in Wisconsin, and on trips out west from Shasta to some obscure lake in Washington State. No memory-triggering cup of tea ever resulted, just a long series of disheartening outcomes. I got the sense that there was no water like that from the few proper sources I had known in Iran, qanats and deep wells. No, not natural springs -- all the good sources had been man-made.

On a visit to France in 1974, we had driven for two days to towns and villages in the Alps hoping to find the best water for tea right at its source, calculating that if Perrier could make billions selling bottles with a few drops of water from there, we could at least make a decent cup of crisp clean tea where the pristine water was just the bearer and not the butcher.

By the late 1990s, more types of loose-leaf tea were appearing in specialty stores. These went beyond the tried and tired Twinings and Ahmad tins that seemed to contain only the parts of the plant the rest of the world spurned. Yet still no decent cup of tea.

All teas, no matter how exotic, seemed to meet the same fate, brutally dissected by the water, the bad flavors extracted and prominent. They evoked the bark of the tea trees that guard dogs had visited on their plantation rounds, rather than the delicate new leaves that emerged after the trees' exposure to the right combination of rain and sun. Hope was slowly fading.

Once on business in New York City, I took a few friends to a now closed restaurant called Nader. After the meal, we tried their great saffron- and rosewater-laden homemade ice cream with wonderful chips of frozen cream from a farm in Pennsylvania...whatever that had to do with Iran. Then, with a sigh, I gave in to the request of my foreign friends for a round of tea. They were mostly Americans, but foreigners in that restaurant. The first sip said that these people knew where to get their sugar! Amazingly, the image of a dusty roadside teahouse about 30 miles east of Tehran popped into my mind. It may have been at that teahouse that I first understood what it means for water to be just a bearer. In the midst of this flashback I realized that I had not actually put any sugar in my tea yet. What then had induced the recollection?

Surely it couldn't be the corny golden paint on the rim of the glass, although I was not immune to the strangest effects after two-and-a-half decades of searching for a perfect cup of tea in the Virgin World, Yengé Donya. Metals do curious things to the taste buds, so maybe it was the gold-rimmed glass that I had been missing for quarter of a century. Timidly, I asked the server to ask the owner if she minded if we knew what tea she used. I read hesitance on the owner's face, a reluctance to reveal her secrets. But then she turned and vanished through an archway to the innards of her establishment. When she reappeared, she struck the pose of the woman in the Shahrzad tea poster holding up a light purple package of tea, which in fact is what she held. I told her, yes, this was a nice joke and I could understand if she didn't want to tell us what tea we were actually drinking. She swore on her children's lives that Shahrzad was it. Of course, I had no idea if she was married or if she had any children, but when she offered to brew a pot right at our table, I realized I had discovered the font of eternal flashbacks. Today, Nader Restaurant and that cup of Shahrzad has become one of my prime memories of tea, along with that glass at the farm near Isfahan, and an even purer one perhaps, because it is not mixed with the first news of the Revolution and the hosts' daughter with her quintessential Iranian visage.

Years later, I discovered that the farm in Pennsylvania from where the cream for the frozen flakes in the Nader ice cream came was right next to one of the main reservoirs that feeds the New York City water system, about 150 miles northwest of the city, just south of the New York State border. Needless to say, my car was full of gallon jugs of Manhattan tap water when we set out back to Boston that evening. I don't know if we drove recklessly to beat the snow storm that was approaching from the south, or just to get home quicker to try our array of teas with city water. Regardless, we were not disappointed. We got home late at night and didn't stop drinking every kind of tea we had until breakfast, when we finished with sweet tea. And to date, that was the last time I needed to put sugar in tea when made with city water. Such tea is as sweet as one desires, perfectly sweet.

I have since retired my samovar as the "only" instrument with which to make tea, given up on the perfect shape for the tea pot, on the basket material, and all the other tea-making myths to which I had been wed. It is the water, its temperature, and beyond that, just the people you drink with. If those elements are right, there is no tea that comes out bad, and with the better teas, you wish to skip two meals after drinking them to avoid losing the aftertaste.

A part of my kitchen and a good part of my best friend's tea importing warehouse have become small, ad hoc chemistry labs in which we have been drawing on our physics and chemistry educations in an attempt to synthesize New York City water, but to no avail, even after ten years. We may be too slow to unlock this mystery. We have installed reverse osmosis filtration systems, ionic exchange columns of various capabilities, and a distillation system to produce the base water to which we have tried to add the right quantities of minerals as published in detailed profusion by the city water authorities, all to no avail. Our monthly trip to the city to bring back gallons and gallons of water thus continues a decade after our discovery.

So, in case my kind chemist from the Domino Sugar Company happens to read this, I am sorry for the trouble. The antidote for my angst lay in New York City, not Syracuse. But thanks for the serious interest, nonetheless.

Today, as I and most mortals don't have access to the Qanat-e Shah on Tehran's Pasteur Avenue, where his Eminence, the Beloved Leader's abode is located, and neither can we get any water from the Qanat-e Sharif Abad, which by now is doubtlessly polluted with waste from the Parchin nuclear enrichment site east of Tehran, we must be and are content with our "most perfect" source of water in the Virgin World. It has taught us one of the essential lessons of life and happiness. For more of the Yengé's lessons, some say Niagara Falls is the place.

As an aside, everyone has heard that New York City pizza is the best in the country. Many believe the secret is in the water. Some in my town put so much stock in this notion that they bring up city water in a tanker truck every couple of weeks. With that in mind, I hardly feel foolish at all driving there and back again in my car now laden with gallons of New York City's finest.

Photo by Corbis. Caspian Sea, 1963.

More Tea | Golnoush Niknejad remembers The House in Shemiran | Christopher Hitchens on How To Make a Decent Cup of Tea | George Orwell, A Nice Cup of Tea | Siamak Zand, Camellia Sinensis

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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