Tea, in its various forms, has a special place in many countries, but in Central Asia it is especially important and, from many perspectives, it is the very center of the culture. In Uzbekistan tea is traditionally being drank in separate tea houses - chaikhanas (from "chai" meaning tea, and "khana" - room), which where located usually in the center of every town. There, locals and travelers gathered to exchange news, gossip and to discuss important matters.
Tea in Uzbekistan comes from various places - grown locally, as well as from different surrounding countries, such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, China, India, Ceylon, and others. Some people, often depending on the region, would prefer to drink only green tea - called "kok-chai", others black tea, and some - so-called milk tea (called "ok-chai"), black tea that is specially cooked with milk. Then, among the green and black tea types, there are still many varieties of recipes for flavored and even spicy tea.
There are certain rules that have to be uphold when preparing tea in Uzbekistan. First of all, only ceramic tea pots should be used, which has to be rinsed with boiling water immediately prior the preparation. Then the tea leaves are added in ratio 1 tea spoon for half a liter of water, covered with a little bit of hot boiling water and places either on hot coals or in an oven, so that all the aroma and essence is fully extracted from the tea. After 2-3 minutes, more hot water is added to fill the pot and then the pot itself is rinsed with hot water from outside in order to keep the tea hot as long as possible. The tea pot is left covered with a tea towel for another 5 minutes for the tea to gain strength before it can be served to the guests.
Probably the most attractive and interesting part in Uzbek tea traditions is that it is often enjoyed reclining or even lying down outside of the chaikhanas on special raised platforms, called "tapchan", which are covered with blankets and throw pillows, and often have a small low table in the middle, called "dastarhkhan". Such tapchans are often placed in the most picturesque surroundings, near water or in a graden, so that it is most enjoyable for the guests to relax on a hot afternoon in a shadow with an aromatic cup of tea and a plesant long conversation.
The traditional chaikhanas have not only survived untill modern times, but not surprisingly also became quite popular in the neighbouring countries, especially in Russia. Although the original inimitable atmosphere of Uzbek chaihana cannot possible be carried over the country limits.
In the old days, live singing birds were often kept under the ceiling of chaikhanas - to provide for a soothing and relaxing atmosphere and to entertain the guests. The owners of richer establishments often hired singers and musicians for their regular customers of higher social standing.
Of course it was never a simple tea that was served - like with almost everything in Uzbekistan, the eye is often lost on the table in a chaikhana. Elaborated food and especially sweets often accompany any tea serving. There are so many varieties of mouthwatering sweets, that we would need to detail them and their recipes in full in our next post. However, it is worth mentioning that one of the most popular sweets to be served with tea would be the extremely delicious kind of rock candy - "navat", made of crystallized honey or sugar.
The most important thing in the Uzbek chaikhana - is that no one should be in a rush. It requires complete and full relaxation to properly appreciate the wonderful aromas of the food and tea, as well as the hospitality of the owner.
Therefore, tea is best enjoyed drinking from a relatively small ceramic bowl-shaped cup, called "piala", usually beautifully hand-painted with intricate designs on the outside, as well as the inside. Traditionally, the host pours the tea into pialas for each of the guests. However, the very first piala should be filled to the rim and then emptied back into the pot - in this way the tea is stirred to extract all the aromas. It is customary that the more guest is esteemed, the less tea is poured in his piala, probably so that the tea cools down faster and the guest could enjoy it without the danger of burning his mouth.