You find yourself strolling along the streets in the mountain village of Masuleh, Iran one early December morning. You are cold and thirsty after an early morning winter walk. You are on the lookout for tea, and a quick bite. From the corner of your eye, you spot a local teahouse. Thrilled and excited, you head in.
It is a small and cosy place, populated with a few old men sitting quietly at their seats, sipping hot tea. Local Iranian tea! You grin to yourself. As you wave to the waiter to place your order, to your amazement, sitting right in front of you is a giant samovar, puffing away. What is a Russian samovar doing here, in this part of the world?
It turns out that, like the Chinese, the Russians did not keep the joy of samovar tea drinking within their empire. They gave samovars as gifts to foreign dignitaries – a showcase of Russian culture and splendor, in what can be termed “samovar diplomacy.”
Samovars were cultural ambassadors for the Russians during the Tsarist regimes. In Iran, it was first presented to the governor of Gilan, Persia, in 1821. This perhaps explains why I found a samovar at a random teahouse in Masuleh, Iran.
However, it was not really random after all since samovars can be spotted almost everywhere in other parts of Iran. They were, in fact, a common sight in many of the houses I visited. The locals told us that they were usually given as gifts to newlyweds, an acknowledgement that samovars were a highly prized possession.
However, the Iranians did not import just the samovar. Tea-drinking habits also got absorbed. In the olden days, Russians drank their tea by rolling a cube of sugar in their mouths while sipping tea from samovars. While this has been lost in contemporary Russia, it has been well preserved in Iran.
Samovar a la Turk
The Iranians weren’t the only samovar converts. The Turks similarly embraced the Russian samovar in a big way. Perhaps reflective of Turkey’s fast-moving economy, Turkish samovar designs were bolder and embraced a more modern aesthetic appeal.
I made another interesting observation in Turkey. During my trips to the local bazaars, I found something that had an uncanny resemblance to the Russian samovar. They call it a caydanlik, which is essentially two teapots stacked on top of one another and placed on top of the stove.
Like the Russian samovar, the pot on top contains a strong tea concentrate while the one at the bottom boils the water. You make tea by pouring some tea concentrate from the top pot into a cup and then diluting it with boiled water from the bottom, which is exactly how the Russian samovar works.
While I have no idea how the Turkish caydanlik came about, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the Russian samovar.
Whose Samovar Is It Anyway?
Though the samovar is neither an Iranian nor a Turkish invention, the locals in both countries have embraced it as if it were their very own. They have re-interpreted the value of samovars in their own societies, giving birth to a larger samovar community.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who created the samovar. What is perhaps more important is its continued ability to draw tea drinkers from around the world together to huddle next to the grand samovar to enjoy their next cup of tea.