In 1850, during the Crimean War, a British merchant unable to sells his wares of Chinese gunpowder tea in the Baltic regions, came across Morocco. He soon discovered this to be a profitable alternative destination, and shāy bil n'anā', or mint tea, has since spread through the Arab world.
Shai Maghrebi, the Maghreb Mint Tea, has in time become a lifestyle staple across the Maghreb region – from Mauritania to Libya – serving a ceremonial purpose. Although cooking has often been a woman's domain in these regions, it is the head male of the family who steps up to make the tea, taking great pride in the task.
When offered to guests the tea signifies hospitality and a warm welcoming. Three glasses are commonly served, as the tea evolves in flavour from gentle to strong to bitter, and it is considered impolite to refuse it or to ask for a fourth glass.
Far from a simple refreshment, preparing and serving the tea is a ritual and an art form: a prerequisite for almost any social interaction. It is commonly served all day, with every meal and each conversation.
The minty and refreshing properties of the Nana leaves and the Chinese gunpowder green tea generate a cool, liberating sensation in the mouth and the respiratory tract. The tea is, in fact, also commonly referred to as 'Tuareg tea', after the nomads of the Sahara: it is imbibed by the desert dwellers as it is thought to quench thirst better than water.
The tea serves a similar function to alcohol in the Western world, and much like drinking establishments across Europe and North America, tea bars serve customers throughout the day as a social activity.
The main supplier of tea to Maghreb remains China. The combination of it's ingredients, the local nana or spearmint leaves with the chinese green tea pellets, makes it an example of early globalization in cuisine. It is a focal point where traditions and cultures, ingredients and conviviality converge.
Beyond its social significance, mint tea has been observed to have several beneficial effects. Its cooling sensation relieves indigestion and heartburn, unclogs respiratory passages and airways, combats bad breath and congestion, and its antioxidant and vitamin-rich properties are beneficial to the human body.
The traditional Moroccan tea ware includes a metal teapot, of brass, aluminium, or a silver alloy, decoratively engraved: depending on social rank and status the teapots can also be plated with gold or gold motifs and decorations. Tea glass cups are also commonly decorated with delicate motifs and patterns, and the lot is served on a metal tray.
Below a Tastemade video on how to prepare a traditional shāy bil n'anā'.