By Elena Rodina
When people hear that I am from Russia, they often jokingly (or very possibly not) ask me whether I drink vodka for breakfast. Or, more seriously, they ask whether everyone in Russia drinks vodka all the time. Vodka has become a national symbol of my country, along with bears and cold winters. This, however, is a gross misconception. I do not drink vodka for breakfast. In fact, the truth is that vodka is not always the alcoholic beverage of choice; many of my acquaintances prefer whiskey or wine. But there is another drink that truly does deserve to be placed on the Russian flag and carried with pride in its universal acclaim. That drink is tea.
When I was in college, a friend of mine told me a story. She spent her summer in the United States, working as a member of the kitchen staff at an expensive East Coast resort. Upon her arrival she met two other Russian college girls working in the resort’s kitchen and the girls quickly became friends. A couple weeks later their boss gathered all the kitchen staff together and announced that he suspected a serious theft occurring on the premises. He had discovered that tea, served in bags and displayed at the dining room, was disappearing with a frightening speed, and believed that one of the workers was stealing boxes of tea in order to resell them later, or do god knows what with them. No one confessed to stealing the tea, so the boss declared that from that day on everyone would be searched upon exiting the kitchen. Once the measure was taken, the boss felt assured that he dealt with the problem in the most efficient manner. But the tea kept disappearing. He started paying attention to the tea section in the dining room, circling it like an eagle, watching everyone who was approaching it, and he finally figured out what was going on. During the breaks, when kitchen staff sat down to snack and have drinks, Russian girls were heading directly to the tea section, making themselves cups of hot tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks. Besides, they would use two bags instead of one per cup, unsatisfied with the strength of the bagged Earl Grey. They would often have several cups of tea per break. It was the first time in the history of the resort when a limitation on the amount of teabags consumed by kitchen staff was issued: no more than two per day.
Even now, remembering this story, I feel a wave of emotional solidarity with my Russian comrades. Teabags, of course, are too weak for a good cup of tea (hence two bags per cup). I remember that when the concept of teabags appeared in Russia (right around the collapse of the Soviet Union), it did gain popularity, along with Snickers bars and McDonald’s, but also became a butt of endless jokes, such as: “When the members of a Japanese delegation saw how Russian people, after having drunk their tea, suck the rest of the tea directly from the teabags, they understood that they would never get the Kuril Islands back.” Or, “Soon, instead of the tea ‘Cheerfulness,’ another tea, named ‘Greediness,’ will be on sale; it will have all the teabags tied to one single thread.” Finally, it was half-jokingly said that if you want to distinguish a Russian abroad, look at his or her cup of tea: the drinker would not remove a teabag till the cup is empty, in an effort to get the most out of it.
Teabags are deficient at a different level as well: they portion your tea-drinking, limiting it to one cup at a time (if you want another one, you can, of course, but it interrupts the continuity of the process of tea-drinking and spoils the mood). I learned how to drink tea the Russian way when I was a kid and spent long warm summers at my grandmother’s house in a small Russian village. First, you fill the samovar—a very large and elaborately decorated electric kettle (which originally was fueled by wood coals and kindling) with water and let it boil. Second, you take a small teapot painted with flowers or roosters or ballet dancers and put a generous portion of loose black tea leaves in it, and pour hot water from the samovar to fill the pot to the brim. And then you place the pot on top of the samovar, on a special little pedestal, just like a star on top of a Christmas tree. The steam from the samovar escapes from right underneath the teapot and keeps the black tea in it warm. Keep in mind that the tea in the pot is concentrated and very, very strong. You do not drink it straight (in Russian, there is a special term for this concentrate. It is not tea (“chai” in Russian), but “zavarka,” which can be literally translated as “brew”). Every time you want a fresh cup of tea, you add a bit of “zavarka” to your cup, and then add some hot water from the samovar. In the region where I was raised, a republic populated with ethnic Tatars, it is customary to add milk to one’s tea (a friend used to joke that she would marry either a Tatar or an Englishmen, because both would know that tea should be drunk with milk).
My grandmother and I spent endless evenings at the table, with the samovar as a centerpiece, drinking one cup of tea after another, eating sweets and pies, and, of course, talking, talking and talking. We were not concerned about caffeine, drinking liters of strong black tea right before going to bed (I still have not internalized the fact that tea can keep you awake and always drink strong tea before bed, sleeping soundly every night), neither were we worried about extra calories (I was too young to worry about my figure, my granny too old to bother). In Russia, drinking tea involves more than just consuming caffeinated liquid. It is a must to serve this drink with accompanying snacks, be that homemade jam, honey, or one of many Russian sweets: ginger cookies, caramels or chocolates, thin crunchy waffles, tiny hard bread rings peppered with poppy seeds, chocolates called “ptichye moloko” (literally “the bird’s milk,” these chocolates’ filling reminds a mixture of jelly and marshmallows), or a piece of layered honey cake “medovik.”
No one in Russia serves just plain tea. I came to regret this custom a bit when I grew up and started worrying about extra calories. My work as a journalist sent me traveling all over Russia, and each and every place I went to, be that a small wooden house in the middle of a Siberian forest, or a large luxurious office of a government clerk in Chechnya, I was invited to have a cup of tea, and with tea came, inevitably, sweets. Some of these sweets would be challenging not just calorie-wise; certain caramels would be hard as a rock and require extra effort to digest, and a certain type of candy, chewy and sugary, would tend to stick to one’s teeth like a barnacle. But the challenge of Russian tea-drinking goes both ways, and it can be quite demanding for the host, who feels obligated to treat guests to desserts which otherwise could have been saved for solitary consumption. There is a popular joke about a host who serves her guest tea along with a plate of freshly baked jam-filled pirozhki, and seeing the guest quickly consuming the baked goods, she exclaims, “Eat, my dear guest, eat and enjoy your sixth pie, no one counts how many you eat!” And another classic joke: “How many spoons of sugar do you usually have with your tea?” “It depends. Two if I am at home, four if I am a guest.” “Then feel yourself at home!”
When I came to live in the United States, I took along a present from my mom—a small portative electronic kettle (which did not work, of course, due to the difference in electric currents) and a pack of loose black tea. After the black tea came to a fast (and inevitable) end, I searched for more, but it turned out to be not an easy task. Most of the teas sold in supermarkets are in teabags, and a small pack of regular loose tea often is priced like a good bottle of wine. I learned to look for ethnic Russian stores, where, along with smoked sausage and ginger cookies, there would be long rows of “traditional” Russian loose tea from the English brand “Ahmad.” Recently tea drinking has increased in popularity in the United States, with gourmet selections of tea being on offer in most hip coffee shops, but drinking tea in a public place is not quite the same as drinking it at home, where you can have as much tea as you want, not limiting yourself to a cup or two. Of course, there is also the issue of company. I think that one of the main reasons that Russians abroad form communities is for drinking tea together; it is hard to convince an American to spend a couple of hours a day sitting at a kitchen table, drinking liters of caffeinated black liquid and conversing about current politics and the most intimate problems of one’s life. A friend of mine told me how she dated a very sweet American man who seemed to be this rare exception and who was willing to consume large quantities of tea with her daily. Several years later, however, when their relationship grew into marriage, he stopped drinking black tea altogether, explaining that he could not do it anymore, and that in their dating period he had consumed enough black tea for the rest of his life.
Yes, Russians do drink vodka. And if you are curious to become acquainted with the depth of the famed Russian soul, you can try having a vodka-drinking evening with one of your Russian friends, with whom you could talk about Dostoevsky and Putin while emptying one shot after another. It could be a bonding experience, and you might get to know a lot of interesting things, but it is unlikely you will remember anything—very soon you will be dead drunk, while your companion will keep on talking and drinking happily and still looking quite sober. So maybe the next time your curiosity about Russian culture begins to arise, you might want to try asking your friend for a cup of tea instead. You will talk, and you will drink, and if all this caffeine will keep you awake all night long, don’t you worry. Russians have lots of stories to tell, and the night will pass quickly by. Just don’t forget to bring the sweets: cookies, chocolates, caramels. And maybe even a cake.
Best Tea Places in Chicago (According to Its Russians)
Sayat Nova Chicago
157 East Ohio
This Armenian restaurant is located in downtown Chicago, close to the Tribune Tower, but it is a bit of a hidden treasure, so you need to know it is there to find it. Sayat offers a selection of loose teas such as pomegranate, ginger peach, black currant, and others. I recommend trying Armenian mint, and getting sinfully rich and sweet paklava for dessert.
Russian Tea Time
77 East Adams
A famous downtown Chicago restaurant of Russian food offers full afternoon tea services, which include a pot of tea, scones, a choice of savories (you can choose among piroshky, sandwiches, crepes, and more), and a selection of mini sweets. Try “Russian Caravan,” black tea that has an aroma of campfire. Tea service is offered here every day from 2:30pm to 4:30pm.
2108 North Clark
Vanille offers an “Afternoon tea” experience every Thursday through Sunday at noon, 2pm, and 4pm. You need to make a reservation for any of these times, and have a company of at least four people in order to reserve a Vanille Salon, and if there are fewer of you, you will be seated in the dessert cafe. The Patisserie offers a selection of Benjamin teas as well as sweets from its own bakery.
The Drake Hotel
140 East Walton
For a luxurious tea-drinking experience and a regal atmosphere, go to afternoon tea at The Drake Hotel. You will be offered a choice of custom-made tea blends, finger sandwiches, scones, breads, and seasonal desserts. Dressing-up is a must.
To buy tea, go to TeaGschwendner, 1160 North State, which has an enormous variety of loose teas from around the world, as well as a selection of tea accessories.