How Moroccan Mint Tea Welcomed Me to Africa
The first place that I ever stepped foot on the continent of Africa was Morocco. It was in the late 1960s. I was on a day trip from southern Spain with my parents. We took a ferry from southern Spain and entered a different world—the light changed, the air was different, and some of the people looked like relatives. I vividly remember the bus tour we took. At the roadside stop where we had been given steaming glasses of mint tea, the guide took us behind the small bar and pointed up to a picture of the king, Hassan II, and said, "You are at home here. Welcome to Africa!" I have felt a soft spot in my heart for Morocco and for mint tea ever since that day.
Some food historians feel that tea's complicated history in Morocco begins with Chinese green tea being brought into Morocco by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tea consumption initially became a symbol of prestige in urban areas; later, tea drinking became aspirational in rural zones as farmers emulated their city brethren. Eventually mint tea drinking developed into a national pastime. Ataya Maghrebi nana, as the tea is known, is a cultural culinary totem. (Ataya refers to the style of tea service, Maghreb to Northwest Africa, and nana is a type of spearmint.)
The tea ceremony can be simplified into a steep-and-pour event. More often, it takes on the complexity of a ballet with three refillings of the pot with water, each one resulting in a tea of different taste and strength. A Moroccan proverb recounts that "the first glass is as gentle as life, the second is as strong as love, the third is as bitter as death."
During the ensuing 50-plus years, I have consumed mint tea all around Morocco, from Tangiers to Taroudant, flavored with everything from peppermint to bitter wormwood. At times, it has even been scented with orange flower water. On one trip, I acquired my own Moroccan tea set complete with multi-hued, gilt-rimmed tea glasses; an ornate silver-plated teapot; and a tray on which to serve it all. I confess that I often simply steep and serve because I prefer the gentleness of the first pour. But however it's prepared, I am always happy to stop and savor a glass or two of Moroccan mint tea—it connects me with a continent that I love.
This essay is part of the series "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.