The Americans have a hundred variations on the coffee theme. The British argue over whether tea should be brewed in a mug or pot, and whether the milk goes in first or second. In West Africa, there is little talk of these trivialities. All that matters is - who can brew the best attaya?
More Than Just a Brew
Look around any West African market, or watch the juice sellers on the beach closely, and you'll spot people drinking a foul-looking, frothy liquid. Small glasses are handed around on trays, the contents noisily slurped, and with a grin the glass is replaced. You won't find attaya on restaurant menus; for a start it takes too long to make, and it's something to be shared with friends rather than made to order.
In countries where you can't just pop the kettle on and make a brew, attaya is a real treat. It's an intensely potent drink, full of caffeine and sugar. Making it is a real ritual which takes practice and skill, as it must be sweetened just the right amount to hide the bitterness of the green tea, which must also be aerated enough to bring the full flavour out. Friends will often joke about who makes the best attaya, and poke fun at the brewer if he is not considered an expert. Most of all, however, it is a social occasion. When a charcoal burner and packets of tea are produced, people wander over, and if the day is a slow one the brewer quickly becomes the centre of conversation. Everyone has time for a quick attaya.
Getting to know how to make and appreciate attaya is a great way of making friends amongst the locals, and if you feel confident enough having a go yourself is a perfect way to get to know people better. The tea used is found in all supermarkets, and the best is always labelled Chinese Special Gunpowder - a wonderful name for what can be a powerful drink. At night, you'll see the giveaway glow of the charcoal burners as nightwatchmen brew the midnight attaya, and its invigorating reputation is well deserved.
How to Brew
You will need:
A charcoal burner. West Africans use a version about a foot high, with a receptacle for burning the charcoal in the top. Holes in the bottom allow the ash to fall out, keeping the coals hot.
Some charcoal and kindling. Obviously.
A small enamel teapot. A good supply of water to fill it with is very handy, too...
A pack of Chinese Special Gunpowder tea. 100g or so is enough, and you can buy small boxes containing just the right amount.
Sugar, and plenty of it. You'll probably use a good 200g.
Two glasses, each of which hold about 100ml, and a tray. The glasses are also used for measuring, and the tray is very important for reasons of etiquette.
Some friends, although if you don't have any, you'll soon make some!
Having got everything together, you need to find somewhere to make your attaya. Ideally, you need to be just out of any breezes or it might get messy, but visible to passers-by or you'll lose the communal aspect. Attaya is brewed three times from the same leaves, and the whole process takes two hours if you go from start to finish, so make sure you're comfortable!
First, you need to light the charcoal and arrange it in a kind of volcano shape. Try not to use too much, as piling on lots of fuel is uneconomical and you're likely to be gently ribbed for your extravagance! Then put three glasses of water into the teapot and sit it in the burner, resting on the charcoal.
When the water is boiling, scoop a full glass of tea-leaves and pop them in. As this is the first brew, you'll need a lot of sugar as the tea will be very strong, so add 1¼ glasses of sugar too. On the second and third brews, you're using the same leaves, so the tea will be considerably weaker, and you'll only need three-quarters and a third of a glass of sugar respectively.
Leave it to brew for three minutes, then start mixing the tea and sugar. You do this by pouring the tea into one of the glasses, then back into the pot; this also starts to gently aerate the tea. Do this a couple of dozen times, then put the kettle back on the burner for a minute or so to heat up again.
Now the really important bit; this is where the skill and practice comes in. You need to fully aerate the tea and get a good froth going, so pour one full glass and pour it repeatedly into the other glass and back again. The higher you can lift the pouring glass, the better the aeration and the more impressive your technique looks. Good attaya makers can lift the glass a good foot and a half without spilling a drop, and this is much trickier than it looks. This stage can take a good 10 minutes, and by the end both glasses should be half-full of froth.
Pour the tea back into the kettle to re-heat on the burner; it will be quite cold by now. Wash the tray and the outside of the glasses while you're waiting, but not the inside - the froth is very important! If you're on the second brew, you'll need to go back to stage three and repeat it; on the third brew, repeat twice, leaving the tea twice as long to brew each time1.
Put the glasses back on the tray, and when the tea is boiling pour about ¼ glass into each over the froth. It's a paltry amount, but it's very strong. On the second brew, you'll pour a third of a glass, and on the third, a half.
Take the tray to your friends and offer them a glass. If they slurp noisily, this is a sign of their appreciation - very handy to remember if you ever get offered a glass. When they've finished, without washing the glasses, re-fill them and pass them round to anyone else that's around.
When the tea is finished, re-fill the pot with three more full glasses of water and go back to stage three, until you've made three brews in total.
The saying goes that the first brew is for the 'real' men, the second for the women and the third for the children, as the tea gets weaker every time. If you're offered or ask for attaya as a tourist, you'll inevitably be given the third, and making a joke out of this is a great ice-breaker, guaranteed to raise a sometimes blushing smile.
In much of West Africa, the line between tourist and local is a very clear one, and joining in the attaya ritual is a great way to reduce or remove that line. People will appreciate the effort you make, and you will appreciate the time spent in relaxed conversation. A pack of Chinese Gunpowder, some sugar and a bag of charcoal makes a great gift, symbolic of the friendships you've made, and ensures you'll be talked about around the burner long after you've gone home.