Cropped beard, red scarf and bronze-colored waistcoat, Kazem Mabhutian serves a constant stream of customers in Tehran’s smallest and oldest teahouse, but at 63, he’s counting on God to find him a successor.
Nestled in an alleyway in the Grand Bazaar, wedged between a clothing store and the door of a mosque, its 1.5 square meter chaikhaneh (tea house) is invisible from the main street.
And yet, it is the most famous tea enthusiast in the Iranian capital.
Between two glasses of steaming infusion for his customers, Mabhutian proudly tells the century-old story of the legendary Haj Ali Darvish tea house.
His father Haj Ali Mabhutian, nicknamed the Dervish or Beheshti, or “He Who Deserves Heaven,” was born in Hamedan in western Iran, he says.
“He came to Tehran at the age of 15 to make a living. He bought this shop from Haj Hassan who opened it in 1918.”
Around him are arranged cups and teapots, boxes of tea and a samovar water heater. There is an old-fashioned radio, an oil lamp, statuettes of dervishes and gilded Nabat sticks, a barley sugar flavored with saffron.
On the wall, a certificate from the Ministry of Tourism ensures that the place “is part of the intangible heritage of national culture”.
– ‘Goodness tea’ –
In addition to the traditional Iranian black tea, Mabhutian prepares infusions of cardamom, cinnamon, mint, thyme and hibiscus every day from 7:30 am.
But her favorite is her signature “tea of kindness”, a blend of mint, lemon and saffron that gives her a tangy yellow color.
Business is generally stable: Experts say Iranians consume an average of nine small glasses of tea per day, or 100,000 tons nationwide each year.
“Until 2007, my father ran this house, known as the smallest in the world,” Mabhutian said. “Then he broke his leg and never returned to work. He stayed home until his death in 2018 at the age of 92.”
Kazem then quit his job as an advertising agency and took over the business.
“I don’t regret it at all,” he said. “Advertising was a business, but it’s about love. I chose this profession with my heart, not for the money.”
On the menu, the price of a cup of tea is displayed at 100,000 rials (35 cents), but “the prices are not fixed,” he said. “It depends on the client’s financial situation.
Every day, he serves some 200 clients.
“Most of them come from outside the market because they know us,” he said.
“Before, there were a lot of tourists too, because this shop was in the tourist guides, but foreigners have disappeared with the pandemic.”
– ‘Made with love’ –
Given the tea room’s miniature size, there are no tables, but patrons can pull a plastic stool outside, amid the bustle of the bazaar.
Sitting there was Shafagh, a 32-year-old graphic designer, with her friend Forough, 47.
“Everyone sells tea, but the important thing is how to prepare it,” said Shafagh, enjoying a cup of Kindness tea.
“It’s like cooking – when someone lovingly makes tea, the taste is completely different.”
Forough added that “I also come to chat with the owner. I think his tea has nothing to do with tea served in other places.”
Every weekday, Habibollah Sayadi, 70, leaves his nearby clothing store to enjoy his Iranian black tea.
“I’m a regular – I’ve been coming here for almost 50 years because I love the taste of his tea,” he said, adding with approval that “Mr. Kazem respects hygiene” in times of Covid .
Mabhutian, the owner, is getting older and still single, so is he worried about what will happen to his beloved shop in the future?
“Not at all,” he said confidently. “God will find me a successor. A place like this does not die.”
© 2021 AFP