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Monday, January 17, 2011

Philoxenia: Spiced Lebanese Chai with Milk & Roasted Almond Flakes

A quick search on the internet will explain the meaning of the Greek word philoxenia as the equivalent of hospitality or lover of strangers.  

Nowhere like in the Middle East can you experience a deeper sense of hospitality and generosity. In a land where even time stands still, melted under the intensity of the desert sun, people have a passive awareness of the passage of time: Salaam, and a stranger is greeted, with a warm, yet firm shake of hand, a broad smile and the gesture to come in. No matter where you go - a modest bedouin tent, a luxurious weekend 5-star tent, a simple rented city apartment or the villa of a wealthy family, a stranger will be invited into the front room: a large saloon decorated with big Persian rugs in bold colours, cushions, small coffee tables and sofas placed along the walls. Along with the small talk comes the tea accompanied by a tray of sweets: basbossa (semolina cake soaked with rich sugary syrup), baklawa, or gatayef (small pancakes stuffed with nuts).
Tea is strong and served in small cups, then sugar is added and maybe a leaf of mint will be immersed to add some flavour to the black essence. 

*a photo of a photo* Tea in the Desert,  at an art exhibition at DAU, Riyadh

small coffee cup, art exhibition at DAU, Riyadh, May 2010

Time will go in circles in this cool, dark room which has now become a shelter for the thirsty traveller. Time refuses to obey the laws of physics in the Middle East. It expands and contracts, as if it were under a magician's wand. A problem is treated philosophically, yet with a sense of urgency that we cannot penetrate: mafi mushkila (no problem, in Arabic). 

The host and the stranger will easily find mutual interests and topics of conversation, in spite of what could drift them apart.  They mention the family, the weather, the guest's purpose to such a distant and heat-ridden country, the holidays, the job and the working conditions, the host's travels to the West, current affairs, and the world in general. 

Having in mind the stories of old, I will tell you about a wonderful spiced Lebanese tea that I discovered not so long ago. 

Spiced Lebanese Chai with Milk and Roasted Almond Flakes

The Spices

coriander seeds

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

2 cloves

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 cardamom pod

The Tea

black loose tea/2 bags of jasmine tea/green loose tea (your choice)


Honey or Sugar

Almond flakes


Crush the spices (star anise, cardamom, coriander, cloves, cinnamon) in the mortar and pestle.  

Boil the water. Add the loose tea and the crushed spices, the ground ginger, the sugar/the honey. Let it simmer.

Finally, pour the milk and stir.

In a non-stick pan toast the almonds - make sure you won't overdo them. They blacken in no time (learned that by trial and error!)

Serve the tea hot, topped with almonds.

a full cup of the Middle East
Once they fill with water, the almond flakes will sink to the bottom of the mug. They will hold a soft crunchiness that you will spoon when the tea is gone. The honey makes the tea light and imparts a mild sweetness which is sure to make this amazing chai a treat for you and your guests. 

"Do not forget hospitality, for through it some, unknown to themselves, entertained angels" (from the Bible) Hebrews 13/2

"Tell me, Baba", said Joha's son to his father, why do you speak so little and listen so much?"
"Because I have two ears and only one mouth"  (from Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights)


  1. Most certainly Arab hospitality can not be rivaled. I thank you for this wonderful recipe and we will try to gather the ingredients here in Japan and give it a try.

  2. I am sure you will love this wonderful spiced tea. Have it with a moist cake and book you love :)