Hookah, or nargila, smoking is an art. Very popular in the Middle Eastern countries, hookah smoking is rapidly becoming common in the rest of the world. There are hookah lounges where people get together to enjoy a leisurely smoke. It is quite like relaxing with coffee, chatting with friends, and lazing around.
A hookah, also called “narghile”, “shisha” or “hubble-bubble,” can also be described as a “water pipe.” The tobacco used in hookah smoking comes in several flavors. The conventional way to smoke is to have long pieces of tobacco combined with sugar based syrup, fruit bits or fruit extract. The idea is to savor the flavors of these fruits, along with the hookah’s cooling action, to add smoothness to the experience. Hookah lounges add ice to the hookah water. Common fruit flavors are apple, peach, raspberry, mixed fruit, and many more, depending on which tobacco is being used. The combination of these flavors makes it a unique experience for the hookah smoker because the tobacco does not convert into ash; rather, it slowly cooks on the coals on the hookah. This makes for an exotic smoking pleasure. Around the world, sitting together and smoking a hookah is considered a sign of trust and bonding.
Here’s a look at the different names a hookah is known by in different regions, the anatomy of a hookah, its types, setting up the hookah, getting started with smoking, basic maintenance of your hookah and some tips and tricks.
Parts of a hookah
The hookah can be made of glass, brass, gold, silver, wood, cane, or other materials, and you will find many decorative hookahs that are works of art. The hookah has four main parts. In general, hookahs are made of the base that holds the water, the stem, hoses, bowl, coal tray, and the various rubber grommets that seal the hookah where parts join together.
Excluding the grommets, a hookah has four main components, The bowl, the hose, body and gaskets, and the water jar.
Body and gaskets
The body of the hookah is a hollow tube. The bowl is attached to the top. Sometimes an ice bucket is attached between the body and the bowl to cool the smoke. At the bottom is a thin tube (the downstem) that is submerged in water. The point where the body meets the water jar is sealed with a gasket. Near there are at least two holes that open into the space above the water. One or more may accept a hose.
A diffuser is a small perforated plastic device which connects to the end of the stem. Submerged in the water-filled base, it works to break up the bubbles produced from the smoke-filtering process, creating a cleaner smoke and a subdued noise. It is used as a luxury item for a premium smoking experience and is not a required component.
Types of hookahs
You will come across different types and styles of hookahs. A majority of these are made in the Middle East and some in China. This means you have a lot of brands from which you can take your pick.
The most common is the Egyptian style, which is considered the best quality and is mostly made of steel or brass. Egyptian hookahs offer a good, easy smoke. The stem is smooth and stylish. The glass base is of high quality and popular brands are Magdy Zidan, priced at $75, and Khalil Mamoon, priced from $120.
Syrian hookahs are made of brass and are the main competition to Egyptian hookahs. They have shorter stems and the base takes more water. Popular brands are Nour and Al Fakher.
Then there are the Chinese hookahs made of acrylic or aluminum. These are lightweight and less durable than the Egyptian and Syrian hookahs. They are popular because of their low prices and reasonable quality. The best-known Chinese brand is Mya Saray.
You will also see Turkish and Iranian hookahs, which are similar to the Syrian ones but not usually exported outside the Middle East. Iranian hookah stems are made of brass, steel or wood and the glass base feature gorgeous hand paintings.
So, when you go shopping for your hookah, be sure to find out about replacement parts. While the hose may fit universally, the parts must be easy to clean. Preferably, choose a hookah that has a separate tray on a platform rather than a fused one. Also check about exchange policies for defective pieces if you are buying online. If buying in a physical shop, inspect the hookah for cracks, chips in the glass, rust if any. Check whether the hose smells fresh or stale. Check the tongs, brushes and tray.
There are also different sizes available, with both a single stem and multiple stems. The size of the hookah depends on your budget and use. Small hookahs are good for personal use. Medium hookahs are ideal as they can accommodate one or two smokers for an hour. The large hookahs are good for parties.
Think about how many hoses you need – more than one means more than one smoker at a time. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.
Now that you have a reasonable idea about the hookah and how it works, let us look at how you can get started with smoking one. It all begins with setting up your hookah.
How to set up your hookah
Start by filling the glass base of the nargile with water. Don’t fill it up too much — just make sure there’s enough water to cover the tube from the top section, say by about an inch after you place it on the base.
Now, place the top part of the nargile over the base, the glass part. It should fit well and be airtight. Next, attach the mouthpiece to the top part and check to see that it fits airtight, just like the top over the base. This means the whole set up should fit snugly. You can check by resting your palm on the top of the hookah and sucking via the mouth piece. If your set up is airtight, you will feel a pull on your palm and see bubbles in the water. If not, obviously there is air escaping from one of the joints. Fix it by re-fitting it properly.
Once you do that, place a little of your tobacco on top of the water pipe. If you plan to add flavors to it, you will need to cover the tobacco with aluminum foil that has been pierced a few times.
It is now time to light the hookah charcoal and place it on top of the tobacco with a pair of tongs. Press the charcoal down gently and suck through the mouthpiece. You will see smoke building up in the base. In about three or four puffs, the slow taste of tobacco will fill your mouth.
If you happen to have a multi-hose hookah and you plan to smoke by yourself, you must remember to seal the unused hoses with rubber stoppers. Check and seal the grommet junctions.
A word about the tobacco
You can use either tobacco or maassell, which is a combination of tobacco and a sweet substance such as honey or molasses or partially dried fruits, in your hookah. This mixture need not be dry. In the old days tobacco and these sweet things were mixed to make “jurak,” which is a moist tobacco. It was only much later, around the 1980s, that fruit-flavored tobacco was inspired by Egyptian tobacco companies experimenting with the tobacco, so that people would cut down on cigarette smoking. Consequently, you now have shisha tobacco flavored with fruits like apple, strawberry, melon, mint, cappuccino and so on, further mixed with fruit extracts.
Sometimes, the juice from the tobacco-based molasses settles at the bottom of the hookah. So be sure to mix it before you add it to the clay bowl. Soon after you open your pack of tobacco, ensure that you store it in an airtight glass container so that it does not dry out. Glass jars also retain the flavor, making it easy to mix the tobacco before you use it.
Tobacco-based molasses looks shredded. You can use a medium-sized bit of charcoal with these, with thick foil. There are various traditional tobacco brands like Nakhla, Afzal, Al Fakher, Al Masa, Al Waha, Al Jazeera, and others. Leafy tobaccos like Nakhla are much stronger. The flavor you choose is a matter of personal preference. Some appeal to some people, while others do not. U.S. maassell brands are Romman and Splash.
About the hookah charcoal
You will get different kinds of coals for your hookah. Some are self-lighting. The most popular are the quick light charcoals, especially with beginners, as they can be lit quickly. You also get natural coals that are devoid of any chemicals and have no taste. Experienced hookah smokers choose these. The quick light charcoals come in boxes of rolls. For the natural coal, you will need a fire pit or stove. You also get disc coals that are easy to use.
A good smoke
The best hookah smoke is that which is full of flavor and thick smoke, where you inhale effortlessly. When the coals burn, with the help of the tongs, tap the ash from the coals and move them to another area of the bowl. After half an hour of smoking, take off the screen and turn the maassell over, to move the fresh layer from below up on top. Then replace the screen and the coals. This will ensure continuous and thick smoke until you reach the end of the bowl.
Watch out for a burning flavor because that’s not so good. If you did not fill the bowl to the brim and you get the taste of burning, you probably have too much coal. Sometimes, too much heat within a short time can also cause that burning taste. So, blow the burnt smoke out of the valve and do not inhale for a while. Remove a coal. The trick to adjusting the coal comes as you become more experienced with your own hookah. However, there are three things you can do to help: 1) Do not fill the bowl to its brim. 2) Make use of the foil that comes with your hookah. 3) In the bowl, put only one layer of coals. Don’t make a pile. And soon, you’ll get the hang of it.
Maintaining the hookah
Taking good care of your hookah can ensure that you enjoy the pleasure of smoking it for a long time. Here are some tips:
• Cleaning your hookah pipe after each smoking session can help you get rid of any residual taste in it. With the help of a soft bristle brush, clean the pipe and the base. With a dry pipe and hose, each smoking session will be an enjoyable experience.
• After every five or six smokes, do the following - remove the exhaust valve and ball bearing, run water through the valve and clean the hole with cotton.
• Bring the shine back to your pipe stem by cleaning it every two months. To do this, soak it with some soda crystals and then clean it with a brush.
• Since not all hoses are washable, you need to check for a washable warranty when you buy your hose. While leather hoses can be washed, they are sometimes reinforced with steel coil that begins to rust in a short time.
Tips and tricks for beginners
When you start hookah smoking for the first time, take care to use very little coal. Break up the tobacco into smaller pieces and then place it in the clay bowl to avoid clogging the holes in the bowl.
In fact, you could even begin by trying molasses without tobacco until you get used to setting up the hookah. Molasses burns quite easily and you need to inhale cautiously.
Make sure that the tobacco you use is not caked; rather, it should allow the air to pass through it to give you that enjoyable smoke. Otherwise the smoke does tend to get too thick and taste burnt.
Add ice to the water in the hookah. This makes your smoke cool and smooth. If you don’t have ice cubes, ice cold water will be just as good. The water cools the smoke.
Experiment with flavors, mixing two or more and creating your own favorite flavor. Some suggestions are mint and rose, mint and melon, cherry and cola, mango and peach, and strawberry and banana. You can do the mixing in a jar and then place it in the bowl.
Add fruit to the base of the hookah to give it more flavor. Fruits with flavors compatible to the tobacco are better. You can add lemon or berries to the water in the hookah’s base to add to the flavor.
You can also add wine, juice or alcohol to the water in the hookah’s base. White wine is better for a smooth, cool flavor if you have mint. Red wine goes better with apple or red grape. If you are adding alcohol, vodka will match melon, apple, mint and apricot. Be sure to add only a little. After all, it is the hookah you want to enjoy, not the alcohol.
Remember to drink a lot of water when you smoke your hookah as it is known to make your mouth dry and lead to dehydration.
Some Hookah etiquette
There are some rules of smoking hookah that you must always remember:
• Do not light a cigarette from the burning coal of the hookah.
• Do not place the hookah at al level higher than the level of your seat.
• The water pipe should never be directly passed to another person. It must be put down and the person to whom you offer it must pick it up.
Enjoy your hookah smoking experience!