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December 15, 2020
Hookah pipes have been around in one form or another for over 500 years, but the shisha tobacco that we enjoy so much today isn't as old as you might expect. In this month's blog article, we explore the origins of the tobacco plant, early (unflavoured) shisha tobacco, present (flavoured) shisha tobacco, and tobacco smoking in Australia.
The use and cultivation of tobacco can be traced back to as early as 5,000 BC, with tobacco's first origins linked to the Coxcatlán phase in Mesoamerica (Mexico). During this time, Native Americans would smoke tobacco for its medicinal properties and as part of spiritual ceremonies. The tobacco leaves would be crushed up and smoked in pipes fashioned out of reed cane and clay. Aside from smoking, tobacco leaves were used for dressing wounds and as a painkiller for curing toothaches and earaches.
Tobacco has been smoked in water pipes since the 16th century, when Indian glass manufacturers created what can be described as the first glass hookah pipes. Over the 17th and 18th centuries, the simple pleasure of smoking shisha gradually made its way to Middle Eastern countries including Turkey, Syria, Iran and Egypt. Although the shisha tobacco didn't differ much apart from the origin of the tobacco plant, each country came up with novel hookah pipe designs using different materials and manufacturing techniques.
Up until the 1990s, shisha tobacco was unflavoured. The tobacco leaves would be mixed with water and then pressed into a shape suitable for smoking out of a hookah bowl. As a result, the shisha tobacco (also called Ajami and Tumbak depending on the region) was difficult to ignite and produced a strong taste and smell, combined with a high nicotine kick. Even when passed through the water filtration of a nargileh, this form of shisha tobacco was very harsh to smoke and was losing worldwide popularity to other methods of smoking tobacco such as cigarettes, cigars, and tobacco pipes.
During the 1990s, shisha smokers experimented by fermenting tobacco leaves with honey, molasses, and glycerine to create a sweeter, smoother, smoking sensation. This brought about a shisha renaissance, with young smokers preferring the sweet taste and shared experience as a trendy alternative to cigarettes. From there, various flavours such as mint and apple were added to the mix and the popularity of shisha tobacco continued to grow, spurred on by rapid globalisation and the dot-com boom. Fasttrack 30 odd years and there are now hundreds of different shisha tobacco flavours available online for speedy delivery direct to your door. You can even find herbal shisha made from black tea, known as teabacco, which doesn't contain nicotine.
Although the tobacco plant Nicotiana suaveolens can be found natively in Australia, it wasn't until the early 18th century that Indonesian fishermen taught indigenous Australians how to smoke tobacco. Following colonisation by the British, tobacco smoking became widespread as tobacco became an essential commodity. By the early 19th century it was estimated that up to 90% of male workers in Australia smoked tobacco. With hand-made cigarettes taking off in the mid 19th century and machine-made cigarettes following not long after, Australians quickly switched from tobacco pipes to cigarettes due to the relative cost benefits and convenience.
In the late 1950s, as Middle Easterners started to emigrate to Australia the hookah pipe and shisha tobacco were introduced to Australian culture. Initially limited to family and social gatherings, it wasn't long before shisha cafes and hookah lounges were established to cater to the masses and bring different cultures together. Nowadays there are many great shisha lounges and hookah bars to be found in major Australian cities including Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, and the Gold Coast.
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Cleaning and maintaining your hookah / shisha pipe is one of the best ways to preserve your pipe and ensure you get longevity from it. This will also allow you to change flavours regularly and not be stuck with having to taste old sessions every time you smoke.
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