Saturday, March 13, 2010

Finding Samovar

The first time I saw a samovar in my textbook in Singapore (samovar means in Russian "self-boiler" or "Cам варить"), it boils hot water for tea. In the illustration, the contented man smiling from ear to ear said: I love pastry (stuffed )with meat and cabbage, tea with sugar and spice cakes (gingerbread).

From the most famous and simplest Russian fairytale, "Spotted Chicken" (Курoчка Ряба), the mice ran over the table and broke the golden egg of Grandpa and Grandma. Why on earth is there a boot on top? To be explained at end of story!

The traditional way of boiling a samovar with coal or wood. I have not seen it before! (Courtesy:

The more gaudy it is, the merrier for me. I will find one someday! (courtesy:

Yes!! By now I know what some Chinese are thinking, we Chinese have spittons of this shape too, but hey, the function is entirely different! (Courtesy:

This is the one I found in Kaliningrad at an antique shop. A part of the handle is missing...frown.

I like samovar, and I would like to have one, one fine day. Simply because I like it.

Some Russian friends think I am crazy, some of them still keep one at home, of course it is the modern version - an electrical one. They said it is only a kettle, why on earth you want it?

In life, there are many questions that you don't have to answer. I only need to find it. It is to me quintessentially Russian, looking awfully festive-like, not to be mention being aesthetically pleasing, and also underlines Russians' intimate relation with tea-drinking.

To Russians, tea-drinking is not only to quench thirst but almost a ritual to settle oneself for soul-searching, or savour simple quiet moment with tea.

It is also a symbol of Russian hospitality in relation with tea, which uses the name "чай"( sounded as 'chai' ) that is closest to the Chinese name of tea - there will be no samovar, if there were no tea.

What is a samovar?

Simply put, samovar is a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water in and around Russia, as well as in other Central, South-Eastern, Eastern European countries, and in the Middle-East.

Since the heated water is usually used for making tea, many samovars have an attachment on the tops of their lids to hold and heat a teapot filled with tea concentrate. Samovars are said to have been invented in Central Asia , though their origin is a matter of dispute.
An 18th century samovar from Russia.

Tula, 180 km from Moscow, is the earliest and key manufacturer of samovars since 18th century. Well-known for producing weapons from the past, Tula provides rich resources on samovars in the form museum, merchandise and networking.

According to these resources, samovar is a "purely Russian invention" and its origin is connected with tea. Sent to Russia from the territory of West Mongolia in the 17th century, tea was used as medicine among the nobility.

Tea was then a competitor of sbiten, the most favourite drink in Russia. Its components are: hot water, medicinal herbs and honey.

There are different versions of the first samovars manufactured, they were produced in the Urals, Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Tula, however the first samovar factory was founded in Tula by Nasar Usitsin in 1778.

Samovar manufacturing appeared to be very profitable. Handicraftsmen who used to be gunsmiths quickly became manufacturers, in 1826 there were eight samovar factories, by 1896 — seventy.

I was most delighted to see a bronze samovar at only 1500 roubles ( 30 roubles = 1 USD at an antique shop, but only to find that it is sadly slightly damaged.

The second one in Kaliningrad I found is in a shop, placed near the sky-high celing on the shelf, and coated with thick dust. Friends here told me they have either thrown it away or no longer use it, but they are keen to help me find a good one.

In TV programmes, I saw people living in the countryside during winter time play harmonica and sing songs surrounding a table with a samovar, teapots and teacups. And also a string of pies tied up like necklace is hung over the samovar, while the steam of the hot water filled the cold air, the ambience only gets merrier and merrier.

For Russians, the samovar has reduced into merely a kettle, gradually sliding away from modern life. At this point in time, I believe not only samovar is missing and faded away.

Likewise for my little country, Singapore. We are constantly in an excessive act of throwing, demolishing this, 'upgrading' that, knowingly and often unknowingly, have we lost more than we have gained?

Perhaps I am not actually finding a samovar, so as to invite friends to come for tea, sing songs, eat pastry and be merry. Could it be a desire to find a piece of the past - even from a distant and abstractly Russian one - that my own country has robbed from me?

I will now go drink tea - meanwhile without my samovar - and ponder over it.

*Why is there a boot on top of the samovar?

In the past when they need to kindle the samavor with fire, a pipe is needed to go through from bottom to the top. A boot conveniently posseses air-blowing mechanism. The faster you blow by pumping the boot, the faster the samovar will boil.


  1. very interesting comments on samovar! i totally understand your feeling of owing a samovar. it has more to do with a nice tea party with good friends. of course a cold wintry day will help too, we can all cuddle up round the samovar.

  2. I too am fascinated by samovar. If you find where they can be purchased please let me know. When I was in sitka Alaska, USA I purchased a tea brick that I was told was Russian and that they would break one brick and place in the tea pot and place hot water on it and the place on top of the samovar. Then the drinker would add some of this very strong tea with some water from the samovar to make their own strength of tea. Look me up on face book I will send you pictures of the tea brick. Frank Kaffenberger