A Beginner’s Guide To Hookah

Feb 22 , 2022

A Beginner’s Guide To Hookah

The hookah as we know it today has a long, rich, and diverse history across distinct eras, geographies, and cultures. Not too long ago, hookah was confined only to shisha lounges and chic cafes in the west. Today, many enthusiasts own more than one hookah and smoke a variety of shisha tobacco flavors. So ,what is this phenomenon called the hookah? 

What Is a Hookah?

Simply put, a hookah is a smoking pipe using water as a solvent to filter and cool the smoke. Unlike cigarettes, a hookah does not burn shisha tobacco, so there is no combustion. Instead, a hookah uses convection heat to extract the flavors from the shisha tobacco, and what you get is delicious smoke that is neither hot nor filled with particulate matter due to the water in the base. 

The modern hookah is slightly more advanced than the historic smoking pipe, albeit the concept remains unchanged. You load a hookah bowl with shisha tobacco, heat it using charcoal, the smoke gets filtered through the water in the base, and you draw flavorsome clouds through a hose. Modern hookahs have additional features such as the purge valve and diffuser.

The Origins of Hookah

No one has irrefutable evidence proving that the hookah originated at a specific place, nor is there undeniable proof that a single person invented this smoking device. Primitive smoking pipes have been found in Egypt, dating back to 2,000 B.C. Similar crude versions of the modern smoking pipe were used in Europe since 500 B.C., but neither is what we know as hookah. 

The modern hookah is believed to have originated in different places across Asia. The Indians and Persians or Iranians used a smoking pipe that had a water chamber to filter the smoke. One prominent name that pops up almost everywhere is Hakim Abu’l-Fath Gilani, who served as the court physician of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. 

Gilani was born in Iran but moved to India, and he is often credited with inventing or designing the hookah for Akbar sometime in the late 16th century. However, similar smoking devices like Gilani’s hookah were already in use in Iran and also in India. The only difference is that Gilani’s hookah was endorsed by Akbar and the patronage of other nobles made it popular henceforth. 

There are other origin tales of the hookah in Ethiopia, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and even Eastern Europe and Central Asia bordering Russia. Interestingly, all these tales describe similar and at times identical smoking pipes using water. So, the hookah is probably a result of shared history. 

How Does a Modern Hookah Work?

A modern hookah is not necessarily handcrafted, unlike the traditional Egyptian, Syrian, Iranian, and Indian styles. Even Turkish hookahs and other geographical or cultural variants have been handcrafted over the centuries. The modern hookah is mass-produced and thus machine-made. 

Contemporary hookahs are straightforward. They rarely have the embellishments, ornateness, and special features that handcrafted hookahs possess. From the consumer’s perspective, the manufactured hookahs are reasonably priced and they are easier to assemble. Also, modern hookahs have a few practical features, unlike many traditional handcrafted variants. 

Take the silicone hose, for example. You can wash a silicone hose but the older styles using metal coils inside are not washable. Thus, shisha connoisseurs have to deal with residual buildup inside the hose. Similarly, contemporary steel hookahs are much easier to clean and maintain than brass, wood, and other materials used in traditional handmade hookahs. 

Almost all modern hookahs have a glass base, metal or alloy pipe, silicone hose, glazed bowl, and rubber or plastic grommets. Also, hookah kits generally include a pair of tongs, charcoal tray, and cleaning brushes. You need to buy shisha tobacco and hookah charcoal separately. 

What Is Shisha Tobacco?

Shisha tobacco is the only material you can smoke using a hookah unless you wish to try your own concoctions, which is certainly not advisable. All shisha flavors are essentially tobacco leaves blended with molasses, glycerin, honey, and natural extracts for the delicious flavors. 

The molasses, glycerin, or honey serves as the moistening agent, so that the tobacco leaves do not dry out. The natural extracts, such as apple, melons, berries, and other fruits & herbs, infuse distinct flavors that shisha tobacco is known for. 

Unlike cigarette tobacco, you do not burn the shisha flavors. You pack the hookah bowl, place charcoal pieces atop an aluminum foil or in a heat management device, and allow the convection heat to generate smoke filled with the extracted flavors. 

Types of Hookah Charcoal

Shisha tobacco is made of either dark or blonde leaves. The latter has less nicotine. Likewise, hookah charcoal may be sawdust blended with artificial catalysts or all-natural. The latter is gaining popularity among hookah enthusiasts due to the absence of toxins. 

Quick-light charcoal contains a chemical accelerant to ignite almost instantly. Natural charcoal made from crushed coconut shells take a while to burn, but they are safe and don’t alter the flavor of shisha tobacco.