Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to Smoke a Water Pipe

Shisha, nargila, hookah, whatever you choose to call it, it's increased in popularity in the last few years. With the recession still among us, creating a lounge atmosphere at home is becoming a fashionable and cost efficient way of spending an evening. Here's what you need to know if you want to hit the ground running in the hookah bizCoals
There are two kinds of coals you'll be seeing: natural and quick light. Natural coals need to be lit on a stove, bbq or coal chimney. Quick lights can easily be lit with a plain lighter. If you're just starting out with shisha, you shouldn't be hassling yourself with natural coals. Just get yourself some quick lights and don't complicate your life. When you get a bit
more adept at preparing your hookah and feel yourself wanting to fine-tune the quality of your smoke, natural coals generally burn longer, maintain a constant temperature and produce less ash.

Buying Shisha Tobacco
If you're lucky enough to live in a place where flavoured tobacco isn't outlawed (like Canada. Haha. Americans, envy my fruity-tasting tobacco and the way I write flavoUred!) then you should find yourself a source of shisha tobacco. It's different from cigarette rolling tobacco in that the cut is a lot thicker and the dried leaves are glazed with fruit preserve and molasses. If you can't find a tobacconist near you that sells it, there's a brand being sold on eBay for a very reasonable $3 a box. They get away with it because it's sugar cane bagasse and not really tobacco. Personally, I prefer it over the tobacco varieties. In any case, your shisha should be sticky and moist. Should you happen upon a dry batch or your batch dries up, glazing the dry leaves in honey and letting it sit for about an hour should breathe new life into your tobacco. To prevent having to resort to this, it's advised to store your nargila boxes in the fridge.

Coal Handling
Whenever handling a coal it's important to use a set of coal tongs (for obvious reasons).
Avoid smoking the hookah while quick light coals are in the process of lighting. The smoke the let out is quite unpleasant.
To light a new coal, just put a new coal on top of the lit one and blow gently. It should catch in no time.
If you're transitioning to a new coal, you may want to keep you old coal on for a bit until the new one reaches full heat. Pay special attention to the flavor of the smoke. If you notice it becomes harsher, you're burning your coals too hot and that's your cue to remove one.
It's normal to go through 2-3 coals depending on the size of the bowl, quality of the coals, moisture of the tobacco, etc.
Start your coal on the edge of the bowl and gradually, over the process of the full smoking session, shift it around the entire perimeter of the bowl. This will ensure a full and pleasant burn of your tobacco. Leaving the coal in the middle for the entire session will lead to a charred center bowl and an unburnt circumference. On top of that, the tobacco is more likely to heat up past the optimal temperature and produce a harsher smoke

Preparing the Hookah
  • Fill the vase with water
  • Wet the rubber gaskets of the stem, connect the stem to the vase and twist it a bit to form a good seal.
  • Connect the hose to the stem and, again, twist it a bit to form a good seal.
  • Wet the gasket of the bowl and twist it on.
  • Fill the bowl with tobacco and cover it in foil as if you were wrapping a serving bowl of food.
  • With a fork or tooth pick, punch a few holes in the aluminum.
  • Light the coal and set it on the foil
  • Let the coal sit for 30 seconds.
  • Start smoking the shisha.
  • As you draw, the smoke will gradually get thicker.
  • When the air filled part of the vase turns opaque with smoke, you know your hookah's smoking at full capacity.

Filling the vase:
Since the water in the vase is what's going to be filtering and cooling your smoke, it should come as no surprise that altering the contents will lead to new flavors and a better smoke. Firstly, the colder the water the better. You can even add ice to the vase and/or put it in the freezer. Cold water makes a thicker and cooler smoke. Instead of water, you can choose to put in a variety of liquids like wine, coffee, juice, spirits, milk. Of all of them, the most successful for me has been some cold juice with a few sprigs of mint. One thing that's great about shisha is that you can fine tune the recipe to produce your signature tobacco/liquid blend.

Filling the bowl:
The tobacco should have a good smell and be very sticky. If you notice it's dried up, just drizzle a bit of honey on it and let it absorb. When you do pack your bowl, pile the tobacco down and gently press down. Your mound should rise slightly above the level of the lip of the bowl. Cover it with a piece of aluminum and poke holes in the foil with a fork, toothpick or any fine poking device.


Hookah vases tend to be in intricate shapes and are almost always a chore to clean. Sure, the dummies solution is to pop it in the dishwasher but, since the opening is so narrow in comparison to the rest of the vase, the inside won't receive a steam bath at best. If you actually want to get you vase clean and not gross your friends out with crap floating in your hookah water, you'll head to a place where you'll go to a kitchen store and look for one of those bendable scrubbing sticks for wine decanters. The poor man's solution is to put a small handful of uncooked rice in your bowl along with two cups of hot, soapy water. Shake and swirl your vase up like a lychee martini. The rice should act as an abrasive that'll scrub the walls.

The bowl, being a simple piece of ceramic, can be scrubbed or put in the dishwasher like any other ceramic piece.

The importance of stem cleanliness is highly underrated. A dirty, sooty stem leads to a less pure, harsher smoke. Put the stem under a hot faucet and let the water run through the length of the stem to remove the loose soot and soften the encrusted layer. Next use a pipe brush to remove all the crap from the inside.
Unless you know for a fact your hose is washable, it probably isn't. Running water through the inside could crack the rubber. Instead, blow as hard as you can through the hose while rapidly block and unblocking the end.

Pop ‘em in the dishwasher. Shame on you for making me explain that.
Shisha Etiquette
Shisha, unlike cigarette smoking, is a social event. While your typical Tau Bro Phi probably won't know a thing about any sort etiquette associated with smoking nargila, if you find yourself in a Middle Eastern shisha lounge (or country) it's expected that you respect a certain level of decorum. Here are the basic rules you should keep in mind:
  1. The hookah bong is built tall for a reason. It's meant to be placed on the floor next to you, not on the table. Putting it on the table is seen as a form of idol worship - a no-no in a monotheistic culture.

  2. Never pass the hose hand to hand. Rest in on the table to the next person in rotation and rotate the hookah if need be.

  3. If it's your turn with the hose, don't rest it on the table unless your passing it. It's seen as rude to not let others smoke just so you can take a breather while the tobacco's still smoking. Either puff or pass.

  4. On the flip side of rule #2, it's rude to hurry a person with the hose or ask that he pass it. Basically it's a mutually understood manner that one person won't delay too long and the others won't pressure him. It's all for the sake of preserving the friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

  5. Don't think that just because people are smoking, it's okay for you to light up a cigarette. There's something to be enjoyed about the mellow, fruity aroma of the nargila in the air.
And that's all she wrote. It may sound like an intricate process but it's all really common sense. It's just the close attention to detail that separates the truly enjoyable, relaxing smoke experience from the two high school seniors chuffing on ash in their parents' poorly heated garage. Whatever your situation may be, keep in mind that shisha smoking isn't about getting your nicotine fix. It's all about relaxing, socializing with friends, and occasionally just sitting back and enjoying smoke patterns. So take it easy and don't work too hard.