Cafe Society

The Dushanbe Teahouse's long, strange trip

A stormy night in Boulder, rain lashing down, flood warning in effect, and four of us sitting in a comfortable corner of the Dushanbe Teahouse. Looking out, we can see the swollen creek rushing by, and we speculate on just how high it might rise. There's no one on the pleasant patio where people usually gather to sip tea and listen to the sounds of moving water. Rob, Dorothy, Marykate and I are safe, dry and warm inside, though, contemplating a plate of Korean-style ribs and agreeing that the only possible way to eat them is with our fingers. They turn out to be unexpectedly succulent, complemented by a little relish. My friends order cocktails made with tea and pronounce them delicious, and then our main courses arrive and we're passing little bites around the table so that everyone can taste everything. The menu items are eclectic and international, ranging from Brazilian vatapá to Persian spice-rubbed chicken (khoresht-e). All of our dishes are excellent, but the standouts are Marykate's perfectly cooked Bengali salmon and my Catalonian pork chop with piri piri Yukon Gold potatoes. The chop is so large and thick that I know it has to be overcooked, but when I assay the thing, my knife slides through it like butter. Dabble a piece in the piri piri and it's sheer heaven. We accompany the meal with a 2007 Ramón Bilbao Rioja Crianza, and when the bottle's empty, everyone yearns for more.

The Teahouse is in many ways the heart of Boulder. It buzzes with activity from morning to night, serving breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and all kinds of snacks in between. Farmers' market days see shoppers running in for a quick cup, or to lead a jittery child to the john (public access to the restroom is an actual requirement of the lease the operators signed with the city). You also come here for a long gossipy coffee with a friend you haven't seen in a while. You bring in out-of-town visitors, proudly pointing out the details of the decor: the intricate patterns on the hand-carved pillars, the painted tiles, the fish gliding through the pool and fountain at the building's center, the seven statues of women — figures from a twelfth-century work by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi — ringing the water. If you're feeling a little under the weather, you drop in for a tea or tisane because Sara Martinelli, who runs the place with her husband Lenny, is a skilled herbalist and certainly has something that will help you. Besides, the waitstaff are so solicitous — in an entirely unpushy way — that their voices alone can soothe, and you half expect that if you complain of sleeplessness, your waiter will start crooning a lullabye. (Just to be clear, he won't.) We in Boulder see this as our place, the center of the community, an affirmation of who we essentially are and also a window to the wider world. But the building's genesis spoke less about intercultural communication than about Boulder's profound insularity.

You could date the beginning of this story to the teahouses of the ancient Silk Road, the network of trade routes connecting Asia, Europe and parts of Africa and a nexus of artistic, culinary and cultural exchange. Or you could date it to the 1987 visit of Dushanbe mayor Maksud Ikramov. His city had been chosen by Boulder's Sister City Program for its similarities to Boulder: Both are at the same latitude, both have universities, and both are surrounded by high, white-capped mountains. Ikramov was a thoughtful and progressive man, anxious to extend a hand of friendship to the United States, and he told Mary Hey, then head of the program, that he would like to give Boulder a traditional Tajik teahouse, or chaikhona. Gorbachev was in power in the Soviet Union at the time, and the freshening breezes of glasnost and perestroika were blowing through the region. Within months, money had been allocated by the government of Tajikistan. Red cedar wood arrived from Siberia — funded by Moscow; Tajik artisans started putting plans for the structure together. The teahouse's Boulder architect, Vern Seieroe (who would later describe the experience as one of the most compelling of his life), visited Dushanbe in 1988 with then-mayor Linda Jourgensen and Sister Cities' Mary Axe, and began a collaboration with his counterpart there, Lado Shanidze, to ensure that Shanidze's design would work in Boulder.

But when the offer was brought home, Boulder responded with a roar of outrage: How dare this upstart foreign mayor offer the town such a magnificent gift?

There were some legitimate concerns, of course. How much would it cost to bring the teahouse here and set it up? Where was it to be sited? Who would run the place, and as what: a museum piece, a functioning restaurant, an authentic Persian teahouse? A committee was formed to decide whether to accept the teahouse, and its deliberations took more than a year. Meanwhile, Klagenfurt, a similar-sized Austrian town that had been offered a smaller teahouse from Dushanbe, got theirs sited within a week and erected it, using government funds, without generating a peep of controversy. Eventually, Boulder agreed to accept Mayor Ikramov's gift, and in 1990 the teahouse arrived in boxes.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman