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What Is Hookah?

Whether you are a novice or an expert when it comes to hookah smoking, shisha, and the mechanics of water pipe smoking, you may wonder just how much you really know about hookah.

The world of hookah is broad, and has been around for centuries, which leaves us with tons of knowledge, history, culture, values, lessons, facts, and figures about hookah that even the most advanced of hookah smokers may only know bits and pieces of.

If you are new to hookah smoking, or just curious about hookah tobacco and want to learn a little bit more about this age-old tradition, you’ve come to the right place.

Even if you are an experienced hookah smoker who knows the ins and outs of hookah, there’s always a chance to expand your breadth of knowledge and expertise, and we hope to be your source for that, too. 

Here at MOB Hookah, we are dedicated to educating, and growing knowledge of all-things-hookah anywhere we can – which is why we decided to put together this all-inclusive guide to hookah for you.

So, without further ado, here is the ultimate MOB Hookah guide to hookah.

So, What Is Hookah?

Well, the first question that we should answer is what is hookah? Well, despite what some people will tell you, hookah is the name for the pipe that you smoke from when you “smoke hookah.” 

Hookah is a derivative of an Arabic word – huqqa – which actually translates loosely to “water pipe” or “jar.” Hookah is named after the Arabic word for jar because of the jar-like cavity at the bottom of the setup that holds the water in a hookah pipe. Hookah pipes are also called Argileh in some parts of the world.

A hookah pipe is a water pipe that stacks a bowl that is filled with the tobacco, called shisha, hubble-bubble, or goza, over the stem which carries smoke downward through the down stem and into the vase where the smoke is released in the water bowl, where it is filtered before going from the vase through the flexible hose and into the smokers’ lungs.

You can also call a hookah pipe a shisha pipe, but traditionally the two words are separated, with hookah being the physical apparatus and shisha being the type of tobacco that is smoked.

How Did Hookah Originate?

Brilliant question – the short answer, we (and the rest of the hookah community) aren’t 100% positive. There are a few prevailing origin stories for hookah, each with its own credibility and sources that are convincing, so we will give you a brief overview of each of the three predominant theories.

The Indian Origin of Hookah

The most common and popularly held story about the origins of hookah comes from India. The story goes that during the 16th century, Portugal came to dominate global seafaring trade and began doing large amounts of shipping and trading in Asia and India.

This led to a major inflow of new products and goods to India and Asia, and one of these products that the Portuguese began to bring to India was Brazilian tobacco.

This tobacco spread from the port cities to further inland, but during this time, tobacco smoking was still a taboo in Indian culture. 

Eventually, the emperor of the Mughal empire, which reigned over the Indian subcontinent during this time, was gifted fine tobacco by an ambassador of his. Out of respect and curiosity, the emperor wanted to smoke the tobacco, but the emperor’s chief physician, Abu’l-Faith Gilani, was concerned about the potential negative health risks of smoking tobacco.

So, he came up with a solution: designing a pipe that you could smoke tobacco from, that would prevent both the burning of the lungs and throat, as well as filter the tobacco smoke of heavy metals. So, Abu’l-Faith Gilani invented the hookah, which allowed the smoke to be produced through indirect heat from coals or charcoal, and filter and cool the smoke through a water vase.

The hookah became a very popular item for nobility and royals, eventually spreading through India into the Middle East and all the way through Turkey and Egypt, where the pipe became the most revered method of smoking tobacco. (At least according to this account of the history of hookah!). 

The Iranian Origins of Hookah

While the Indian origin story is the most popular and easy-to-find theory on the origin of hookah, there is also reason to believe that the Iranians may have been the ones to invent the hookah.

The main evidence for this origin story is that Abu’l-Faith Gilani, the head physician for the emperor of the Mughal empire and believed inventor of the hookah, was of Iranian birth. This has given credence to claims that Iranians had been using hookahs to smoke tobacco for a long time before the pipe was introduced in India for the emperor. 

So perhaps the true story is that Iranians had been using hookahs for a time, and Abu’l-Faith Gilani, simply introduced the concept to India, where the prestige of being used by the emperor helped to propel the hookah to popularity.

The Ethiopian Origins of Hookah

The final theory about the origins of hookah takes us to Africa, where Ethiopians have evidence to claim the hookah as their invention.

Most of the evidence for the Ethiopian origins come from artifacts found that very closely resemble hookahs and other water pipes that date as far back as the 1200s, by far the earliest physical evidence we have of hookah use.

These pipes are also simpler versions of hookahs that a modern hookah smoker would be hard-pressed to call a hookah pipe.

So, Which Origin Is True?

 So, which of these three origin stories is true? Likely, there is some truth and credence to all three of these origin stories (we know, we know — it’s an easy answer out, but we believe it!). 

The fact that the emperor of the Mughals was introduced to the hookah by Abu’l-Faith Gilani is likely very credible. 

It would also not be impossible to imagine that he designed the hookah based on the water pipes that he was familiar with from his native homeland, Iran. 

And it is also very probable that water pipes and hookah prototypes were being smoked in Ethiopia and other parts of the world before the invention of the hookah as we know it today.

All three origin stories tell a part of the history of hookah, and that is why it is important to understand and acknowledge all three stories.

How Does a Hookah Work?

Before we get into any of the other questions that surround hookahs, we should get through the more basic work of explaining how they work to produce smoke. 

If you have ever smoked a cigarette or plain pipe before, then you know that a hookah is a much more complex way to smoke than just setting fire to something smokable and breathing it in.

A hookah works by using the heat from lit coals, which rest on top of a bowl of tobacco mixture, called shisha, to cook the tobacco to create smoke. 

This smoke is then sucked down through the bowl and through the stem and down stem, which rests just below the water level in the vase. 

The smoke then bubbles up through the water, which filters and cools the smoke, before it is sucked from the vase, through the hose, and into your mouth and lungs from a mouthpiece. 

And that’s all there really is to it. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that — it is truly just hot air cooking tobacco to produce smoke, and then it goes on a short journey through the water before reaching your lungs. 

What Can You Smoke Out of a Hookah?

You can smoke really anything that you want out of a hookah, although by far the most common and accepted thing to smoke during a hookah session is hookah tobacco, called “shisha.”

Shisha tobacco is a special type of flavored tobacco that can only be smoked using a hookah pipe. Shisha is made of chopped tobacco leaves, glycerin, molasses or honey, and all sorts of flavoring ingredients ranging from herbs, spices, extracts, pieces of fruit, fruit juices, and many other components. 

Together, this makes a sticky, crumbly tobacco product that produces thick and rich clouds that are jam-packed with flavors. 

One of the most common flavors of shisha tobacco is mint, and you can find all sorts of flavor mixes that feature a mint component. Other common flavors include chocolate and licorice.

Fruity flavors are also very common and accepted, but you can also find some wild and crazy flavors of shisha from some of the modern shisha producers that like to push the envelope when it comes to shisha flavorings — think White Gummy Bear or even dulce de leche. 

Another of the common things you may find being smoked from a hookah is cannabis. Cannabis flower is the second most popular smokable to use with a hookah, and hookah smokers will often blend cannabis with their shisha when smoking.

Are There Different Types of Hookahs?

At this point you may be wondering if there are different types of hookahs or if they are all the same. The answer is yes, there are several different types of hookahs, varying in size, functionality, material, and cost. Here is a quick overview of a few of the more popular types you may find at a hookah lounge or hookah shop.

Traditional Style Hookahs

The most common (and oldest) type of hookah that you will find, particularly in India, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and the Middle East, is the traditional style hookah. Traditional style hookahs typically fall into either Turkish, Egyptian, or Indian styles, but Syrian style hookahs are also wonderful (though harder to get your hands on). 

What unites the traditional style hookahs is that they are all handcrafted, ornately decorated pieces that can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars from an expert craftsman. These types of hookahs are often made of fine metals and feature ornate metalworking decoration along the stem that makes them truly unique works of art.

The drawbacks of a traditional style hookah are its price and consistency. Because they are handmade and singular, they also lack the mechanical precision of a manufactured hookah, which means that they will each have their own irregularities and imperfections. They are also the most expensive type of hookah out there.

But the benefits of these traditional hookahs are an authentic, hand-crafted work of art. Traditional hookahs smoke great if they are constructed well, and can give you a high-quality smoke session while adding a beautiful masterpiece to your home.

Acrylic Style Hookahs

Another very common type of hookah is an acrylic hookah. As the name suggests, these hookah pipes are made from acrylics, which makes them lightweight, inexpensive, and highly durable.

While these may not smoke like a hand-made $2000 hookah, the quality and precision that you can get for as low as little as $35 is wildly impressive.

An acrylic hookah is a great choice for a beginner, or for your very first hookah as they are relatively inexpensive and deliver a consistent experience. 

Glass Hookah

Glass hookahs are made entirely of glass, and this can make them a very fun novelty piece to have. Because the pipe is made of glass you can see the smoke throughout the process, which can be very entertaining.

Glass hookahs are not known to smoke super well, however, and are more of a novelty than anything else. Still, they can be quite durable and a lot of fun and make a great addition to any hookah smokers’ arsenal. 

Modern Style Hookahs

And the last style of hookah that we will discuss here today are modern styled hookahs. Modern style hookahs are a broad category of hookahs that are typically machine-made hookahs that come from all over the world, from the United States to Russia and everywhere in between.

These hookahs are high quality, made using durable and strong materials like stainless steel, and often feature eye-cathing designs and stylings to make them conversation pieces.

For instance, at MOB Hookah we offer our very own AK-47 hookah pipe, with a stem designed to look and feel like an AK-47 rifle.

What Are Hookah Coals?

As we mentioned earlier, hookah is smoked by using coals as a heat source rather than lighting your tobacco or other smokables directly, which may have brought up a few questions for you, so here is a little breakdown on hookah coals and how to use them.

When you pack your bowl and place it on top of your hookah stem you will also wrap it tightly in tin foil and poke a bunch of holes in the top to let air pass through. This is where you will place your lit coals, so they are separated from the shisha tobacco in the bowl, but close enough for hot air to cook the tobacco and produce smoke. 

There are two types of hookah coals that you may find to use for your hookah – quick light coals and natural coals. 

Quick light coals are typically made of compacted coconut husks and are then coated in a chemical accelerant which allows you to light them easily with a match or lighter. The chemical accelerant helps the coals light easier, and faster, heating up for use in almost no time at all.

The downside of quick light coals is they often burn hotter and faster than natural hookah coals. This means it is easier to burn your shisha while smoking, and that you will have a shorter smoke session using quick light coals. 

You will also probably taste a bit of the chemical accelerant in the smoke, adding a slight chemical flavor to your shisha that many smokers believe ruins the flavor and quality of the smoke. 

Natural hookah coals are also typically made from compacted coconut husks but can also be made from some woods. Natural coals burn more consistently and less hot, but they are much more difficult to light.

To light natural coals, you will need a charcoal starter, or a gas stove that you can use to light your coals. You will need to leave your coals to light for several minutes, rotating occasionally to get all sides nice and hot until it turns gray throughout. Only then are they ready for your hookah. 

What Do I Need To Know About the Hookah Lounge?

Before we wrap things up, we would be remiss to leave out talking about one of the unique aspects of hookah smoking – hookah lounges

Also known as hookah bars, hookah lounges are public establishments where you can go and smoke hookah with a group of friends, much like how you would go to a bar to drink with friends.

At a hookah lounge, they provide all the equipment, and you simply pay a fee for your shisha mixture of choice and are then able to smoke and relax. Many hookah lounges serve coffee or tea, which is a traditional part of the experience in the Middle East. Many also serve all sorts of food options, with some lounges doubling as a full-sized restaurant. 

The one thing you are unlikely to find on the menu is alcohol, as it is generally against Islamic traditions in the regions where hookah originates.

Many new smokers can feel easily intimidated by the hookah lounge space. They fear being laughed at or made fun of for not knowing what they are doing. But a hookah lounge is really one of the best places for your first hookah experience.

Any good hookah bar will be staffed with hookah experts who can answer all your questions, and even give you some tips and pointers to help you on your way. If you have never been to a lounge before, it’s an ideal place to give hookah a first try. 

What Is Hookah? The Takeaways

Hopefully, now that you have reached the end of this article, you feel a little more confident in your general knowledge of hookah. 

Here are the key points to sum things up:

  • Hookah is the type of water pipe that you smoke from, consisting of a bowl atop a stem and down stem which rests in a vase of water, and you inhale through a hose attached to this base.
  • Shisha is the most common thing to smoke out of a hookah, and is a combination of tobacco, glycerin, molasses or honey, and flavorings that give hookah it’s distinct, thick, and flavorful clouds of smoke. 
  • There are several different competing origin stories of the hookah, with origins ranging from India to Ethiopia. There is probably truth to all these stories.
  • There are many different styles of hookahs and hookah coals, at the end of the day, whatever you like is the best choice for you.
  • If you have never tried out a hookah lounge, you should make plans to experience one soon and get a feel for the vibe, they’re a ton of fun.

And if you want to purchase some hookah equipment of your own, MOB Hookah has hookahs, bowls, vases, hoses, shisha, and other accessories to ensure that you get a high-quality hookah experience every single time.

And don’t forget to check back here at our blog for all-content-hookah — a few more posts and you just might become the hookah expert in your friend group!

 

Sources

The Definitive Guide to Shisha Coals | Hookah.org

The History and Meaning of Hookah | Rakija Lounge

Hookah vs Shisha: What are The Differences? | Rakija Lounge

Etymology, origin and meaning of hookah | etymonline 

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