What is hookah?

What is hookah - A complete guide
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This detailed guide provides all the information you need to know about hookah or shisha, the latest sensation among the crowd.

What is hookah – Meaning and concept

Hookah is the traditional name for a popular smoking device, essentially a water pipe. It is used for smoking various substances, of which, flavored or sweetened tobacco (also known as shisha) is most common.
Hookah, a very old device, is used across various parts of the world since centuries.

You may find hookah in plenty of designs and themes. Conceptually, it comprises of:

  • a small bowl which contains the smoking material;
  • a short chamber for formation of smoke;
  • a pipe filled with water; and
  • one or multiple hoses with mouthpiece meant to inhale the smoke.
What is hookah

Unlike other smoking devices, such as cigarettes, a hookah is suitable for long smoking sessions with several people simultaneously sharing the same hookah.

Tobacco, made specifically for hookah, is available in variety of flavors, such as orange, kiwi, pineapple, watermelon, chocolate, mint etc., which add pleasant taste and aroma to the overall smoking experience.

Due to impressive designs, ability of sharing and pleasant smoking experience (thanks to added flavors and aroma), people prefer hookah during social gatherings or occasions.

Hookah smoking is rapidly evolving as a social activity among the crowd, especially the teens and young adults, across different parts of the world.

Other names or synonyms for hookah

  • Shisha or sheesha (Persian)
  • Huqqa (Urdu)
  • Arghila (Arabic)
  • Narghila (Hebrew)
  • Qalyan (Persian)
  • Chillum
  • Jajeer, Hitboo

What is shisha?

Shisha, as a term, denotes flavored tobacco used in a hookah for smoking.

Shisha comprises of tobacco, molasses, fruits and added flavors, which provide taste and aroma, by heating shisha in a hookah using coal or charcoal.

what is shisha
Shisha or flavored tobacco

Coined from the Persian word “Shishe” which means “glass”, Shisha or sheesha is also used as a synonym for hookah in various countries across the globe. Owing to its popularity, shisha or hookah are often interchangeably used in common parlance to mean the same thing i.e. hookah.

What’s in hookah?

Hookah consists of several components assembled together to constitute a complete hookah set. These components perform together and provide their respective functionalities commencing from heating of smoking substance (shisha or flavored tobacco) and concluding at inhalation of smoke by the users.

Labeling of major components of hookah:

hookah labelled diagram
Anatomy of hookah or shisha

Components of hookah

Flavored/ sweetened tobacco (Shisha)

Tobacco is most common substance used in hookah in a flavored or sweetened form, also known as shisha. Shisha contains molasses (honey) and vegetable glycerol with syrups and artificial flavors for taste.

Major constituents of shisha:

  • Tobacco: Normally, tobacco in a dried and washed form is used in making the hookah flavor or shisha. It does not produce a foul smell upon burning, as compared to smoking raw tobacco. While consumption of tobacco is undoubtedly harmful, hookah enthusiasts often propagate consuming tobacco through hookah as a safer alternative.
  • Gylcerol: It is generally added to improve the density of smoke that is produced by burning shisha in the hookah.
  • Fruits or flavors: Shisha is available in countless flavors and their mix variants. The most popular ones include apple (double apple), grape, mint, watermelon, orange, kiwi, blueberry, strawberry, chocolate, lemon and different fruits mixtures.
hookah shisha flavors
Shisha flavors

Because of added fruits and flavors, smokers prefer shisha for its taste and aroma as compared to other alternatives (such as, cigarettes).

Bowl or Head or Tobacco burner

Bowl is one of the key component of hookah which sits at the very top of it. It is a small round shaped container usually made up of clay or ceramic material.

Also known as head or burner, hookah bowl holds the substance used for smoking through hookah. Flavored or sweetened tobacco (i.e. shisha) is filled in this bowl and then suitably sealed, usually with an aluminum foil.

hookah bowl
Hookah bowl or head

The modern hookah setups can be seen with bowls made of marble, granite, glass or other metallic materials as well.

Hookah bars or lounges even use fruits such as watermelon, orange skin or apple as a hookah bowl. The fruit is hollowed from inside while retaining a round shape so it can be used a bowl for holding shisha or molasses.

This adds natural flavors to the tobacco and enhances the overall taste and smoking experience.

Hose

Hose is a flexible tube type structure that helps in inhaling the smoke produced in hookah from a good distance. One end of this tube or hose is connected to the hookah and the other end remains fitted with a mouthpiece. The user can draw out or inhale smoke using this mouthpiece.

The hose increases the distance between point of production and inhalation as the smoke needs to travel through the hose which could be even 2 to 3 meters long.

Hookah hose
Hookah Hose

As the smoke travels through hose, it gets cooled down naturally or sometimes through cooling material added in the hose. This provides chilled or cooled down smoking experience to the user.

The hoses are available in different materials such as plastic, vinyl, rubber or even leather. The end which is connected to the hookah could be wooden, metallic or plastic.

The gauge (thickness or internal diameter) of hose is directly proportional to the thickness of smoke that is produced out of hookah. Wider the gauge, denser would be hookah smoke. However, if gauge is too large, pulling smoke through hose could get difficult.

Normally, the hoses are washable as they can be used multiple times. One can simply wash the hose from outside and inside with water along with soap or lemon to remove foul odor and dirt.

Stem (or body or shaft)

Stem or shaft is the heart or skeleton of hookah as it connects all the other components together to bring hookah in shape. Also referred as body of hookah, stem is a long metallic part which connects vase with the head. It also provides outlets for hose and valves.

hookah stem or body
Hookah stem or body

Generally, stem is made up of brass, copper or steel. Most of hookah manufacturers provide stem made up of stainless steel to prevent rusting and chemical reactions. Metallic body also makes it easier to wash and clean stem after long hookah sessions.

Stem is found in different colors, size and unique designs providing a touch of elegance and beauty to the hookah. You should not be surprised if hookah fanatics maintain personalized collection of hookah stems in their living room’s show windows.

Hookah base (or vase)

The entire body of hookah sits over a base, usually made up of glass. Also known as vase, it is filled with liquid (normally water) to a level such that the hookah down stem remains partially immersed in the water.

Hoohak base or vase
Hookah Base or vase

As the smoke passes through the body of hookah and comes out of down stem, it passes through the water kept in base. The pulling force applied by the inhaler through the hose creates a bubbling effect which instantly cools down the smoke passing through water.

The above technique is one of the key reasons why hookah is considered as a safer smoking option than other comparatives such as, vape or cigarettes.

Flavoring substances such as mint, fruits or juices are often added to the water to improve taste and feel of smoke.

Instead of water, other liquids such as milk, soda, soft drinks or even alcoholic beverages are used in the vase. Each liquid, used as a base for humidifying the smoke, adds its own distinct quality, aroma and taste to the smoke providing an altogether different experience.

For instance, alcoholic beverage may be added to multiple the intoxicating effects of smoking. At the same time, using milk instead of water is believed to produce much denser or thick smoke. Crushed ice is also used in the vase to multiply the cooling effect produced by hookah.

fruits in hookah base
Fruits used in hookah base

Vase is generally made of glass which helps in easily identifying the level of water. It is available in different colors, shapes and designs. The manufacturers of hookah and its accessories have started offering unique designs. These are so visually appealing that you may want to create your own antique collection.

Handcrafted hookah products may offer handmade designs or crafting using precious metals or stones such as silver, gold, platinum or diamonds.

Charcoal

Charcoal (or coal) serves as fuel for hookah as it provides heat energy for shisha (or flavored tobacco) that rests within the bowl.

Charcoal, made especially for hookahs, are of high density and easy to ignite with matchstick or lighter. The charcoals may need to be heated on a burner for up to 5 to minutes. Alternatively, instant ignitable charcoals (known as magic charcoals or instant charcoals or quick heat charcoals) are also used for hookah.

coconut charcoal for hookah
Coconut charcoal for hookah

Once ignited, a charcoal may provide needed heat energy to shisha or flavored tobacco for over 30 minutes. Generally, 2 to 3 small blocks of charcoal are used at once for heating one bowl of hookah.

Hookah charcoals could be made of different materials. One of the most common type is coconut charcoal which is made using coconut shell or bamboo. Coconut charcoal are preferred as safer mode of heating shisha. They produce less ash and toxic compounds, compared to Sulphur or coal dust based charcoal.

Valve (or Purge valve)

A valve can be seen in most of the hookahs and is typically a part of stem or hookah body. There is also a small ball bearing inside the valve with a small hole and a removable cover.

Hookah Valve
Hookah Valve

The key purpose of valve is to adjust air pressure within hookah to maintain desired pulling force for inhaling the smoke. If the valve is completely tightened, a much greater pulling force would be needed to draw out smoke through hose. The quantity of smoke produced inside the hookah is accordingly affected.

It also helps in removing the old or stale smoke out of hookah during smoking sessions so that the hookah is ready for fresh smoke. This is generally done by lightly blowing air through the hose so that smoke moves out through the valve.

Windscreen

Hookah windscreen is basically a cover which seals the top of hookah bowl and surrounds it in a circular pattern.

Hookah Windscreen
Hookah windscreen

The key task of windscreen is to provide protection to the bowl. It prevents the burning coal from spilling outside due to wind or bumps. It also reduces the impact of wind which delays the rate at which charcoal burns over the bowl.

Aluminum foil is the most preferred material to prepare easily disposable windscreens. Various suppliers provide pre-made windscreens with small holes which can be easily installed over the hookah bowl.

Plate

A plate or ashtray resides beneath the hookah bowl. It is primarily meant to collect ash that is formed by burning the charcoal over hookah bowl. It is also used to keep unused charcoal or filters during long hookah sessions.

Hookah Plate
Hookah Plate

Considering its purpose of collecting ash, plate is usually made up of stainless steel. However, it may be found in different colors such as copper, silver or gold.

Grommets

Grommets are used as connectors to provide airtight fitting and seal the hookah as it is assembled from different parts. They are found between bowl and stem, between stem (or body) and vase, and finally between stem and hose.

Hookah Grommet
Hookah Grommet

Grommets can be replaced by paper or other taping material as the key purpose is to help the air getting inside hookah at the major joints. If not properly sealed, smoke won’t or will produce in minimal quantity inside hookah.

How does hookah or shisha work?

The operation of hookah is based on the following mechanism:

Step 1:

The vase or base of hookah is partially filled with water and connected to stem or body of hookah with a grommet. The down stem (a part of hookah body) remains submerged (around a couple of inches) in the water kept in the base.

Step 2:

Shisha or flavored tabacco is filled in the bowl and connected to top of hookah stem or body using a grommet.

Step 3:

One or multiple hoses are connected to the hookah body ensuring that the whole setup is air tight.

Step 4:

The bowl is carefully sealed with a foil or thin metal sheet, usually aluminum or tin foil, with small holes.

Step 5:

One or a few pieces of ignited hookah charcoal are placed over the bowl which provide heat to shisha or flavored tobacco kept within. The holes in sealing cover of bowl ensure that heat passes through the foil to shisha within the bowl.

Step 6:

The smoker needs to inhale through the mouthpiece connected at the end of hose. As a result, hot air gets pulled through charcoal and enters the bowl. This heats up (without burning) the shisha or flavored tobacco.

Step 7:

Glycerol present in shisha helps in converting the air into smoke. This smoke passes through the stem and enters the water kept in the base or vase.

Step 8:

The smoke gets bubbled in the water and cools down. Then, it gets collected in empty space within the vase and rest of the hookah body.

Step 9:

The cooled down smoke, carrying vapors and aroma of flavored tobacco, passes through the hose before it is finally inhaled by the smoker.

Step 10:

The above process of inhaling is continued which keeps heating the flavored tobacco and producing more quantity of flavored and aromatic smoke.

The below video explains the technique:

The above technique is stated to be a safe approach for consuming tobacco. It makes the smoking experience more enjoyable as a group social activity. However, there are constant debates over safety and health risks associated with using hookah for smoking tobacco.

Why hookah is getting so popular?

Variety of flavors:

Using flavors (except few, such as menthol) in cigarettes is banned in most of the countries. However, flavors are usually permitted to be added along with molasses in tobacco products made specifically for hookah.

With availability of variety of flavors, hookah or shisha has gained popularity for pleasant taste and fragrance.

Socializing:

Hookah has become a social and fun activity as it enables several people to
simultaneously enjoy smoking using same hookah setup. People find it a relaxing, fun and safer alternative to smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products.

hookah social activity
Hookah – a social activity

Easy availability:

Hookah is easily available in public at hookah lounges or bars. A fully setup hookah or shisha is available in hookah bars with variety of flavors and different setups. These options do not fail to amuse the smokers for recreation and relaxing.

Hokkah easy availability

Easy and pleasant consumption of tobacco

Due to presence of flavors, molasses and aroma along with tobacco, the users find it easy and convenient to smoke hookah instead of raw tobacco or other alternatives.

History and Evolution of Hookah

The history of Hookah stretches back over 500 years and is believed to have originated in India. The credit for invention of hookah is generally attributed to Hakim Aboul Futteh Ghilani, who was the physician of Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great. However, there are different versions around invention and use of hookah during the old times.

As the use of tobacco evolved around different parts of the world and its adverse health effects were being debated, hookah emerged as a much safer way of consuming tobacco. The key reason being that hookah deploys a system where smoke passes through water. This technique is believed to purify the smoke significantly, before it is finally inhaled by the user.

Apart from the stated safety measures, hookah became popular as a social activity device. It didn’t take much time for it to emerge as symbol of social status, thanks to unique designs and crafts. Smoking hookah is also an important part of culture in several regions.

For instance, smoking hookah was a symbol of prestige in rich families of India, Bangladesh, Nepal during social gatherings. In Middle East, waterpipe or hookah is used as part of traditions and culture.

People started creating their personalized collection of hookah. This means different designs and features like precious metal base, expensive fine glass, precious stones studded on the frame and handcrafted designs.

The use of hookah quickly spread to other regions, particularly, Middle and North East, Persia, Afghanistan and Europe. The presence of hookah became imminent in the Western countries as well during late 19th and 20th century.

Latest hookah or shisha trends

The traditional hookahs, as they existed centuries ago, have undergone significant improvements. Now, the hookahs are commercially produced and made of high quality material such as aluminum or stainless steel.

Various hookah components have gone electrical, such as electric burner, which is used to heat flavored tobacco or shisha, instead of charcoals.

Hookah e-head
Hookah e-head

Even hookah bowl is available in form of a battery powered flavor kit. This e-head converts the liquid flavor into smoke using battery power.

Instead of shisha or flavored tobacco, nicotine free hookah flavors are being used. These flavors not only reduce the health related risks but provide a great taste and relaxing smoking experience.

Conclusion

It’s clear that hookah has gained immense popularity among all age groups, particular youth. The hookah bars or lounges are springing up and offer attractive hookah setups and smoking zones for the shisha lovers.

There are different versions around health concerns caused due to hookah smoking. You will find both categories of people. One, who advocate use of hookah for its safe technique of smoking. Second, who consider it even more harmful due to toxins and thick smoke inhaled by the users.

While the debate would always continue, there is no doubt that hookah smoking is injurious to health. It could however be more or less harmful than other smoking devices, such as cigarettes or cigars.

hookah with fruits
Strawberry and milk base with orange hookah bowl.

At the end, it’s more of a personal choice to smoke (just like consuming alcoholic beverages) whether through use of hookah or not. While an occasional use should be alright, excessive use of hookah may lead to addiction of smoking, especially if tobacco based shisha or flavors are used.

A careful use of hookah is must!


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