Guide to Smoking a Hookah

Originally published on LiveJournal, 7.26.07

Buying a hookah: Don’t choose a hookah because it’s pretty. Ask the seller which hookah is the best for smoking. It’ll probably be much cheaper and more pleasurable for you than the pretty ones. It will also probably be made in China. What makes a hookah nice to smoke is good seal. My amazing hookah is only $20.

Buying molasses tobacco: You can often get small samples. Try them! Unlike with hookahs, pricier tobacco tends to be worth it. Havana and Layalina brands are both lovely. I recommend going for fruity or flowery flavors: apple and rose are good beginners. You can also mix flavors. You want the tobacco fresh, so definitely throw it out if you don’t use it for a while.

Water: This varies per hookah, but a good rule of thumb is to fill water 3/4 up to from the top. Adding a few ice cubes to the water will help thicken the smoke. You can even add a bit of vodka...

Tobacco: Fill 3/4 of the bowl with tobacco. Do not pack it; leave it nice and loose. Some brands, like Havana, have pieces of stem and things from the fruit. Sort and throw those out: they give a bitter taste when they burn. Don’t use tobacco that’s been in the bowl for a few days since your last smoke. Gross, man.

Foil: Cover with tin foil, shiny side down. (The shininess is due to chemical treatment at the factory; you’d rather not have your coal on that stuff, burning it.) You want it wrapped well around the bowl to make a good seal. You can buy ready-cut round pieces of foil at some hookah shops for pretty cheap, but they aren’t really necessary. Don’t use super-cheap super-thin foil: you might be surprised to learn that foil can burn, leading to a really nasty taste! Can’t be good for you, either. Some hookahs come with a piercing tool, but it’s always far too big. Best to use a pin or a tack to punch tiny holes in the foil. Make about 15 holes, randomly. You want some of them to be outside of the area where the coal will lie, to allow a bit of air in.

Coal: Though I prefer natural coals, they are a bitch to light. Self-lighting coals are much easier. However, they are also not very good for you! I hold the coal outside with a clamp and light it gently with a lighter, waiting about 30 seconds until all the nasty smoke dissipates. Only then do I place it on the foil. With the self-lighting coals, you want the flat part on the foil, the rounded part on top. And then wait for five minutes, even more. This gives the tobacco time to cook a bit, and will result in significantly thicker smoke. If you packed 3/4 of the bowl with tobacco, you can easily smoke three self-lighting coals in succession until the tobacco runs out.

Smoking: Inhaling, you should feel about the same amount of pressure as when drinking a milkshake. If it’s too easy or too hard, change the quantity of water. While smoking, it’s nice to exhale smoke through your nose and experience the smell. It’s especially nice with the flower tobaccos. If you experience foul-tasting smoke, stop smoking for a while until it burns through the bad area. Must be some stems or impurities in the tobacco.

Knob: Most hookahs include an air knob. While smoking you want it closed. So what is it for? It’s a good way to clean out bad-tasting smoke if you encounter it: simply open the knob, and then blow through the hose. Also, you can remove the knob and attach an extra hose for romantic double smoking.

Smoke not thick enough? Most probably it’s because you’re not getting a good seal. Make sure the foil is well wrapped, that the air knob is closed, and that the hose and other parts are snug. With some hookahs there’s no winning, which is, again, why you want a hookah that’s not just decorative. You can also buy rubber seals at hookah stores. Another problem might be that the tobacco is not cooking well, so make sure that you wait enough time before beginning to smoke. Give it even 10 minutes! It all depends on the kind of tobacco you are using. You can also try putting two coals on top, though this shouldn’t normally be necessary. In fact, too much heat can cause the foil to burn.

Cleaning: You want fresh water and a clean bowl for every time you smoke. Also, wash the hose occasionally: simply put one end under the faucet, close it with your hands, and let the water run through until it’s not brown and icky anymore. Hang to dry. You should also wash the metal parts of the hookah, and scrub them with one of those thin glass scrubby thingies. Also remove the rubber seals and wash them. After a while, you may even want to replace some of the parts. Good hookah stores will have new hoses, rubber seals and bowls.