Of ancient Persian and Indian origin, a hookah pipe  is also known as a shisha or more commonly, a water pipe. It’s a rather large apparatus consisting of a bowl at the bottom and a stem rising up above the bowl.

Hoses protrude from the stem. There may be one hose or several. The top of the device, called the head, holds the smoking substance and heating chamber.

Hookah pipes can be used by one person or many; in fact, smoking a water pipe is  often a highly social group activity with several people sharing the substance, usually tobacco, in the hookah head. Hookah tobacco is always flavored in some way.

The word hookah comes from the Arabic haqqa meaning pot or jar.

Some hookah models feature a windscreen, which protects the coal from burning too quickly, prolonging the smoking time and conserving hookah tobacco.

How the Hookah Works

Hookahs are powered by small pieces of special hookah coal. The coal, held with tongs, is lit and allowed to mellow, becoming covered with a fine gray ash before use. Then, the ashy coal is inserted into the coal plate, causing the tobacco above it in the hookah head to burn and produce smoke.

As users puff on the hose, heat is transferred to the tobacco. The resulting smoke and heat is then directed down the “down” stem and into the water bowl. As the cooled smoke rises above the water, it’s then drawn into the hose port and from there, inhaled by the smoker through the hose mouthpiece.

Unlike smoking a cigarette, regular pipe or cigar, hookah smoke isn’t hot because it passes through water first.  Hookahs were originally designed to purify the smoke by passing it through water.

Although hookahs are used mainly to smoke flavored tobacco, it is possible to use them for other substances, such as opium, hashish and cannabis.

Advantages of the Hookah

Hookahs produce a smoother smoking experience than dry pipes because the water acts as a filtering agent, capturing more of the particulate matter in the smoke. Particulates are very small units of matter that may lodge in and irritate the lungs. The water in the bowl should be changed after each smoking session.

Unlike cigarettes, cigars and dry pipes, hookahs produce little to no odor.

Flavored Hookah Tobacco

Hookah tobacco was originally in flaked form, similar to modern dry pipe tobacco. It was not flavored until rather recently when Arabs began soaking tobacco in honey. This produced a longer-lasting, sweet smoke.

Improvements to this invention soon followed. Modern hookah tobacco comes in a vast array of flavors.  The product itself is in the form of small, brightly colored chunks resembling small pebbles and ready to be loaded into the hookah pipe tobacco chamber.  

Both honey and molasses are common flavors, although there are many others, from blueberry mint to banana custard to grape to apricot orange.

Types of Hookah Tobacco

Hookah tobacco comes in two basic forms known as blonde leaf and dark leaf. The dark variety tends to have a stronger flavor and higher nicotine content. The blonde leaf typically has a milder flavor and lower nicotine content.

Not all hookah tobacco contains nicotine, though. Just as with vaping juice, it’s possible to purchase nicotine-free hookah tobacco.  

The Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar

Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel, Alice in Wonderland, makes a reference to a blue hookah-smoking caterpillar.  While historians and modern readers of the 1865 novel may well wonder what Carroll himself was smoking at the time, there is no historical proof that Carroll was a drug user or an advocate of such.

He simply had a vivid imagination and also suffered from migraines. Some migraines include a phase called an aura where hallucinations can occur, and Carroll may have drawn his book ideas from those.

One hundred years later, in 1965, Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane again made the reference to a hookah-smoking caterpillar in her song White Rabbit. However, this time, the song’s lyrics are definitely talking about hallucinogenic drug use, with blatant references to magic mushrooms and psychedelic pills.

The potent hallucinogenic LSD was not federally banned until 1968.  At the time of the release of White Rabbit, the drug was perfectly legal to buy, make, possess, sell and use in many states. 

The edgy song ends with a strong suggestion to “feed your head.”  Rather than referring to some kind of psychedelic trip, the phrase most likely means to educate yourself and not be ignorant.


Although hookah pipes are very old, flavored hookah tobacco is relatively new. Hookah pipes are available for purchase in smoke shops, head shops and online. Stores carrying hookahs likely carry the flavored tobacco as well, but you may find a wider flavor selection online.