Skip to main content

New to hookah? Here's how to do it

It’s a Wednesday night, and my friend Sara and I are chilling out in Cedars’ hookah lounge in Camp Hill.

We’ve just finished a truly fabulous meal at Cedars Lebanese restaurant — and, if you go, you should definitely order the baba ghanouj and the fasolya areeda — and we’re continuing our conversation in the lounge next door. Except now, instead of eggplant and lemony lima beans on the table between us, there is a large water pipe burning apple-flavored tobacco.

“We only have one coal, the tobacco doesn’t burn as fast,” says Sara. “With two coals, it can burn too fast. I think that makes the smoke feels harsh.”

I’m glad Sara knows what she’s doing, because I’m brand new to hookah-ing.

“Some hookahs have more than one hose,” she explains. “Sometimes, that can allow too much air in. Again, the smoke can taste harsh.” I’m sure some smoking aficionados prefer two coals and more than one hose into the hookah, but I’m glad Sara is going mild, not wild. I haven’t had a cigarette in over 20 years. And even back when I did smoke, the extent of my inhaling was limited to bumming a Camel light or two to be social after dinner.

Which is, in a way, part of the “how to” of smoking a hookah. Relaxing together. Conversation. Being social.

For the first 25 years of her life, my friend Sara lived in Iran. She says that for her and her friends, smoking hookah was about hanging out, talking, community.

“It was something people did after a special meal together or after a day of hiking,” says Sara. “The hookah lounges there were mostly outdoors, with large, low sofas, almost like beds. You’d have small plates of food to eat and drinks, as well.”

Sounds like a party. A very laid-back party.

How to hookah

Without getting too technical about terminology, a hookah looks, generally, like a vase with a candlestick on top. On the top of the “candlestick” is a bowl where moist tobacco, called shisha, is burned by placing one, two or more hot charcoals on a screen on top of the tobacco.

The vase/base part of the hookah contains water, although other liquids, such as fruit juices, can also be used, as well as flavor additives or ice. One or more long hoses attach to the vase/base.

To draw smoke from the hookah, inhale through the mouthpiece on the end of the hose. The tobacco smoke is drawn down through the bowl and into the water — cooling the smoke and making the water hubble and bubble — and then up through the hose. If more than one person is sharing a hookah, each person is given their own disposable mouthpiece to place in the end of the hookah hose.

Or, at least, you should be given your own disposable mouthpiece. Unless you want to share more than just a smoking experience.

Most hookah lounges will offer a menu of tobacco flavors to choose from, and flavors can be fruity, minty, spicy or combinations. The cost to hookah will vary by establishment, with your final tab based on things like the size of hookah, brand or combination of tobacco and number of refills. Some hookah lounges may also charge a per-person cover fee, whether or not you’re there to smoke with your friends.

And, of course, you need to be at least 18 years old to smoke.

How I hookah-ed

A quick Google will tell you that hookah lounges have become popular in the United State over the past two decades, catering mostly to young adults. Hookah lounges weren’t on my personal radar until last fall, when I stumbled upon a lounge and coffee shop in a small strip mall. The shop wasn’t open at the time, but peering through the front windows, I was intrigued by décor that looked right out of a Marrakesh fantasy. I took note.

Since then, I’ve noticed more lounges in my local travels, a new lounge opening recently along my daily commute route. My curiously was piqued.

Donna Campbell, owner of Xhale Hookah in York, says she smoked hookah for the first time only a year ago, but enjoyed it so much that she opened her own store.

“I was retiring from my job as an accountant and my youngest daughter was heading off to college,” says Campbelll. “I was ready for something different.” 

Campbell says Xhale Hookah is a place where “everyone knows everyone and everyone mixes — Middle Eastern, American, Asian. Everyone comes in. I love it.”

For those new to hookah, Campbell suggests starting with an herbal or a milder flavor with less nicotine. She also suggests eating a meal before smoking and to be sure to stay hydrated. “You know when you feel bad and need to stop,” says Campbell. For those who don’t want to smoke tobacco, Xhale will soon be offering vape-style hookahs with electronic bowls.

In the lounge at Cedars (and the lounge is in a room with its own outside entrance, well-separated from the restaurant so smoke and food do no mix), Sara and I were the only two hookah customers. The furnishings looked more “hip aunt’s living room,” less “Scheherazade’s bedroom,” but the overall ambiance felt relaxed and stylish.

The only music came from a large screen TV playing what looked like Lebanese MTV, but the volume was comfortable, and Sara and I could continue our girls’-night-out chitchat. (Some hookah lounges have more of a dance club atmosphere while others are more sedate. “You do you” and choose how you want to hookah.) As we talked for over the next two hours, we each took turns taking draws from the pipe, slow and leisurely, if a bit conservatively. I’ll admit, we did more talking than hookah-ing.

“With just the two of us smoking, I’m feeling a bit light-headed,” said Sara. After one or two draws, I was feeling the same. The smoke was light-tasting with a hint of apple. But the depth of inhaling I had to do to get the smoke through the water and into the hose meant I was taking in far more than if I were smoking a cigarette. Sara explained that when she and friends smoked hookah in Iran, more people were sharing one hookah, so one person didn’t smoke as much during the session.

Would I hookah again? Maybe. I’m a bit more cautious in general these days when it comes to how I spend my nights out — I can’t drink alcohol, smoke and eat a lot of food without feeling ill effects the next day. I tend toward choosing pigging out as my vice du jour, knowing I can work off lima beans at the gym.

But I think I have a better understanding of hookah smoking culture, both traditional and among younger crowds. It’s a way to hang out with friends. It’s communal and it’s chill. And, as long as the music isn’t too loud, it’s about conversation.

Local Hookah Lounges

Hero Hookah Lounge
25 Gateway Drive off Carlisle Pike, Mechanicsburg

Open two years, owner Amir Houry of Mechanicsburg says Hero’s seating start filling after 8 p.m. “People are done work and they come here to relax,” said Houry. With modern, comfortable décor and a nod to Alice’s hookah-smoking caterpillar, Hero is a hip hangout for young adults.

Xhale Hookah Lounge
2580 Eastern Blvd, East York Facebook
From their website: “Xhale Hookah lounge is a relaxing place for people 18 and over to go and enjoy Music, Coffee, Desserts, and of course a fantastic variety of both Tobacco and Non-Tobacco Hookah. We have 4 big screen TV's with music, sports or game shows on for you to enjoy. There is free WiFi, as well as USB charging ports near most of the seating areas.” Hookah menu offers both premium tobacco and no-nicotine options.

Arabian Knight
52 N Queen St #5a, Lancaster Facebook
Offering “socializing in a unique Arabian experience,” the hookah lounge’s curtained rooms and patterned rugs are a continent away from Central PA. Online menu lists prices for single through quad-hose hookahs. In-store shop offers a selection of hookahs, tobaccos and vape accessories.

Cedars Hookah Lounge
2153 Market Street in Camp Hill
Next door to Cedars Lebanese restaurant, the smoking lounge is open during weeknight restaurant hours, and Friday and Saturdays until 2:00 a.m. With the restaurant’s customers in mind, the hookah lounge is sedate and sophisticated, a perfect venue for continuing after-dinner conversations.