How to make Thai tea?
The black tea typically used for Thai iced tea is Ceylon tea, or more often a version of Assam tea known as bai miang (ใบเมี่ยง) due to the high price of Ceylon tea in Thailand. Other spices and flavoring are often added to the tea such as orange blossom water, star anise, tamarind and more importantly red and yellow food coloring, which is really what gives this tea its particular orange color.
Although sweetened condensed milk is often used in Thailand, you can choose evaporated milk, half and half, coconut milk and even whole milk. However, the tea is always sweetened with sugar and served chilled.
In restaurants, it is served in a tall glass. In coffee shops, it is served in plastic cups. But when it is sold in street stalls in Thailand, it is often poured over crushed ice in a plastic bag.
Thai iced tea is not the same as boba tea (aka bubble tea or ชาไข่มุก in Thai), the famous Southeast Asian beverage prepared with tapioca pearls. However, Thai tea is a popular flavor offered by bubble tea shops. This version is called Thai pearl milk tea (cha nom khimuk or ชานมไข่มุก) and this is the one I decided to prepare today.
There are several variants of Thai tea besides cha nom khimuk. Cha nom yen (literally “tea milk cold”) is the standard Thai iced tea with milk. Cha dam yen is the version without milk (literally “tea black cold”). There is also another version called cha manao (literally “tea lime”) which consists of iced tea with sugar and lime juice.
The advent of what is known today as Thai tea is somewhat unclear. What is clear is that it could not predate condensed milk (often preferred in original version as easier to store milk in canned version) or crushed ice. It is highly likely that Thai tea has its roots in Europe or America, rather than China, and was probably introduced during the time of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the same Prime Minister of Thailand, who favored Western habits, and asked Thai people to start using forks and spoons instead of their hands, as we discussed in our pad Thai recipe.
Why is Thai tea orange?
There are a couple stories and explanations to the unique orange color of Thai tea.
Tea drinking was introduced to Thailand during the reigns of King Rama IV and King Rama V in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The British and other foreigners who resided in Thailand at that time also brought their own tea with them.
After the tea was brewed and served to the master, the domestic workers used to brew the same tea leaves again instead of discarding it. As the flavor and color of the tea would fade, they decided to add orange food coloring and/or flavoring including tamarind to help make the tea more appealing.
Another theory is that restaurants started adding food coloring to help differentiate between Thai iced coffee and Thai iced tea, as both of these milky beverages featured the same beige appearance.
There is a variety of similar beverages throughout Southeast Asia.
Teh tarik (literally “pulled tea”) is a hot milk tea beverage which can be commonly found in restaurants, street stalls as well as kopitiams (coffee shops) in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Singapore. This drink, which is often considered as Malaysia’s national drink, is also prepared with black tea, condensed milk or evaporated milk.
Hong Kong also has its milk tea (Chinese: 奶茶) version which is now an integral part of lunch.
In Vietnam, iced coffee (also known as cà phê đá or cafe da) is also a very popular beverage.
History of tea
Today, tea is by far the second most consumed beverage in the world after water. The birth of tea is as much myth as verified facts.
According to an ancient Chinese legend, the story of tea started in 2737 B.C. when Chinese Emperor Shen Nong accidentally discovered tea. The story goes that a leaf from an overhanging wild tea tree drifted into his pot, as he was boiling water. As the Emperor enjoyed drinking this newly discovered infused water with its highly unusual and delicious flavor, he felt compelled to further the research on the plant and eventually found tea to have medicinal properties.
Japanese history, on the other hand, attributes the discovery of tea to Prince Bodhi-Dharma (Daruma), a Buddhist monk who lived in the 5th and 6th century AD. As he was traveling to Southern China, he vowed to meditate for nine years without sleep. However, he did fall asleep at some point, and was so distraught that he cut off his eyelids. It is said that a tea plant sprung up from where his eyelids hit the ground to sanctify his sacrifice, and thereafter tea would provide a stimulant to help keep students awake during meditation.
But it is not until the Ming Dynasty (fourteenth to seventeenth century) that tea started to be prepared by steeping leaves in water.
What are the varieties of tea?
There are three overarching varieties of tea: China, Assam and Indo-China, and then 3,000 hybrid varieties of tea, each of them coming with their own specific characteristics.
There are five types of Assam, the light-leaved, the dark-leaved, the Manipuri, the Burma and the Lushai. The Indo-China variety is sometimes referred to as the Cambodian or Southern form.
Tea is harvested and processed into any of the four types of tea, which are black, green, oolong, and white. Experienced pickers can harvest around 60 lb of tea by hand per day.
Black tea is withered, fully oxidized and dried. Black teas, including English Breakfast and Darjeeling, yield a hearty, amber-colored brew.
Green tea does not include any oxidizing step. It is simply withered, then dried. Its taste is more delicate and its color is pale green and golden.
Oolong tea, which is popular in China, is withered, partially oxidized, and then dried. Oolong sits between black and green tea in terms of color and taste.
It is not the first time we are talking about tea on 196 flavors, although last time, we featured the recipe of a very unusual and fragrant Burmese salad with fermented tea leaves.
Although you can definitely make Thai iced tea by using strongly brewed black tea, and adding some spices and food coloring, I strongly suggest you buy a Thai tea mix that you should be able to find in any Asian or ideally Thai market.
What is boba tea?
I also decided to add boba to my Thai iced tea to make a pearl milk tea or boba milk tea.
Boba tea is actually a Taiwanese tea-based drink that was invented in Taichung City, the third largest city in Taiwan, in the 1980s. Most sources attribute the origin of boba tea to Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taichung, which eventually launched multiple chains throughout the country. Boba teas can be fruit-flavored or mixed with milk.
Tapioca pearls can be purchased white (unflavored) or brown. When using the white pearls, you can add flavorings and colorings to make your own. Most traditionally, brown pearls are used to make boba tea. Those brown pearls are prepared with tapioca starch, sugar and caramel flavoring. They become black after cooking them.
It is easy and affordable to make boba tea at home. The only thing to consider is that you cannot keep the cooked boba too long as it loses its chewiness and turns solid after a few hours.
The kids absolutely loved this orange hued Thai iced tea, and they have been asking for more boba drinks ever since my first attempt.
As a side note and to finish this post, the word boba in Chinese (波霸) is a combination of the word for bubble and the one for big, but when put together stands for “big breasts” in slang…
- 4 tablespoons Thai black tea
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 10 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup quick brown boba pearls (optional)
- Ice or crushed ice
Bring a pot of water to boil.
Off the heat, add Thai black tea and sugar to the water, and steep for at least 10 minutes.
Strain the tea with the tea sock or a strainer over a bowl or pitcher.
Place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of cooked boba pearls (see recipe below) at bottom of tall glass (optional).
Add crushed ice then pour cold infused black Thai tea.
Then add 2 teaspoons of evaporated milk.
Add a large straw and enjoy!
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add boba pearls and cook on high heat for 5 minutes.
Turn off the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes.
Drain and rinse with cold water.