The Way of Tea – Part 4: Just a Splash – Tea in Thailand
Cha Yen – Thai Tea
Milk teas have become increasingly popular around the world, including mass-produced milk tea powders, boba tea [or bubble tea], and blended ice tea drinks. Milk teas are made of a blend of tea; milk, cream, or a plant-based milk beverage; along with spices, flavorings, and sweeteners. A popular choice in the USA, and my favorite, is Thai Tea.
Thai tea or Cha Yen [ชาเย็น English: cold tea] is served over crushed ice. Strongly brewed black tea often Ceylon tea or a local Assam, Bai Miang [ใบเมี่ยง]. Other flavorings are blended into the tea including orange blossom water, star anise, ground tamarind, cinnamon, cardamon, and vanilla. Thai tea is steeped for at least 30 minutes and use heaping teaspoons to make sure your tea is strong enough to maintain its flavor with the added ice and milk. It is known for its bright orange color which comes from food coloring. Many tea blends come with the dye already in the mix. Look down the tea Thai in your local Asian grocer and explore the many pre-blended and affordable oliangs [English: concentrates]. Also, check out their spice and extract aisles for imaginative flavors to add to your teas.
Sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk, half and half, or coconut milk is poured over the tea and crushed ice before serving to create Thai tea's velvety texture. It is usually served in a highboy glass in restaurants. However, on the street in Thailand, it is poured over the crushed ice in a plastic bag or tall plastic cups and served with a straw.
Although tea has been drunk in Thailand for hundreds of years, however, Thai tea is a recent invention. Tea drinking started to become popular during the reigns of King Rama IV and King Rama V in the beginning of the nineteenth century (1804-1854). Through trade, tea was brought to Thailand from China. Chinese immigrants settled near Thai trading ports, becoming integrated into Thai society and bringing the tea tradition with them. Chinese immigrants had been coming to Thailand since the 1600s. However, tea did not become fully integrated into Thai culture until the 20th century.
Thai tea as we know it, iced and with milk is thought have been borrowed from the West relatively recently during the rule of Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram, known as Pilbun in the West. Philbun served as the Prime Minister of Thailand from 1938 to 1944 and then 1948 to 1957. Interestingly, Phibun himself was the grandson of a Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrant. Phibun himself favored Western habits and is credited with popularizing the street food pad thai [Thai stir fry], proving that what what many of us North Americans consider "Authentic" Thai cuisine has a lot of very recent innovations. (Also, Pad Thai with chili garlic sauce and Thai tea...Yum!)
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for 50 years from June 9, 1946 to October 13, 2016, sought to rid Thailand of opium and made the trade illegal in the 1980s. However, he was aware enough to recognize that depriving the people of income without providing them with a viable alternative of income would be detrimental to both the Thai economy and the people. Due to the altitude and climate of Thailand, tea plantations became a perfect fit. Tea cultivars were imported from Taiwan into Thailand, including the No.12 Taiwan Oolong cultivar, the No.17 Taiwan Oolong cultivar, and Dong Fang Mei Ran [Oriental Beauty].
Thai Iced Tea
¾ cup Thai black tea blend
8 cups water
1 ½ cups sugar
14 oz. evaporated milk (or coconut milk)
¼ teaspoon jasmine flavor essence (or vanilla)
Bring four cups of water to rolling boil in a kettle. Pour over Thai black tea blend in tea pot. Let tea steep for 30 minutes. While the tea is steeping, pour milk into pot and bring to low simmer. Stir sugar and jasmine (or vanilla) into milk and simmer for five to ten minutes, stirring intermittently. Once it has cooled, pour it into a jar or small pitcher and refrigerate. Once the tea has steeped, strain it with a tea strainer into a pitcher. To serve, fill a highball glass (or mason jar as shown in the picture) with crushed ice and pour Thai tea over. Then top off the glass with just a splash of jasmine-flavored, sweetened milk.
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.