June is National Tea Month, time for an article on a type of iced tea not yet as broadly served in the U.S. as we think it should be. The easy recipe follows.
For those who already know and love Thai iced tea or coffee but not the overload of sugar, we have a solution below. But first, some history about the drinks.
WHAT IS THAI ICED TEA?
Thai iced tea, known as cha-yen in Thailand (cha is the word for tea), is served in Thailand, Vietnam, elsewhere around the Pacific Rim and in Thai restaurants around the world. It is made from strong-brewed black tea—typically Ceylon tea—and sweetened condensed milk, which adds creaminess, body and mouthfeel.
For visual appeal, the deep amber tea and white sweetened condensed milk (and often, evaporated milk) are swirled together or layered. The drink can be topped off evaporated milk, coconut milk, half and half or whole milk. It is sweetened with lots of sugar (local to the the South Pacific), and often served over crushed ice.
The brewed tea can be enhanced with spices, such as cardamom, clove, nutmeg, orange blossom water, star anise and tamarind. If you like chai tea with milk and sweetener, you are likely to enjoy Thai iced tea.
The countries where it’s most popular are known for hot, steamy summers. Thai iced tea is a welcome refreshment—and a complement to spicy food. If your neck of the woods is as hot and steamy as ours is, it’s time to try the recipe.
THE HISTORY OF THAI ICED TEA
In hot countries before refrigeration, where fresh milk was hard to come by, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk were used in coffee, desserts and other recipes requiring milk (including Key lime pie).
The precise birth date of what is now known today as Thai tea is uncertain. Americans and Europeans living in Asia brought evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk—first available in 1856—for their tea and coffee [source].
One source suggests that “It was probably introduced during the time of Field Marshall Pibul Songkram [1938 to 1944] who seemed to favour Western habits as being civilized” [source]—hence the ice and milk in tea, previously only a hot drink.
Tea is a relatively new crop in Thailand, brought in by the Chinese in the 1880s to supplant opium as a cash crop to [hopefully] curb drug trafficking. The tea became a street food staple [source]. The British and other foreigners in Thailand had their own supply of tea.
Why is the tea often very orange in color? After the tea was brewed for the master, the domestic workers took used leaves that would have been discarded, to brew tea for themselves. The flavor and color of this second infusion were faded, so orange color and flavoring were added to make a more appealing brew.
The tradition of orange color became a tradition of Thai brewed tea [source]. (See photo #4, below.)
Thai iced coffee followed much later, in the postwar 20th century.