Thai tea (also known as Thai iced tea) or “cha-yen” (Thai language: ชาเย็น, lit. “cold tea”) in Thailand, is a drink made from strongly-brewed ceylon tea. However, due to Ceylon tea’s high price, plain black tea with added food colouring is commonly used. Other ingredients may include added orange blossom water, star anise, crushed tamarind seed or red and yellow food colouring, and sometimes other spices as well. This tea is sweetened with sugar and condensed milk and served chilled. Evaporated milk, coconut milk or whole milk is generally poured over the tea and ice before serving to add taste and creamy appearance.
However, in Thailand, condensed milk and sugar are mixed with the tea before it is poured over ice and then topped with evaporated milk. In Thai restaurants worldwide, it is served in a tall glass, though when sold from street and market stalls in Thailand it is more typically poured over the crushed ice in a clear (or translucent) plastic bag or tall plastic cups. At markets, it can be seen to be mixed through pouring the tea at heights of about 4 feet back and forth. It can also be made into a frappé at more westernised vendors.
It is popular in Southeast Asia and in many restaurants that serve Thai food. Although Thai tea is not the same as bubble tea, a Southeast and East Asian beverage that contains large tapioca pearls, Thai tea with tapioca pearls is a popular flavour of bubble tea.
As refrigeration and condensed milk are only recent phenomena, it may be thought that tea has only been drank in Thailand in the last 100 years or so. This is not the case.
In fact, Northern Thailand produces some of the finest loose leaf teas available, and which challenge the more commonly known producers of camellia sinensis such as China, Japan and Taiwan. It has been cultivated and harvested for many, many years. Their varietal produces some of the finest Oolong style teas, prized by a great many tea drinkers.
The uptake of the described ‘Thai Tea’ (as above) has been a well utilised marketing tool by others outside Thailand to make the particular beverage appear ‘exotic’, and therefore increase its appeal, while ignoring the far more educated tastes of the teas from the small tea farms that are found in Lanna, the original name for Northern Thailand. In fact, the tea used in ‘Thai Tea’, is of far inferior quality as that produced in Northern Thailand, and comes from the camellia assamica varietal, which originates in the Indian sub-continent.
The name ‘Thai tea’ has therefore become synonymous with a chilled drink, containing mostly an extract of tea, with sugar and condensed milk added, as a soft drink. Thailand produces some wonderful natural teas, from Red, Green and Oolong, to Herbal Teas. Each has its own distinct flavour, aroma and colour. None of them require additional colours or scents, they are all natural.
As natural teas, they do not require sweeteners or milk to achieve their flavour, (or increase calories).
Variations of Thai Iced Tea
- Dark Thai iced tea (Thai: ชาดำเย็น, cha-dam-yen) Thai tea served chilled with no milk content, sweetened with sugar only. The concept is based on traditional Indian tea which is used as main ingredient.
- Lime Thai tea (Thai: ชามะนาว, cha-ma-now) Similar to Dark Thai iced tea, but flavoured with lime as well as sweetened with sugar. Mint may also be added.
- Thai Coconut Iced Tea
Usually, Thai people drink Thai hot tea in the morning, frequently with You Zha Gui (Chinese: 油炸鬼) or Pa-tong-ko as it is called by most Thais.
- Thai hot tea (Thai: ชาร้อน, cha-ron) Thai tea served hot.
- Dark Thai hot tea (Thai: ชาดำร้อน, cha-dam-ron) Thai tea served hot with no milk content, sweetened with sugar only.