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Thai iced tea (Cha-Yen) has a gravitational pull towards millennials. Maybe it's due to its iconic orange or the Snapchat-famous swirl of blending the milk and black tea. Whatever the reason, everyone can agree it is an enticing flavor of caramel yet herbal ambrosial sweetness that is perfect to be enjoyed year-round.The beverage can be served hot or cold and with coffee rather than tea, as well. It is also a staple tea in almost every boba shop, which made its way into the absorbing melting pot of several cultures.
The iconic look of Thai iced tea is made with whole milk and ceylon tea or assam tea, which are both types of strong black teas derived from Southeast Asia. Thai iced tea, authentically, is served with pre-sweetened tea and whole milk over ice. Other spices or food coloring can be added to create that vivid orange color. According to Tawan Tsai, a former employee of Amor Cafe and Tea in San Jose, the more traditional method of brewing Thai tea can take between four and eight hours of mixing, boiling, straining, and dispersing. In Thailand, Thai iced tea is commonly found in small coffee shops or street vendors that serve it in either a tall glass or a tied plastic bag with a straw.
Thai iced tea may not be as traditional as it seems; most San Francisco boba shops have adapted a more Western style with added tapioca pearls and selection of sugar and ice levels. A more popular choice of condensed milk is used to make the drink sweeter. Traditional Thai tea can be quite herbal with the black tea being the majority of the flavor with the added sweetness of sugar or milk. To adapt further into the Westerners’ hearts, the orange can be made even brighter by food coloring and shortcuts can be taken by using a powdered mix.
“People are missing out on the herbal taste...the mix has too much of a powdery taste to it,” Tsai claims.
Most shops, including popular i-Tea, give customers the opportunity to customize and effectively change the flavor of what a traditional Thai tea might taste like. While the store has the tea premixed and can take four to eight hours to brew like a traditional beverage, its full iconic orange form can be served with the choice of tapioca pearls or “boba.”
Sure, this blended milk and black tea can be perceived as less authentic, but it continues to be served this way in most Americanized boba shops. Wondertea is another popular shop that utilizes premixed formulas, but Mountain View’s Teaspoon leaves the colors of black tea and milk separated; perfect for that social media story of blending both liquids together. Despite their fundamental differences, both shops’ take on the Southeastern Asia treat is delightful and definitely worth trying.
“I like it for the Boomerang when I mix it,” says Francis Polohanan, a customer at Teaspoon.Unlike shops, many sit-down restaurants present customers with the opportunity to swirl around the drink themselves, which is the case at Marnee Thai. As a consumer, there is a sense of care put into this drink compared to a boba shop; simply due to its objective of complementing the drink with a variety of traditional Thai food.
Thai iced teas are a classic drink that have staying power beyond trends like 2017’s Unicorn Frappuccino. Served both authentically and with Americanized touches, this tea can weather competition because it has the unique flavor and customization to back it up. And while San Francisco may seem to be the heart of this golden, refreshing bev, do not be surprised to see it served at your local cafe as the year progresses.
Header image courtesy of Jony Ariadi on Unsplash.
Hello! My name is Britney currently living in San Francisco. I am an avid foodie, hiker and traveller. I write about foods, the inspirations behind them, and discovering the next pit stop to eat. I also enjoy photography and painting in my free time. Some of my favorite things are art galleries, lemonade, and dogs.