If you’re a fan of Thai food, it’s more than likely you are acquainted with Thai iced tea. It has become quite popular in the U.S. and other western cultures, often because we’re not as accustomed to the spicy nature of Thai food, and a nice cool, creamy Thai iced tea is just the ticket to curb the burn.
Certainly, that’s not the reason Thai iced tea came into popularity originally in its homeland. What we have here in the U.S. is a culinary hybrid that has morphed from the more traditional street fair Thai iced tea found in Thailand. Let’s take a quick look at the origins of this beverage before diving into a couple of different ways to prepare it.
Tea in Thailand
As far as tea history goes, Thailand was slow in adopting the beverage. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Chinese brought tea to Thailand as an alternative cash crop to opium to help diminish drug trafficking. Credit for the invention of this drink is given to Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, a former Thai leader and prime minister with a penchant for western culture. Given the nature of the drink, he may have also had a sweet tooth!
The original version in Thailand was very simple. Known as cha yen, this version of Thai iced tea consists of strong black tea, condensed milk and ice. That’s it. While additional spices like star anise and orange blossom water were sometimes added to this Thai street fair, it was mostly just served without anything but tea, milk and ice. When buying it from a street vendor, it isn’t unusual to have it handed to you in a plastic bag with a straw.
Thai Iced Tea Travels West
When Thai iced tea hit the states, it got a bit of a makeover. The orange-hued version you often see here is due to the addition of food coloring that you find in pre-made mixes like Number One Brand. The discerning reader will note this mix has been imported from Thailand. Interesting, right? That’s because in an unexpected plot twist, Thailand has subsequently adopted the westernized version of Thai iced tea, and they drink it that way now, too.
For those of you who would rather create your Thai iced tea from scratch without food coloring, it’s easy to do. You won’t have the orange color, but you’ll have all the flavor and maybe then some! (And if you want to check out the more commercial, orange version, read on to the end for instructions on how to do that.)
Thai Iced Tea (Cha Yen)
- 2 T loose-leaf black tea (traditionally a strong black tea like Ceylon, Assam or Keemun are used)
- 1 pod star anise
- 2 pods cardamom
- ½ cinnamon stick (optional)
- ⅛ vanilla bean (optional)
- Tamarind powder to taste (optional)
- ¼ t almond extract (optional)
- 1 C boiling water
- 1 T sugar
- 1 T sweetened condensed milk
- 2 t evaporated milk, or coconut milk, or whole milk
- Steep the tea, star anise, cardamom, cinnamon stick, vanilla bean, tamarind powder and almond extract (if using) in the boiling water for 5 minutes.
- Strain the tea.
- Stir in the sugar and sweetened condensed milk until both are completely dissolved.
- Fill 2 tall glasses with ice.
- Pour the tea over the ice, leaving space for the evaporated milk.
- Drizzle with 1 teaspoon of evaporated milk in each glass of tea
As we said earlier, you can sub in your preferred type of milk and adjust the sweetness levels to your personal taste. And you can obviously spice it up or dial the spice level back. It’s all up to you. Want to throw in some tapioca pearls and make a bubble tea version? Why not? (But don’t forget the straws!)
Another version of this wonderful beverage is cha manao Thai iced tea – it swaps out the sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk in favor of lime juice instead. You can also add either mint or jasmine essence to cha manao, which is obviously a very different and much lighter experience without the milk products. And while there may seem to be many similarities between Thai iced tea, iced Chai tea with milk and plain ol’ milk tea, it’s the sweetness and spicing that make it unique.
Another great option is to use Butterfly Pea Flower tea as the base of your Thai tea recipe. A tea that hails from Thailand, the beautiful blue color instantly adds an aesthetic element to your beverage while its Ayurvedic properties add health benefits. Tip: if you add a little lemon juice, the blue color of this tea turns a lovely purple.
Finally, as promised: If you want to use the pre-made mix for the orange Thai iced tea, all you do is:
- Brew the pre-made mix just like you would brew tea. Then pour it over ice.
- Add sugar. This is a sweet drink, folks, so add as much or as little sugar or sweetener as you prefer.
- Add milk to achieve the creamy texture and to turn the drink orange. Traditionally, sweetened condensed milk is used, but you can use whatever dairy or dairy alternative floats your Thai iced tea boat. Keep in mind, however, the type of milk you decide to use when it comes to sweetening the tea. If you go with something other than sweetened condensed milk, you may need to add more sugar if you want the classic sweetness of this tea.
Whichever way you prefer to make yours -- orange or original, super sweet and spicy or not quite so much -- we hope you’ll decide to give this special iced tea a Thai!