The world of milk tea (03/07)

What is milk tea? To begin, hundreds of years ago, it was the British custom of drinking tea with milk economically. The long journey from the Orient made tea prohibitively expensive. Milk, on the other hand, was cheap and became the condiment of choice among the lower classes. The amount of milk added became a telltale sign of one’s social standing. The wealthy took their tea undiluted. The middle class poured the expensive tea and then diluted it with milk. The lower class filled the cup with cheap milk and then added a splash of the costly tea.

Bubble Tea Pearl

Bubble Tea Pearl

Today, many cultures have developed their own blend of milk tea. Our recent venture into Asia has provided us opportunites to try out a few styles –

Hong Kong milk tea: Milk tea from Hong Kong stems its roots from its British colonial days. It consists of black tea sweetened with evaporated milk, and is part of the after tea ritual in this city that doesn’t sleep.

The tea based for Hong Kong milk tea is basically a blend of chopped Ceylon tea for strength and large leaf for flavour. Gradually cafe beverage makers experimented with different blends, so often pu-erh, a Chinese red tea and Assam is included. For most of us, English Breakfast would be a good start to making a good cup of Hong Kong milk tea.

Hong Kong milk tea is quite thick but smooth as the tea has been brewed to black and then evaporated milk is added. Served in a wide mouth thick wall cup, sugar is optional but the iced version, which is equally popular to the hot version is usually served sweetened.

Singaporan milk tea: Singaporan milk tea is very similar to Hong Kong milk tea, but with a heavy layering of sweetened condensed milk anchoring the glass tumbler the tea is served in. Singaporan milk tea is smooth, SWEET but a bit thinner than the Hong Kong version. Yes it is very sweet!

Malaysian milk tea (Teh Tarik): Literally meaning ‘stretched tea’, this tea gets its name from the spectacular act of ‘pulling’ the hot piping tea from one mug to another. The swift movements helps to aerate the tea hence the tea is much smoother than “unstretched” tea. Mixed with evaporated milk, this delicious drink is certainly addictive, and SWEET too.

Indian milk tea: This is certainly the milk tea taking the world by a storm. Chai, the Indian version of the milk tea, consists of tea leaves boiled for hours in a large pot with water, then adding spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, then “cook” some more, then adding a thick milk such as goat milk. Then to finish the chai, pile on the sugar. It is a tea not for a weak heart! Total indulgence – once you have tried this way of making chai, it is pretty hard to go back to your day to day version of chai.

Taiwanese milk tea: Better known as Bubble tea, this milk tea is a fairly recent invention which unfortunately typically consists of powdered tea, powdered flavour and a handful of pre-boiled chewy tasteless beads called “pearls” made from tapioca. Bubble tea is typically served cold in a plastic cups, although hot ones are available too.


Thanks for all the comments from our readers after this newsletter was published. Special thanks to Murray, who reminded us about the Thai Iced Tea:
“Don’t forget Thai style milk tea called “chai nom Chen” Ceylon with sweet condensed milk and lots of ice”