Unlike ma-po tofu, a Chinese dish which traces back to one “acne-pocked-faced woman” the tofu dish is named after, the invention of Thai ice tea or “cha yen” as most of us know it, is a mystery lost to the ages.
But the unmistakable orange-hued drink — creamy, icy, and sweet — has won over the taste buds of people the world over. Not only can you get it in the classic form anywhere Thai food is served, bright orange, highly spiced, with a generous pour of evaporated milk over ice, you can find treats like Thai ice tea French macarons and Thai ice tea flavored ice cream as well.
The history of Thai ice tea mirrors the way globalization has worked throughout the centuries. Tea was introduced to the Kingdom of Siam most likely by the Chinese due to a well-traveled trade route from China to India which wound through Thailand, from at least the second century B.C., possibly even earlier.
Some speculate that tea’s popularity in Thailand grew from interactions with the British at the beginning of the 1800s, when King Rama IV and King Rama V ruled from 1804-1854. Some report that servants used the leftover tea leaves from wealthy households and wound up adding spices to round out the drink, since the second steeping always results in a weaker brew, but there’s not much documentation on it.
With this much uncertainty over Thai ice tea’s origins, one might need a break to mindlessly enjoy a sip of the mysterious brew without fretting about where it came from. One thing is for certain, and that is the current form of Thai ice tea with evaporated milk had to coincide with the invention of the preservation of milk.
To make the perfect Thai ice tea, one begins with a strong brew of Bai Miang tea leaves, a native red-leafed tea plant which is a kind of Assam and grows easily in the shade in Thai forests. Thais preferred using and cultivating the large-leafy Bai Miang tea plants since imported tea leaves from Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, were too expensive.
The milky sweetness and spice of Thai ice tea makes many believe the drink was influenced by Indian chai; however, the brightly-hued drink most of us think of classic Thai ice tea was invented in America — the Thai-Americans ramped up the spices and sugar and an unknown person sought to market it by adding “Sunset Yellow #6” food coloring dye. Similar to the way California rolls ended up being served in Japan despite being invented in California, Thai ice tea found its way back to Thailand due to the demand from thirsty American tourists.
Vanda Asapahu, the Thai-American chef of Ayara Thai based in Los Angeles says, “Thai tea is essentially black tea spiced with anise, crushed tamarind seeds, cassia bark, orange blossom water, and in the US.” Asapahu also remarks, “[The] bright orange food coloring stains everything.” Ayara’s house recipe for Thai ice tea uses the standard Thai tea mix but adds more black tea leaves, lemon rinds, and sugar. American Tea Room serves their version of Thai ice tea preparation in a similar fashion but adds rooibos leaves, cocoa husks, and apricot safflower, at their California-based cafes. Other recipes for modern Thai ice tea blends suggest using green cardamom pods, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla bean.
The story of Thai ice tea may have cloudy beginnings, but thanks to combination of Chinese, Thai, English, Indian, and American cultures and tastes all woven together, centuries later we now have one of the most beloved flavors in beverage form.