Chai is sweet but the variations with a South-East Asian influence—condensed milk—are sweeter still. A reader of this column recommended Amul Mithai Mate. I took out my CTC tea, boiled it well and added a couple of tablespoons of condensed milk. It was creamy and sweet and while it may not be a tea I will have too often, it was well worth a try. Tea with condensed milk, in fact, is not as uncommon as you may think.
In Hong Kong, a former British colony, milk tea goes by a delightful moniker—pantyhose tea—because the strainer is a long tea sock. Called nai cha in Cantonese, it’s a black tea made by placing the decoction in a cheesecloth bag, cooked and “pulled” several times—like we do with chai and coffee—to aerate it by pouring from a height. Condensed milk is added, sugar is optional. My friend Ailie, who is from Hong Kong and now lives in Germany, says that if you stop for a cup of nai cha, you cannot specify how much milk—“that’s a matter of trust”. How much sugar, however, is your choice. Malaysia has the teh tarik, black tea to which milk, evaporated and condensed, is added; the tea is “pulled” for a frothy top.
Myanmar too has its version of condensed milk tea, laphet yay cho—this translates to tea water. If you ask just for laphet, you will get the tea leaf salad, so the yay cho is required for clarity. Laphet yay cho needs a black tea—locally grown is ideal but an Assam will do at a pinch—boiled as a decoction to which condensed milk is added.
Thailand takes the tea and condensed milk to create an iced version, the cha yen. This too has a black tea decoction, sweetened with condensed milk, poured over ice, and topped with evaporated milk. Taiwan, of course, is the home of the bubble tea, invented there in the 1980s. The bubbles are tapioca pearls made from cooked tapioca flour and sugar dough and soaked in sugar syrup. They offer a chewy texture to the tea, which is served cold with condensed milk or a combination of condensed and evaporated milk. It’s playful and youthful, which may explain its popularity.
Interestingly, all these use black tea, ideally tea dust, which necessitates the use of a tea sock, not a tea strainer, as a filter. Secondly, they use condensed and evaporated milk—tinned milk, not fresh milk, because these are not traditional milk-drinking countries. Tinned milk came to the colonies with the Europeans, who have been using it since the 19th century, particularly because it could be stored for longer. During the world wars, in fact, it became part of military ration.
In recent times, this preference for milk tea has come to stand for something more than a beverage choice: The Milk Tea Alliance 2020 is a pro-democracy, pro-human rights movement, representing Hong Kong, Taiwan, Myanmar and Thailand. Why milk tea? Most nations in the region drink tea with milk, while the Chinese tea culture is dominated by green varieties steeped only in water. The addition of milk and sugar to tea, then, is positioned as opposition to what’s seen as a distinct cultural element of the communist regime. It’s now more than just tea—it has become a symbol of resistance.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1