Three cups of tea
I'm something of a caffeine nut (as my forever username, 'skinnylatte' hints at). One of the best things about having had the opportunity of traveling to and living all over the world has been how I've been able to drink so many types of wonderful beverages.
While coffee is still, by far, my poison of choice, I also love tea. All kinds of tea. My love for a good pu'er that smells like wet hay in a barn aside, I also love some renditions of milk tea with some sugar!
(Caption: Burmese lahpet yay cho in Yangon, Myanmar.)
A note on chai blends in stores
I don't believe you can buy a good tea mix in a store. The cost to performance on those pre-packaged packs is just often too disappointing, although I'm not one to shy away from those when I'm camping or something. It's just that if you've had expertly prepared cups of traditional milk tea made by friends' moms or street vendors, those don't have the intensity of tea (or spices) that I'm looking for.
A note on tea leaf brands and types of spices
You don't really want to use expensive tea leaves for milk tea. Keep your oolongs and look for 'CTC tea' or 'tea fannings' or tea leaf powders like the brands listed below.
For Indian tea, I like Wagh Bakri, Society, Tata Gold. Go to any Indian grocer and look for these brands, or search for 'CTC tea' or 'tea fannings'. In a pinch, any kind of black tea works too. If you only have tea bags, make sure it's black tea and cut the bags. I use 6-8 cut tea bags when I don't have Indian tea leaf powder.
For Yemeni tea, you can't go wrong with Al-Kbous black loose tea.
For Burmese tea, you can use the Indian tea leaves too.
1. Standard Indian chai recipe
In Mumbai, where I spent many happy years, the traditional afternoon beverage was 'cutting chai'. While the name sounds fancy, it really just means 'chai, cut (in half)': very little cups of chai. So you can make chai in any amount, but drink it out of little cups. Perfect for a busy metropolis like Mumbai. My favorite way to spend an afternoon was to go to Prithvi cafe, drink several cups of cutting chai, then go to a Hindi language theatre show at the theatre. There's also a great list of other spots to try cutting chai in Mumbai here. The 'Irani cafes' of Mumbai are an especially delightful introduction to the old ways of that city that I love so much. At the end of the day, cutting chai is just a strong cup of chai, served in little cups.
Makes 2 cups.
- Pour a cup of milk and a cup of water into a pot, bring it to a rolling boil then turn down the heat
- Add a wooden spoon on top of the pot to prevent the milk from boiling over
- Remove the 'skin' from a knob of ginger about 2 inches wide
- Add the ginger, a stick of cinnamon, 2 cardamom pods, 4 cloves, a bunch of black peppercorns, into a mortar and crush them well
- Add the crushed spice mix into the pot and let the spices boil with the milk for at least 5 minutes
- Add 2 tablespoons of tea leaf powder (like Wagh Bakri or Tata Gold) into the pot. Turn off the heat. Let it steep for at least 3 minutes
- Pour into little cups to make cutting chai, or in a regular cup for a normal serving of chai
2. Burmese lahpet yay cho
Being so close to East India, Myanmar also has a delicious tea culture. I spent several years in Yangon and Mandalay in the halcyon days of the early 2010s when everyone was excited that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been released, and growth and development was coming to the country.
After work in Yangon's Chinatown I would amble out to eat everything I could find on the streets. Delicious Rakhine seafood, tasty Shan tofu and Shan noodles, Chinatown seafood BBQ skewers in places that were both laundromats and BBQ restaurants at the same time. It was a glorious, delicious time. The night would always end on a little street corner, on a tiny plastic chair drinking endless amounts of Burmese lahpet yay cho.
It's been a decade since I've been there. In Singapore, Ye Yint Cafe in the Peninsula Plaza building that's also a de facto Little Myanmar serves delicious Burmese tea like this, too. But now that I'm also away from Singapore, this YouTube video helped me learn how to make it at home.
Makes 1 cup.
This recipe is from Andiamo's YouTube channel, simplified to a format that I can remember.
This one is easier. I just remember 1-2-5-2, like a bad soccer formation.
- Bring 1 cup of water to a rolling boil in a pot
- Add 2 tablespoons of black tea powder (pick any of the Indian brands listed above)
- Turn down the heat to low, let the tea and water boil together for 5 minutes
- Strain into a cup
- Add 2 tablespoons of condensed milk, and sir
3. Yemeni shai haleeb
I also spent several years in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). When I was there, Yemeni food, coffee and tea made me feel instantly at home; much more than in, say, Lebanon, with its less spiced food and 'cleaner' palates. That familiarity probably comes from how, in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, we have a local Arab population that's mostly from the Hadramawt region of Yemen. Their food has been so thoroughly integrated into our food cultures (nasi mandi, murtabak, nasi goreng kambing, and so many more) that I don't even perceive them to be 'foreign' at all.
So the two magical weeks I got to spend with a Yemeni family in Sana'a and Aden was also a culinary delight. The port city of Aden has strong caffeine connotations. After all, Aden was where coffee first started being exported from 'Mokha', and Adeni tea is well known around the world.
It differs only so slightly from Indian chai. For one, the tea leaves used are different. Most Yemenis will recommend the Al-Kbous brand of black tea. My educated guess in blind tastings of Indian and Yemeni tea leaf brands is that the Indian brands tend to be from Assam, and is a little more astringent than the Yemeni black tea (which tends to be from Sri Lanka), and is a little more floral.
- Either: use the same recipe as the Indian chai recipe, but use Al-Kbous tea leaves instead of Indian brands. Add nutmeg as well just to amp it up
- OR: use the same recipe as the Burmese recipe, with Al-Kbous tea, but replace the condensed milk with evaporated milk, and add sugar separately to taste
There's no reason in particular to make this recipe over the Indian one, but for those of us who have spent time in the Gulf and elsewhere in MENA, this will be much closer to the Adeni tea that is so commonly drunk there.
I take the opportunity to hype Yemeni cuisine whenever I can! (Also, did you know that San Francisco and Oakland is currently home to some kind of Yemeni food renaissance, because we have such an established community? Next post, maybe!)