The Love for Tea in Thailand

Thailand may be known for its coffee and tea street stalls, but the deep historical connection with tea is not commonly associated with the country. In fact, like most nations around the world, Thailand procured its tea drinking conventions through trade with countries like China or Taiwan, or through ethnic Chinese communities that have settled across the border regions. However, the Northern part of Thailand is now making an advance in tea culture and production.

Following the Chinese revolution and the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, thousands of KMT soldiers and their families were forced to flee China. They were welcomed by the Thai government, who offered them settlement in the Northern part of Thailand. These Chinese migrants brought with them many traditions, including their love for the cultivation and making of teas. Initially, many of the migrants ran illegal operations such as gem and drug smuggling.

Eventually, through programs such as the Royal Project for Crop Replacement, tea farming was introduced as a legitimate means of generating an income. The first tea plants were imported from China and Taiwan and introduced into the highlands of Chiang Mai Province in the late 1980s.

Although traditional Thai tea should be made with Ceylon, it can be quite expensive, so a locally grown version of the landrance version of Assam, more often referred to as bai miang, is used, with added food coloring. Other ingredients that are often added include orange blossom water, crushed tamarind, star anise, red or yellow food coloring, and other flavors such as vanilla and cinnamon. The tea is then sweetened, and condensed milk is usually added. It is served chilled and made using a pulling method derived from Malaysia, known as teh tarik, which involves repeatedly transferring the tea between cups to cool and aerate the liquid, giving it a better flavor.

Two styles of Thai iced tea exist: with or without milk. Tea with milk is called cha yen, while tea without milk is called cha dum yen. Historically in Thailand, only members of the Royal Family would drink tea, and the poor people were given only the dregs. This started the familiar process of flavoring the tea.

While Thai iced tea is extremely popular, it can also be quite high in calories. One cup can range from 180 to 410 calories. The store where many tours begin is one of the most popular stops, with everyone keen to try one of the famous Thai iced coffees or teas. For those who really know the craft, Thai iced tea is considered an art form.

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