Teh Tarik is a tea that, like many ingenious inventions, was born out of necessity and limited resources. The famously lowbrow beverage brings together Chinese tea leaves with the Indian style of making chai. Once a working class staple, it's now a fixture among Malaysian millennials—and did I mention that it birthed an entire sport?
The History of Teh Tarik
Malaysia has long been a sort of hybrid culture, as Chinese immigrants settled there as early as the fifteenth century, while Indian immigrants arrived in large numbers during British colonization, as migrant workers. By the 1970s, there was a sizeable number of Indians working in Malaysia's mines and construction sites. Chai had pervaded Indian culture during British colonization, so the Indian community was eager to find the elements of their precious beverage—except that after World War II, tea prices has shot up, making chai very expensive.
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Local café owners smartly decided to buy discarded tea (those leaves that weren't pristine or whole enough to be sold) from the Chinese plantations, which at the time were mainly selling to the British. The cafe owners would boil the tea over and over again to extract out all the flavor from the leaves. To combat the extremely bitter resulting taste, they added evaporated milk instead of regular milk, which provided extra sweetness. They omitted the traditional spices used in Indian chai in the hopes that the beverage would also appeal to the Chinese population.
To give the tea a signature touch, café owners would pour it from one pot to another to create a frothy top. The finished drink was like a bastardized version of chai, but it proved quite popular among all sectors of the working population.
How to Prepare Teh Tarik
To this day, though higher-quality black tea is widely available in Southeast Asia, the key to Teh Tarik is the grade-B tea leaves, still sold as off-cuts from the plantations.
That tea gets boiled for two to three hours until it's very bitter, then fresh ginger is added (a contemporary twist that is now fairly common), followed by sugar and evaporated milk. Then the pulling happens in quick, repeated motions, which allows the tea to "stretch and blend together and generate foam," says Victor Low, the co-owner of Serai in Chicago. "That layer of foam is what makes the tea smooth, and what makes the flavors unite." The resulting tea, he says, is foamy, creamy, sweet, but with a little kick.
A standard Malaysian breakfast pairs a frothy cup of Teh Tarik with a piece of roti or Nasi Lamak, a fragrant dish of rice cooked in coconut milk and pandant leaf. "The sweet and the salt and the spice, it all goes really nicely together," Low says.
Teh Tarik in Malaysian Culture
While Teh Tarik may have started as a drink for the working class, it has become a favorite among Malaysia's younger generations. They all frequent mamaks, or food stalls, where they hang out after dinner, watch sports, and drink Teh Tarik—the standard drink of all of these spots.
More intriguingly, Teh Tarik has engendered an entire sport devoted to tea pulling. Organized competitions throughout Malaysia will test how high participants can pull the tea from one pot to the other, or how many times they can pull without spilling—often all while they are doing an elaborate dance routine. Low says he's seen some people stretch the tea from four feet away from the pot.
Malaysia is a true multicultural nation—pulling equal influence from China, India, and its own indigenous way of life. Teh Tarik is significant in that it is one of the only dishes in the country that is consumed universally, but also "unites all three cultures," Low says. "People don't look at it as an Indian drink or a Chinese drink. It's a true national drink."