There are so many things to love about eating out at an Asian restaurant, from towering boats of sushi to bowls brimming with stir-fried goodness. But one of the most enchanting rituals of an Asian dining experience is often in the tea. There’s just something about the warmth of those small, rounded cups, a chance to sip and start conversation at the beginning of a meal.
You encounter this tea experience at many area restaurants that serve Asian cuisine, and oftentimes the tea is an Oolong, a traditional Chinese variety. But one eatery in Keene, Thai Garden, is better-known for its more unusual and mighty tasty spin… Thai iced tea.
“Thailand is a warm country,” said Thai Garden owner Panom Voravittayathorn. “The weather is so hot over there in the summer and Thai iced tea is the one thing people love and drink and it’s so cool.”
This unique drink is made by combining Ceylon tea — a black tea with ties to the highlands of Sri Lanka — with sugar, sweetened condensed milk or half-and-half, and sometimes spices such as cinnamon, vanilla and tamarind.
“It has a unique flavor,” Voravittayathorn said. While it can be served hot or cold, the chilled version is quite common and pairs well with Thai food. For people who have it for the first time at Thai Garden, it often becomes a favorite they order at every visit. “My cousin comes just for the Thai iced tea,” Voravittayathorn laughed.
A spin-off of this sweet treat is Thai tea ice cream, but it can be difficult to craft an authentic flavor. Voravittayathorn has tried ordering it in for the restaurant without any success. “Someone in Boston tried to make and send it to me, but the test I don’t like,” he said. For now, his patrons are happy to enjoy it in drink form.
If that Thai take on tea has you feeling curious or inspired, there are many other teas produced in Asia that are also well worth exploring. India, China, Sri Lanka, Japan and Nepal are the world’s largest loose-leaf tea exporters, though there are tea estates worldwide. What you might not know is that almost all teas come from one plant: Camellia sinensis (with herbals being the exception). The difference in teas (for example, green vs. black) is actually about “how the tea leaf is manipulated in the factory,” according to tea expert Danielle Beaudette.
Each year, she travels to the countries of origin and selects the finest loose-leaf offerings for her shop and café in Brookline, N.H., The Cozy Tea Cart. From Dragon Well to Jasmine to Silver Needle, there are numerous Asian teas to intrigue the palate.
Beaudette also regularly hosts educational tea tastings, which are currently available via Zoom. During her tastings, she explains the ins-and-outs of how tea is processed, which can happen by hand, by machine or a combination of both. The result depends on how much oxidation the tea leaves undergo. For instance, white and green teas don’t go through oxidation.
“So, your processing time in the factory is very quick,” Beaudette said.
Oolongs are partially oxidized, black teas fully, and then dark teas receive a last step of heating the leaf. The way the leaves are processed also varies by country. In China, they smoke-dry the tea, giving it nuttier notes, while in Japan, they steam the leaves, leaving it more vegetal. Though the preparation may vary, the way tea is built into the culture of Asian countries is similar wherever you travel.
“It’s very rare that you go into someone’s home and you’re not offered a cup of tea,” Beaudette said. “They believe tea helps people relax, which it does, and it promotes conversation.”
And of course, countries like China and Japan also have traditional tea ceremonies tied into their cultures.
“For every country I’ve been to, tea is that beverage that welcomes you into their space,” Beaudette said, adding that it’s a lovely tradition to cultivate right in your own home. She strongly recommends experimenting with loose-leaf options. “The whole-leaf tea is a lot healthier and grown in better conditions than your teabag tea.”
On her website — thecozyteacart.com — you’ll also find info about seasonal tea trends, as well as advice about how to select, brew and store tea for the greatest flavor and health benefits.