Thai tea tales: The history of Thai iced tea

The image was generated by Dall-E.

The journey of Thai iced tea from its humble beginnings to global acclaim is an intriguing story, showcasing the blending of cultures and the progression of culinary traditions. Known for its distinctive orange hue and sweet-spicy taste, this beverage has crossed Thailand’s boundaries, enchanting people everywhere. Whether walking through the vibrant streets of Bangkok or sitting in a cosy café anywhere in the world, savouring Thai tea provides a fascinating insight into Thailand’s extensive history and its lasting love for tea.

What is Thai iced tea

Thai tea tales: The history of Thai iced tea | News by Thaiger
PHOTO: Thai iced tea by

Thai iced tea, also known as “cha yen” in Thailand, is a globally acclaimed beverage originating from the country. It is primarily made from Ceylon black tea, which is crucial for its distinct taste. Unlike some other teas that may include various textures, Thai iced tea has a simple recipe featuring milk, sugar, and sometimes a hint of spice to elevate its flavour.

Given the hot climate typical of tropical Southeast Asia, enjoying a cold Thai iced tea offers an exceptionally refreshing experience. Its creamy sweetness combined with the strong tea base sets it apart. This drink is readily available in Thai restaurants around the world, making it a signature offering. The unique orange colour associated with Thai tea is often recognised, though it’s important to note that this may be achieved with food colouring.

The origin of Thai iced tea

Have you had the pleasure of tasting a Thai iced tea, otherwise known as “cha yen”? This beverage has notably risen in popularity. In the 1980s, Thailand began importing tea from China as part of an economic development strategy. At that time, they could not have anticipated that this move would lead to the creation of the now widely celebrated Thai iced tea. Its exceptional versatility makes it the perfect accompaniment to any dish, showcasing the adaptability of Thai teas. The origin of this drink was influenced by Western culture catching the attention of a Thai leader, leading to an innovative blend of Eastern and Western flavours.

Originally, Thai iced tea was relatively simple without the addition of flavours that are commonly enjoyed today. Its journey from a basic formulation to becoming an integral part of street food culture and subsequently entering restaurants and homes around the globe highlights its enduring appeal both locally and internationally. This progression not only cemented its place in Thai cuisine but also elevated its status worldwide as a testament to the allure of Thai beverages.

The pivotal inclusion of evaporated milk marked a significant evolution in cha yen’s flavour profile. Advances in milk preservation techniques facilitated this addition, turning it into the creamy and sweet concoction beloved by many today.

The origins of Thai iced tea are not distinctly clear. It is speculated that British customs in the 1800s may have played a role, while another theory suggests it originated from servants utilising leftover tea leaves in an inventive manner. Regardless of its ambiguous inception, the significance of Thai iced tea cannot be overstated. It is more than merely a drink; it serves as a symbol of Thailand’s culinary heritage, demonstrating their innovative approach and commitment to sharing their vibrant flavours with a global audience.

How Thai Iced tea rose to popularity

The image was generated by Dall-E.
The image was generated by Dall-E.

Thai iced tea, recognised for its vibrant orange colour and sweet, creamy taste, has achieved global popularity far beyond Thailand’s borders. Its history dates back to the 1980s in Thailand, where it began as a local favourite before becoming an international sensation through cultural exchanges and creative modifications to its traditional recipe.

The unique preparation method of Cha yen significantly contributes to its widespread popularity. Traditionally made from Ceylon or Assam tea leaves combined with milk and various spices, the drink underwent a notable change in the 1980s with the introduction of evaporated milk. This innovation transformed Thai iced tea into a rich treat that appeals to diverse taste preferences worldwide. In the United States, venues like Ayara Thai and American Tea Room have expanded its flavour profile by adding ingredients such as rooibos leaves and cocoa husks, adapting it to suit local palates.

In addition to being a delightful refreshment, Cha yen offers remarkable versatility in culinary applications. It inspires an array of dessert options and innovative dishes. The traditional ‘pulling’ technique used in its preparation—not unlike that used for teh tarik—enhances each serving with a heritage-rich essence while delivering an engaging taste experience.

Thai teas exemplify a perfect blend of tradition and modernity, showcasing Thailand’s ability to merge classic flavours with contemporary innovations successfully. As Thai iced tea continues its journey of evolution, it stands as a symbol of Thailand’s dynamic food culture that is celebrated around the world. Its increasing popularity highlights the international acclaim for Thai culinary arts, establishing Thai beverages as essential selections on menus across the globe.

Indulge in the flavour of Thai iced tea today

Thai iced tea is globally celebrated for its creamy, rich flavour that captures the essence of Thai cuisine perfectly. It is made with a bold blend of Ceylon or Assam tea, enriched by the sweetness of condensed milk. For those looking to further elevate its creaminess, there’s also the option to substitute with evaporated or whole milk.

In modern times, Thai tea is often identified by its vivid orange colour, a result of food colouring. Traditionally, however, natural ingredients like roasted tamarind seeds and orange blossoms were used to achieve its distinctive taste and appearance.

Beyond being a refreshing drink, Thai iced tea has inspired a wide range of culinary innovations, from cool frappés to luscious desserts. This versatility reflects an impressive fusion of flavours that resonates with both Eastern and Western tastes, underscoring Thailand’s creative culinary strengths. The combination of familiar and exotic elements in Thai iced tea is particularly remarkable.

Its growing popularity underscores a worldwide recognition and appreciation for Thai beverages, making Thai iced tea a preferred selection across the globe. Whether savoured in a refined ambience or enjoyed casually over crushed ice, experiencing Thai iced tea represents an opportunity to embrace Thailand’s rich gastronomic culture—a truly noteworthy journey.

Thai iced tea preparation

The video above is from Chef Saadat, YouTube channel. Thai iced tea, known as “cha yen” among locals, is a standout beverage in Thai cuisine due to its unique blend of flavours and cultural influences. This drink offers a complex flavour profile that combines the strong base of black tea with spices such as anise, tamarind seeds, cassia bark, and orange blossom water for aromatic depth. The American version introduces a bright orange colour, marking a distinctive adaptation from its traditional roots.

The crafting of Cha yen is meticulous and deliberate. It starts with steeping a generous amount of black tea leaves and spices to develop deep flavours. Lemon rinds and sugar are added to introduce a refreshing citrusy sweetness. In the U.S., additions like rooibos leave for earthiness or cocoa husks for chocolate hints, along with apricot and safflower, further enrich the complexity of this beverage.

The presentation of Thai iced tea significantly contributes to its appeal across different settings—from street corners to cafés—highlighting its broad popularity. Enjoyed hot with fried dough on chilly mornings or served over ice on warm days for unparalleled refreshment, it showcases exceptional adaptability.

Thai iced tea’s versatility extends to how it’s enjoyed; whether it’s sweetened with condensed milk or lightened with regular milk—or even both—it consistently delivers rich yet balanced flavours that are both stimulating and indulgent. Its ability to cater to diverse preferences while maintaining luxury makes it a celebrated choice among Thai teas globally.

Thai iced tea in culture

Cha yen has successfully made its mark on the global stage, evolving from a cherished local drink to captivating international audiences. This transition highlights its broad appeal and universal admiration. Whether one is navigating the vibrant streets of Bangkok or enjoying a quiet café elsewhere, savouring Thai iced tea provides an instant sensory escape to Thailand. More than just a beverage, it is a flavour exploration that seamlessly blends traditional aspects with contemporary twists. It stands as a prime example of culinary culture fusion at its finest.



A true extrovert, Thunn enjoys writing to connect with people and tell stories about his vast experiences. His passion for building relationships drives him to write engaging content with his unique voice and views.

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