Southeast Asia's Tea Culture

Explore the culture, flavours and history of Southeast Asian teas.

Tea is one of the most popular drinks in the world and is consumed by vast amounts of people every day. Few places more so than in Southeast Asia where tea holds a cultural and historical significance as well as playing a large part in local economics. The import and export of teas was an integral part of various colonial systems and to this day a lot of Western countries import the majority of their tea from this subcontinent.

Each country has its own distinct tea culture, in some it plays a more integral role than in others, but they all have a key relationship with the production and consumption of tea. Below we've given a brief insight into the tea cultures of India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Vietnam, so put the kettle on and enjoy.

India

Tea is and has been a major part of Indian culture for millennia; the first written record of tea in Indian literature is in the Ramayna, which was written between 750 and 500 BCE. Centuries later during Dutch exploration in the 1500s there are several references to tea in these travellers' journals. Later again during the British colonisation of India tea played a large economic role to the establishment. The British East India Company became a major producer and exporter of Indian teas to countries all over the world. Today India is the second largest producer of and the largest consumer of tea in the world, drinking an estimated third of the entire global consumption. Offering tea to visitors is a regular occurrence in Indian households at any time of the day, although it is generally considered to be a breakfast and later evening drink. There are also vast amounts of stalls that can be spotted at the roadside where people stop to have a cup of tea on their way from A to B.

Masala Chai is the most common type of tea consumed in India. It is typically served with milk and sugar, where all the ingredients are prepared and infused together in one pot rather than separately as you find in the West. Masala Chai, which literally translates to 'mixed spice tea', is named very aptly; it is made by brewing black tea with a variety of Indian spices. Although variations do apply, most often ground cloves, cardamon pods, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns and ginger are used. Masala Chai may be the most popular but India is famous for several types of tea, including Assam and Darjeeling. Assam is a malty, thick, flavoured black tea named after the region of its production whilst Darjeeling is a light and fruity tea also named after the region of its production in West Bengal.

Sri Lanka

Prior to the introduction of tea plantations in Sri Lanka the country's largest exports were spices and then coffee. However, when the coffee industry was entirely devastated by a fungal disease in 1870, it paved the way for the introduction of tea farming. Tea leaf plants had been initially introduced to Sri Lanka by the British in the 1820s as non-commercial experiments and by the 1870s (at the same time as the devastation of coffee production), various British colonialists realised the economic potential in tea and opened several plantation and factories. It did not take long for Sri Lankan tea to become a booming success and today Sri Lanka's tea industry produces hundreds of thousands of metric tonnes every year.

The consumption of tea is very popular with Sri Lankan people and typically they serve their tea in a similar manner as in India with milk and sugar; however, the milk is almost always warmed before being mixed with the tea. The three main types of tea in Sri Lanka are Ceylon Black, Ceylon Green and Ceylon White. Ceylon Black is quite sharp and lemony in its flavour and looks not dissimilar to little black pellets prior to being added to hot water. Unlike the sweet delicate flavouring associated with green teas in most other countries Ceylon Green tea is much heavier and headier, almost malty in its flavouring. Ceylon White Tea is a real delicacy, the silver-tipped tea leaves are highly prized and highly priced, the unique flavour is reminiscent of honey and pine.

Myanmar

Tea is an integral part of Myanmar culture; it forms a major part of social interaction and is consumed seemingly constantly by people of all ages and from all walks of life. The street culture of Myanmar centres on teashops and tea stalls surrounded by little low tables from which people catch up with one another, read, pass the time or simply get a refreshment on their way from A to B. Herbals teas are served all the time, when you sit down at a restaurant, invariably the waiter will appear to bring a pot of tea before you've even ordered and vendors frequently board buses or coaches to proffer teas to the passengers for a nominal charge.

The most common tea that you will find people drinking in Myanmar is Indian style green tea; however, something that is almost unique to Myanmar tea culture is that tea is not just drunk here, it is also eaten. Laphet is a form of pickled tea that is immensely popular in Myanmar and served in many different ways and with a huge variety of accompaniments. One of the most common ways of serving Lahpet is as a-hlu lahpet, also known as 'Mandalay Lahpet', which is Lahpet tossed with sesame oil and placed into the central compartment of a shallow dish made up of several divisions. The surrounding divisions are then filled with other nibbly bits to make an aperitif or a post-dinner sociable dish. These divisions can contain peanuts, dried shrimp, shredded ginger and shredded coconut, amongst other things. Another popular way of serving Lahpet is as 'Lahpet Thouk' or 'Yangon Lahpet' which is essentially a tea salad where the pickled tea is served with a combination of any of the following ingredients: fish sauce, peanut oil, lime, garlic, tomatoes, chilli, dried shrimp, ginger and sesame oil.

Vietnam

Although Vietnam is famed for its production and consumption of coffee (in 2016 Vietnam was the second largest producer of coffee in the world), tea also has its place in Vietnamese culture. In Vietnamese tradition tea is associated with the older generations: drinking tea was (and to an extent still is) seen as a leisure activity, one that may often accompany other pastimes such as gardening or listening to poetry. As Vietnam is also a fairly major exporter of teas, producing nearly 200,000 metric tonnes of the stuff every year, tea also holds economic importance for the country.

Vietnamese tea consumption is primarily made up of herbal teas; over 60 percent of all tea that is sold within Vietnam is Vietnamese green tea, which is largely undiscovered internationally particularly outside of Asia. It can be differentiated from other Asian green teas by its caffeine content – it has a much lower percentage of caffeine than Chinese green teas but significantly higher than green teas of Japan. Lotus tea is another popular Vietnamese tea, which is typically made by placing very high quality green tea leaves inside a lotus plant for around 24 hours until they acquire some of the lotus scent and then these are brewed. This can also be done by mixing green tea leaves with actual lotus leaves.


More tips to find the perfect brew

  • Compared with many other Southeast Asian countries, Thailand's tea culture is minimal, in fact it really tends to centre on Thai iced tea, which is made by brewing strong Ceylon tea with various spices (including tamarind seed and star anise) which is then sweetened with condensed milk and sugar and served cold. This drink can be found all over Thailand in restaurants and food stalls as well as in Thai restaurants all over the world.
  • If you're in Vietnam and searching for a new tea then you must try artichoke tea. This is a unique herbal tea made from the roots, stalks and leaves of artichokes giving an unusual and interesting taste.
  • When tasting teas in India, or just simply tasting Indian teas anywhere in the world, no taste tour would be complete without trying the various chai variations. Chai literally means tea but has come to denote a use of herbs and spices in brewing. We discussed Masala Chai above but you can also find coconut chai, ginger chai, cardamon chai and many others, each with their own distinct flavour.