Standing next to me on the MRT was a young Indian-looking man. Having just arrived in Singapore less than an hour ago, I decided to find out about the Singaporean tea world from a local. It turns out that he was a foreign student and would be returning to Kingston, Ontario, the next day. He did tell me that I should definitely try Teh Tarik. He described it as the Malaysian version of Indian chaï. While pushing for a more detailed description of the difference between Teh Tarik and chaï, the only thing I got was “It just tastes perfect,” in a solemn tone. Now, this was a beverage that I HAD to try.
Singapore being a very rapidly changing city, I was lucky enough to come across a Teh Tarik establishment just minutes walk away from my hostel, Sleepy Sam’s. Sokmean, a Montrealer friend who now relocated to Singapore, later told me that it has been around for decades. It is a no name sarabat stall located at the junction of Bussorah and Baghdad street, not far from 21 Bussorah street. A glass of this heart warming beverage still goes for less than 1 SGD.
After hearing such a mouth watering description of the beverage, I walked there full of anticipation. What is this beverage made up of? What type of spices are used? Could this be the perfect chaï that I’ve been looking for?
As I took the first gulp of this hot beverage, an initial refreshing sweetness breezed over my taste buds bringing with it the creaminess of the evaporated milk. As this creamy sensation flowed down my throat, the slight astringency left by the black tea teased my tongue calling out for more. I drank down two glasses.
Despite its comforting qualities, I wouldn’t call it perfect. The sweetness did overpower the tea and the creaminess was plain. Something was missing. The creamy sensation could have been spiced up a bit. I would try adding some cinnamon to the mix and slightly cut down on the sugar.
As I inquired about the ingredients of Teh Tarik, I was told that it is simply black tea, sugar, and evaporated milk. The distinctive feature of Teh Tarik is that it has to be poured from high above into a glass, a bit like Moroccan mint tea. Tarik in Teh Tarik means dropping. Literally, dropping tea.
Black tea with evaporated milk and sugar would simply be called Teh.
Black tea with only sugar would be called Teh O (tea without milk).
Black tea with evaporated milk would be called Teh Si (tea without sugar).
Simple black tea would be called Teh Okosong (tea without milk and sugar).
The basic tea for Malaysians and Singaporeans contains sugar and milk. The language used to describe the beverage definitely reflects how it is usually drank. This observation was confirmed when my friend, Rianne, attempted to order a Teh Okosong. She was greeted with a pair of wide eyes and was asked if she was sure of what she had ordered.
Thank you Rianne for joining me on this adventure.