A Shared Tradition: Black Tea

May 4, 2012

In her biweekly column, A Shared TraditionCIA grad and amateur food historian Molly Siegler cruises around the world (and into the depths of her pantry) to explore the versatility of a single food item. 

This week: Molly brews a few cups of the world's most popular beverage.

Photo by James Ransom


The first time I remember feeling really fancy was when I discovered my love for Constant Comment. I was nine years old, and a pot of my very own tea was about as fancy as it got. Even over the age of nine, tea has a quality other popular beverages don’t: time. I love that even a quick cup of tea requires a little effort, and I have now learned to brew the perfect pot.

Tea -- and its intricate services, ceremonies, and traditions -- is found all over the world from southern sweet tea to English high tea to the pulled tea of Malaysian Mamak stalls.

Noon chai is a special occasion tea found in the Kashmir region of Pakistan.

  • Black tea leaves are sourced in Kashmir. 
  • Salt, a touch of sugar, and cardamom season the drink.
  • A pinch of baking soda reacts with the mixture to turn the tea a powdery pink color.
  • Whole milk is whisked into the tea before it is strained.
  • Crushed pistachios are added to the tea for texture.

Masala chai is a milky, spiced black tea that has seen its flavor profile mimicked in sweet treats across the globe.

  • Green cardamom and fennel seed infuse whole milk with a clean piney, licorice fragrance.
  • Black tea is brewed then strained into the spiced milk.
  • Black peppercorns and ginger add a tingly heat to the drink.
  • Jaggery can be grated or flaked off into the tea mixture for rich, raisiny sweetness.

Teh tarik ("pulled tea") is poured back and forth between cups until the liquid is thick and foamy. The more air between the containers, the more skilled the artisan.

  • Powdered black tea is whisked into boiling water.
  • Sweetened condensed milk (and even some extra sugar!) should be stirred into the tea before the pouring begins.
  • Serve with roti canai to take the edge off this saccharine sippable.

Po cha, or butter tea, is a savory tea created to sustain the residents of the cold, high-altitude Himalayas.

  • Loose-leaf black tea is boiled until deeply concentrated. This concentrate is saved for several days and used to brew many rounds of po cha.
  • Salt is added to the tea just before it finishes brewing.
  • Milk accounts for nearly half of the drink’s content, ensuring a rich and creamy result.
  • Yak butter (substitute cow or goat butter) is churned into the hot tea until the drink is frothy and smooth.

Dirty Chai Toddy Mint Iced Tea
Dirty Chai Toddy and Mint Iced Tea. Photos by Nicole Franzen (left) and James Ransom

These are just a few of the ways I like to travel by way of black tea. What other regionally inspired flavors would you use to make this caffeinated brew your own? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

Do you love a good food theme as much as I do? Tell me what food items or themes you'd like to see featured in this column and your idea could be the subject of an upcoming post!

Like this post? See Molly's previous topic: Sweet Rolls.

Molly is a chef and food educator living and cooking in northern Wisconsin. When she's not dreaming up themed menus, she's dishing out other delicious content as the editorial assistant for the Whole Foods Market Cooking program.

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