Once upon a time in India, cost-saving drink sellers realised they did not have to use so much tea leaves if they added milk, sugar and spices to their tea. What’s more, the tea brew actually tasted quite nice with the addition of these ingredients. Soon, this became the national tea drink and it was called Chai (similar to the Chinese character, cha, 茶).
Many South Indians migrated to Malaya (Singapore and Malaysia) in the 19th century, and quite a number of them set up sarabat stalls to earn a living. Probably because the Malay and Chinese community may not have been used to the spices typically found in Chai tea, these enterprising Sarabat stall owners started modifying the Chai recipe – they took away the spices, they added the richer, thicker condensed milk (probably because it was easier to keep) and added some artistic flair to the preparation of the tea.
And there you have the Teh Tarik (pulled tea). The art of pulling tea – pouring the brew between two containers (usually brass mugs) is not just impressive looking, it also improves the taste of the tea by mixing the tea and condensed milk more thoroughly, giving it a smoother, creamier texture and a lovely frothy top. The pulling process also helps to cool the tea down faster.
Teh Tarik goes best with roti prata (or roti canai) on a rainy day. It is sold in most coffee shops, food courts, hawker centres and mamak stalls in Singapore and Malaysia today.
Here’s a video of a teh tarik man at work…fierce!
The information above was adapted from the National Museum of Singapore’s Food Gallery and assorted hearsay.