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The Story of Teh Tarik: Malaysian pulled tea

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Some teas find their claim to fame in how or where they grow, others in how the leaves are harvested or prepared, and others still in what flavors are infused. But there is one tea variation whose fame is derived from the way it is poured, and that is Teh Tarik, Malaysia’s national drink.  

Very simply put, Teh Tarik is a hot milk tea drink, most popular in Southeast Asia, that is made from a strong brew of black tea, combined with condensed or evaporated milk, which is then continuously poured to and from one cup to another to create its signature texture and froth. Teh Tarik is sold in shops and street stalls throughout Malaysia and throughout Southeast Asia and is often paired with food.  

The origin of The Tarik goes back to the post-WWII era where Indian Muslim immigrants were employed at the rubber plantations and in the mining industry. Subsequently, these immigrants started setting up their own food and drink stalls (also known as a Mamak) to accommodate the workers, and one of the main beverages they ended up serving was Teh Tarik. The price of tea skyrocketed during the lean war years, and the quality tea that was available was sold predominantly to the British, while the lower quality teas and leftovers were used for Teh Tarik. As finding enough spices to add a bit of taste to the tea was out of the question, these merchants started using condensed or evaporated milk and sugar to make the beverage stronger and sweeter.  

How the “pulling” of the tea was introduced is somewhat lost to history, but it is believed that the repeated pouring of the tea between cups has several reasons; firstly, it helps cool the beverage before consumption and it also creates the texture of the tea and the nice frothy foam on top. But, perhaps more importantly, this process allows air to infuse with the tea enhancing the tea’s aroma and taste. Over the years, Southeast Asian tea vendors have turned the “pulling” into an art, performing ever more impressive tricks and pouring between cups from unfathomable heights, although this is mostly done in competitions or to impress tourists.  

Even so, Teh Tarik has played a significant cultural role in Malaysia as well because it inherently represents the multi-cultural character of the country. Tea was introduced to Malaysia by the Chinese in the 1830s, Indian Muslim immigrants developed the “pulling technique” to add flavor, and using milk and sugar as additives was mostly a remnant of British colonialism. So, in many ways Teh Tarik is seen as a beverage that unifies, and one that represents the country’s sense of tolerance and diversity. In recent years it has even made a resurgence as schools and governments alike plan Teh Tarik sessions to navigate disagreements and conflict.  

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