How I Like My Tea

A Tea Culture

Being born and raised in Indonesia, I grew up knowing the taste of tea. In fact, free-flow rounds of tea are more common than glasses of water in some regions. Indonesia is a major exporter and grower of tea and whenever I would take a trip up the Puncak area, tea plantations would dress the mountain side like silk of a chartreuse hue. While tea beverages come in various forms and flavours now, such as green tea, oolong tea, apple tea, peach tea, and blueberry tea (among many others), I was initiated with the good old sweetened black tea with sugar. Sometimes milk was added, sometimes not. In fact, in Indonesia, a brand named Sosro is known for a drink called teh botol or “bottled tea”, which was pretty much sweetened black tea. It was the drink that defined a large portion of my childhood.

Even in my mid-twenties, I still like my tea, though I admit that I’m not the type of person who is concerned about the temperature of water before brewing or duration of brewing unless the discrepancy between properly and improperly prepared tea is very apparent (Example: If I see a little frog swimming in my glass. Just kidding — maybe.). Also, whenever possible, I prefer my drinks cold.

Whenever I am eating outside and feel like ordering tea, I tend to go for the most common type of tea they have. That tends to alternate between “iced tea” or “iced lemon tea”, depending on whether I wanted something sweet or sweet and sour. In Indonesia, the option for both types of drinks is generally available, and in Singapore, there is the option of a milky alternative. But from my experience, what tends to be absolutely constant in both cultures is the distinction between “iced tea” and “iced lemon tea”. It is a distinction ingrained in my cold-tea-loving system, and so instinctual that the probability of it leaving my own personal culture is about as likely as me voting for a conservative political party.

A Refreshing Nomenclature

Though the difference depends on regional aspects, from my experience, there is a distinction between the “iced tea” served in Indonesia and in Singapore. In Indonesia, “iced tea” or es teh usually means tea with ice, and is commonly served sweetened. There is the option of having it without sugar: “iced tea without sugar” or es teh tawar. Also, there is the occasional restaurant that serves “iced tea” in the form of adding milk, but the addition of another ingredient tends to be defined as a style specific to a certain locality.

In Singapore, “iced tea” has similar categorisations, although named differently. Iced tea (or teh peng or iced teh-C) tends to refer to the works: a cold drink of tea, sugar, and milk, served in the famous Hong Kong style of milk tea. Chilled tea with sugar would be teh-O peng or iced teh-O. Plain cold tea without sugar or milk would be referred to be teh-kosong or “blank tea”. There’s also the famous Malaysian pulled tea, or teh tarik, which falls under the category of milk tea, and iced lemon tea commonly came bottled or canned.

I don’t remember ever deviating from the general nomenclature of the following three teas (yes, I made the visual myself):

How I Like My Tea

My Personal Tea Nomenclature

Several years ago — I won’t mention where — when I made an order for “iced lemon tea”, the waiter looked at me as though I invoked an evil spirit. Poor little bugger was frightened out of his mind! After that awkward moment, it was explained that the term “iced lemon tea” is unknown, because every single chilled tea beverage is simply named “iced tea”, and almost all chilled tea there had some sweet and sour syrupy flavour. It would then be my turn to descend into stunned silence. For me, iced tea and iced lemon tea are different precisely because of what their name implies: one doesn’t have lemon, and the other one does. They were always different. On the other hand, iced tea and iced milk tea have always been a bit more flexible in terms of names for me, but for a place that served what was essentially iced lemon tea, milk tea was pretty much elusive for that time. So to avoid a recurrence of that (and to placate the poor waiter), I ordered a different beverage. During that stint, whenever I wanted just plain tea with sugar, I had to resort to buying my own tea bags and brewing my own drink; ordering hot tea would not even salvage me from the little piece of a particular citrus fruit that sat calmly on the side of the cup.

All this made me realise that regardless of whoever subscribes to the milk, the lemon, the “They’re all the same thing!”, or the “Not a fan of tea!” schools of thought, it is amazing how much how much of an effect it has in an upbringing in a place that puts forward such a distinction. It makes me wonder if I’ll ever happen upon the day I get served an iced milk tea drink with a touch of lemon. Mmm… sour milk tea.

What About You?

What’s your favourite beverage? Do you have a personal nomenclature with it?


  1. Chris

    I so love tea! And I don’t discriminate, if tea’s I’ll mostly likely to enjoy it. Though, I’ve had one unpleasant encounter, I think it was black tea from China. That was quite the shizz. Bitter on first taste, the bitterness lasts even after you’ve spewed it out and taken garlic. I kid you not!

    Everyone who knows me will know that I will order tea for most of my meals. They’ll also know that I will get the hot water replenished at least 3 to 5 times. (I’m the opposite of you, I rarely order cold drinks of any kind.) Here’s to tea!

    Damn, I forgot to make meself a hot cup of tea. :(

  2. jannie

    wow. interesting post about tea. it’s a beverage i’m obsessed with and probably something i drink just as much as water. i’m pretty sure iced milk tea is available somewhere around here. i just don’t know where. i would so much like to try it though. my three favorite beverages would be green tea, then white tea, and also black tea. i’ve also recently gotten into the tazo chai latte. i remember you recommended it to me a while back. (thank you, btw. :D) i love both the hot and iced versions. just like you, i usually prefer my drinks/tea cold. even better when they’re fruity. :D

  3. anna

    I usually order Iced Lemon Tea or Iced Milk Tea. It’s always a toss between those two, depending on what I’m eating. But I find that I order the milky version more whenever I’m here in Singapore, probably since it’s not usually available in restaurants back in Manila. I also have a huge stash of Green Tea here at home, which I like to drink hot… mostly when I overeat and feel bloated. LOL!

  4. Pam

    Oh the things I could write re: ice tea and its variations. Funnily enough, in the US when you order Ice Tea, you will find that your glass of Ice Tea is exactly that. Tea with ice. It’s when you ask for sugar that you will receive what I’ve deemed as the “Are you HIGH” waiter/waitress look.

    The funny thing is that in the Southern part of the US, the SE Asian “Ice Tea” is actually “Sweet Tea”. It’s perfectly acceptable in the South whereas anywhere else in the US, you’ll find yourself trying to dilute sachets of sugar in your ice-cold beverage with disappointing results. I always stick to the sachets of Sweet ‘n Low instead. And if they don’t have those…it’s a Splenda-tasting Ice Tea instead. Yuck.

  5. Teddy

    Interesting post on tea! Recently I picked up this habit to have tea with friends whenever we have a meetup in town. It goes well with a full stomach and helps to ease the bloating too – sorry I’m sort of a glutton *weak smiles*.

    Black tea constitutes most of the tea that I have. My friends know how much I adore the simple teh-O-peng (iced black tea with sugar but no milk added), so much so that they would usually place it along with their orders without even asking me. I’m not complaining :) at least I don’t have to spend 5 minutes deciding what to have. Unlike the rest of my family who tend to rotate between different drinks, I am a faithful follower of teh-O-peng since the day my mom gave me a green light on tea.

    That brings us to a tiny backstory – my mom didn’t encourage tea-drinking in my brother’s and my childhood because of a belief that tea actually cleanses the intestines. Her worry is somewhat scientifically proven, with teas having a very high catechin content ending up killing the good and bad microbial flora in one’s intestines. Given my brother’s and my excellent track record in getting into hospitals and clinics with a variety of intestinal ailments, I am sure my mom had strong reasons why we shouldn’t be having tea when we were kids.

    When I am spoiled with choices, I will pick other types of tea too. Recently I tried rose hip, a very fragrant tea with a strong rosey smell infused into the drink. I love fruity teas too, like peach teas, although I try hard to shy away from bottled peach tea in the supermarkets because they tasted really fake (and syrupy).

    I don’t remember myself deviating from the common nomenclature of tea too. Just like you, I don’t care how the tea was prepared unless the taste varied greatly. I’m not too picky about the temperature of the water and etc – all I care is the signature taste of tannins in my mouth. However, I do dislike tea that have too much tannin in it. The drink will dry the mouth and give this unpleasant puckery aftertaste.

    Oh and I prefer my tea chilled/iced too! I was never a big fan of hot beverages.

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