Thai Iced Tea (Cha Yen)

Thai Iced Tea (Cha Yen) Recipe

I spent the last 4 weeks in Thailand and then Sri Lanka. I took thousands of pictures, hours of video, and return bearing lots of new recipe ideas and culinary inspirations. An amazing trip to two stunningly beautiful countries filled with many of the kindest and most friendly people I've met anywhere. I apologize for the extended hiatus.

A small slice of some of the things I encountered: bumble bees the size of kumquats, technicolor sweet thai custards, flat tires, tarantulas, warm smiles, slow trains, full moon and sunrise on Sri Pada, deliciously sweet orange juice made from the tiniest green-tinged oranges, edible scorpions, grilled bananas, cashew trees, grilled corn, savory watermelon seeds, geckos that lurk near bright lights in the evening to snatch up moths, ancient ruined cities, glitzy temples, a massive hillside aviary housing a white peacock, 5 days of 100 degree heat in Bangkok, a tiny Thai farm, squirrels as pets, hot carts with 5 different types of noodles, checkpoints, aquamarine water and powdery soft sand, concerts of cicadas, 5-foot water monitors, 22-hour flight home, election day in Sri Lanka, a green carpet of hillside tea plantations, big bats, the rare 25kg coco de mers, 4 hour 50 cent train rides, bird nests in living room light fixtures.

I promise to share more details and pictures from my trip in the coming weeks/months. I took a cooking class in Chiang Mai, tried quite a few traditional Sri Lankan delicacies, and traveled through the famous Ceylon Tea region. I have recipes and books to reference from both countries and am exited to explore the cuisines of both countries even more now that I am home. While in Thailand we had many delicious curries, exotic fruits, spicy papaya salads, and fresh sugar sweet grilled corn -- but somehow I made it out of Thailand without having a single Thai Iced Tea -- this is despite the sweltering heat that we experienced the entire time we were in the country.

I'm no tea expert by a long shot, but generally speaking I would like to understand more about it. Catching a glimpse of the tea industry in Sri Lanka was an eye opener for me. I was able to see the tea plants, the big hillside processing buildings. I was also able to meet a couple of the tea picking women with their betel nut stained teeth as they brought in their days haul to collect their payment before loading their baskets onto a waiting flatbed.

So for my first week back - a tea-related recipe. True Thai is an amazing cookbook that I don't explore nearly enough. The only thing between me and a sweetly refreshing tall glass were four ingredients, a little patience, and a tea strainer. I was only short the Thai tea (cha Thai), a red-leafed tea grown locally in Thailand. This special tea is then spiced up with a mix of vanilla, cinnamon, and star anise. I set off for Rainbow Foods figuring that outside of a real Thai market they would surely have a selection of this red tea. Not so.....Even thought they have huge rows packed with coffees, teas, and herbs -- either I was blind, or the Thai chai was a limited selection in the midst of other chais, green teas, and gourmet blends of every imaginable variety.

I bought two kinds - the brand that I ended up using was Thai Kitchen (many of you know their punchy little jars of red and green curry paste). I figure that because it was in fact Thai Kitchen brand, that at least the ingredients would be authentic, and their wasn't an alternative that I could find. I was looking for a terracotta-colored, strong tea that I could splash with a wave of evaporated milk. Thai Kitchen provided a box of loose leaf BLACK tea (lead ingredient), with other natural flavors not outlined. The box assure that the tea was grown in the fertile plains of Chiang Mai, but red tea it is not.

I guess this is the long way of saying I'm not sure how authentic this attempt turned out. The tea was strong and very sweet. It had a nice color that did seem to lean towards a reddish-auburn, but maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part. Maybe only a tea-head would notice the difference? I'm not sure. I will keep my eyes peeled for the red tea, and try again.

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In some of the early entries on this site I didn't request permission to run the recipe I was writing about from the publisher so it won't appear here. The majority of entries on 101 Cookbooks will have the recipes attached, this just happens to be one of the ones that doesn't.

From: True Thai Page: 353

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In China (and that general part of the world) fully fermented tea is called Red tea, in the west we call fully fermented tea Black tea. Why? Because the dry leaves are black but the liquid is often reddish, at least for leaves of Chinese origin. Non fermented tea is Green tea and partially fermented tea, which ranges from nearly green to nearly Black is known as oolong. Cave-aged tea from the Yunnan province is called puh-err and varies considerably, much like wine varies, some sucks, some is excellent. All come from the plant species Camellia Sinensis whether grown in Asia, Kenya, west Africa, or South America(blah). Although many subspecies have evolved in the different regions of Asia and the estate location plays a role in flavor too, again like wine. Roibos "red tea" is not tea at all but an unrelated plant from Africa. The brick red or bright orange Thai tea is made with black tea and food coloring as well as star anise, cloves, vanilla, orange blossoms, cinnamon, coconut milk, etc. It is boiled for half an hour rather than steaped for five minutes the way the English do and uses like 2-5 times more leaves per unit of water as well for a very strong brew.


There most definitely IS a red Thai tea, while not easy to find, you can buy it at Bangkok grocery on Geary street. Be careful though as it can turn your hands orange...and it is what they use for Thai iced tea. What they use for hot tea is usually Lipton Yellow Label brand.


Just stumbled upon your site, lots of fun. Regarding Thai iced tea, the tea you find in Thai stores is no special red tea, just plain old tea, but they add some food coloring to it to get that vibrant monk's robe orange color. You can bet the coloring they use is not FDA approved, but the stuff is so tasty that won't stop me from drinking it...


welcome back heidi! excited to see what southeast asian concoctions you will prepare for us to drool over.


merci, for clearing up that confusion! will order the zuni cafe book, toute de suite! and perhaps the san francisco chronicle one too, since the recipes sound so good! isabelle


Hi Isabelle, Sorry, you didn't miss anything obvious. I don't post the actual recipes out of respect for the author/publisher copyrights (and general goodwill). If I can find them elsewhere online, I will post a link to the recipes. I also try to cook from my favorite magazines semi-regularly, and they post full recipes on their respective sites. So I link directly into those. Alot of these books are popular and easy to find in stores, libraries, at a friends, on Amazon, etc. So if you see a recipe you are particularly excited about, it should be fairly easy to track down. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook you refer to in particular is a great one to have. It is beautifully written and photographed, and most of the recipes I have cooked from it are outstanding. Sorry for any confusion. -h


we missed you very much. can't wait to hear more about your food travels! -maggie


hello! or should i say, sawadee! did you happen to take your cooking class at chiang mai thai cookery school? that's where i chopped and sauteed and ate ate ate for a was great fun! i love your site -- just discovered it via clotilde at choc and zuch. one question -- your favorites page has lots of zuni cafe recipes i'd like to try, but where are the recipes? (can't look "inside" the book on amazon). am i missing something obvious? merci, isabelle in paris


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