Thailand has two seasons, hot and really hot. Temperatures soar into the triple digits and the humidity is unforgiving. Cold drinks are very important, and though they may sound familiar, they’re frequently very different from those found in this country.
Of course there are many fruit juices, but they’re made from an abundance of tropical fruits that can’t be found anywhere else. Similarly, though iced teas and coffees are familiar almost everywhere in the world, in Thailand they are made differently.
Still, most of these drinks are easy to make at home. Most Asian markets stock a wide assortment of frozen and dried tropical fruits, as well as powdered mixes for teas and coffees. You can also find many of these beverages in cans, ready to use.
Thai iced tea is probably the best known of all of them. In many ways, it is a close cousin to Indian chai tea, which also has recently become popular in the West.
In Thailand, tea is very strong. It starts with a base of black tea leaves that have been fully fermented and roasted. Then various spices are added, such as cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, vanilla and cloves, though precise recipes vary, as no two Thai cooks do exactly the same thing.
Although Western teas are gently steeped very briefly, Thai tea is strong because it is boiled vigorously for almost half an hour. The tea is then strained--either through cheesecloth or a steeping bag--and sweetened with sugar. Then it is chilled to be served over ice, with half-and-half added.
Thai iced tea has become more and more colorful with its migration to America. In Thailand, it does not always have that orange color that is so familiar here. When made by the street vendors and small teahouses, it is a creamy light brown color. The mysterious orange hue found in this country is actually food coloring.
However, in recent years, orange Thai tea has also caught on in Thailand. Many teahouses now use the same colorful mix that is used here, though you still see the classic brown Thai tea occasionally. Thai tea is also commonly served with lemon instead of cream; this version is called cha manow.
Another kind of iced tea frequently enjoyed by Thais is brewed from dried chrysanthemum flowers. Chrysanthemum tea is almost always sweetened with sugar, sometimes Chinese rock sugar. A little black tea might be added to strengthen it.
Chrysanthemum tea has an almost fruity quality that is refreshing when cold and comforting when hot. Its mild flavor makes it a great alternative to the stronger, more bitter teas.
Though coffee is a relatively new beverage to Asia, introduced by the Europeans, the Thai have adopted it enthusiastically and use it in many of the same ways they use tea.
Thai iced coffee is nothing like its American counterpart. Oliang, as it is called in Thailand, has a distinctive taste all its own. It is strong with a tangy sweet flavor that comes from roasted tamarind. Roasted corn is also added, giving it a smoky finish.
Like iced tea, Thai coffee is boiled for almost half an hour to fully steep. It is always sweetened with sugar and then served, hot or cold, with a choice of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk or half-and-half.
There are also many cold drinks based on tropical fruits, such as longans. Native to China, longans now grow all over Southeast Asia and in parts of Florida. They are small round fruits about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, with a thin brown shell and flesh that is sweet and tangy with a flowery finish.
Longans are very difficult to get fresh on the West Coast and are primarily available canned or dried. The longan drink is best made from the dried fruit, which looks like large raisins. The fruit should be sticky from all the natural sugars.
Making the juice is simple. Reconstitute the dried fruit in boiling water and add sugar. The softened fruit can be added to the drink as a garnish or it can be eaten by itself. Longan juice can keep in the refrigerator for weeks at a time.
And who knows: The way Southern California weather goes, you just might need it for that long.