Before I ventured to south-east Asia, my knowledge of beverages stretched to the usual Starbucks selection i.e. cappuccino, frappucino, lattes, espresso, earl grey tea, chai lattes, the odd iced caramel or green tea drink… and I thought they were the exotic ones! But my eyes were well and truly opened, when I touched down in Malaysia and hit up the many local food markets and food courts.
It definitely helps if you’re with locals a.k.a (in my case) my cousins. It’s useful because a) they can understand what the hell is written on the menu, b) they have the knowledge of the taste so they can gently steer you away from your bad decision of a jelly infused sludge tea, and c) you get to annoy and pester them to try all their beverages to help you in discovering what tickles your fancy in the fun Asian drinks.
In the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands we discovered ‘Pulled milk’ tea. It was a mystery but tasted delicious and it wasn’t until we flew over to Borneo where I received a full education of their teas…
Borneo’s proper down-and-dirty local food courts are made up of a load of stalls surrounding an area of plastic, wipe clean picnic benches which you cram on with your party and tag team to run around ordering whatever smells best. Soon a horde of food and drink is piled onto your table. My auntie cried “You must try this T e h – C, it’s the best in Malaysia” so down I gulped the brown tea like concoction. Low and behold it was the same style as from the Cameron Highlands! T e h – C, or Teh tarik, can be enjoyed hot (‘panas’) or cold (‘ping’) but the secret is in the ‘pulled’ milk. I enjoyed a demonstration by a lady boy in an Indian café where the sweet condensed milk is poured from great heights from one jug to another to mix it perfectly (apparently there’s competitions to see who can pour from the greatest height or do the most impressive pouring….). Here’s an example: Pulling Tea in Malaysia (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7X7W3lz9zi8)
The food courts that my cousins prowled held odd treasures such as iced milo, bubble teas, black teas, sour teas, fruity teas. Some had jelly balls, or ‘pearls’, lurking in the depths or actual square chunks of mystery black jelly which I politely nibbled… spat in a napkin….smiled and nodded to questions of whether it was to my taste..
Some interesting teas like ‘Sour Plum’ (there was an actual little dried plum floating around in the milky concoction), ‘Lychee’, ‘Peach’, ‘Papaya’, ‘Barley’, ‘Coconut’, ‘Mango’, ‘Rose’, ‘Honeydew’ and ‘Green Apple’ (to name a few) are relatively experimental and safe to taste. And can be enjoyed hot or cold!
If you’re not passing through Malaysia, then keep an eye out in Singapore’s cafes/stalls as well as Australia, which greatly surprised me with its amount of Asian bubble tea shops!
In contrast, Indonesian beverages did not impress me in the slightest: Lombok Kopi, Bali Kopi, Java Kopi, Sumatran Kopi are all ‘types’ of coffee for the different islands of Indonesia. However they are the exact same coffee granules which usually requires a filter. But at least you get to drink and eat coffee- a meal and a drink in one…
However, a word of warning. When the true Asian menu says ‘red bean’ be prepared for actual beans similar to kidney beans and sweet corn floating in your beverage. In my Western ingrained ways, I still believe that tea and vegetables do not work together. Ever.