Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Malaysia may be a country with a significant Muslim population, but our drinking culture is particularly strong. I’m referring of course to tea time—not alcoholic drinks. Minum petang, literally “evening drink,” is a mid-afternoon break many office workers take at the local mamak shop, where they sip hot drinks and catch up with one another. The word mamak is derived from the Tamil word mama, which means “maternal uncle.” Over the years, the term has come to refer to persons of Tamil Muslim descent living in Malaysia and Singapore. A “mamak shop,” meanwhile, usually refers to a sundry shop (something akin to a general store) or, more commonly, an eatery operated by Tamil Muslims serving halal South Indian-style food. 

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

These eateries hold a culturally significant place in our society. Many of them are open 24 hours, and they are where you go to catch up with friends, eat quick, cheap snacks or meals, and watch football. Mamak shops serve many items throughout the day, but teh tarik is possibly the most important of them all. Literally translated, “teh tarik” means “pulled tea,” a nod to how the hot tea is poured back and forth between two different cups to help cool it down and resulting in its signature frothy head of bubbles.

“Teh tarik as a drink is not that old, and there is fairly good documentation on its beginnings,” says Najib ‘Nadge’ Ariffin, a Malaysian cultural historian. People began brewing the beverage around World War Two, when resources were scarce. Boiling water was necessary for killing any germs that might have contaminated it, so hot drinks were the norm for folks rich and poor. Back then, tea was drunk more for its fortifying benefits than for recreation, which made it a good drink to fuel workers. Because both the good tea leaves and the sugar were monopolized by Japanese invaders and the wealthy, workers were left with plain tea made from what was essentially tea dust. Left too without sugar, they began to use cow’s milk, which had enough sweetness from lactose to counter the bitter tannins in the tea.

Why “pull” the tea, though? The answer is a practical one. “Instead of providing every person a teaspoon to stir their drinks with,” Nadge says, “the drinks would be premixed beforehand by pouring the tea and milk back and forth between two steel mugs. No teaspoon needed!”

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

The vessels that are usually used to pull tea in a mamak shop (and widely available for home use as well) is a steel mug locally called a kole. The person making tea would usually not be brewing fresh tea to order, but would draw from a large pot of already-brewed tea, then pulling it between two koles. It is then poured out into a separate glass mug for serving, or sometimes served right in the kole itself.

In addition to mixing the drink properly, the process of pulling also helps cool down the hot tea and creates a delightfully frothy head. When the manufacturing of condensed milk began around the 1950s, the ingredient became the more popular (and shelf-stable) option for sweetening tea.

These days, teh tarik is still made with a range of black teas, from powdered to whole leaf. Some places even make their own tea blends of a few different brands to combine the best qualities of each one. Since the early 2000s, there has been more awareness in Malaysia about sugar consumption, so many today like to order their teh tarik “kurang manis,” or less sweet. While this may generally be a good thing, using less condensed milk also reduces the tea’s overall richness.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

To counter this, many turn to evaporated creamer—which is creamy but not particularly sweet—for its full-bodied texture. This way, the condensed milk is only really employed as a sweetener. Of course, if you add a lot of condensed milk, the drink does become creamier, but it also becomes unbearably sweet. This combination of evaporated creamer and condensed milk results in a more well-rounded drink: slightly tannic and not too sweet, with a satisfyingly rich mouthfeel.

Since evaporated creamer can be difficult to find in some places, I experimented with a number of substitutions to find the closest match:

Half & half: The flavor is close but the fatty mouthfeel we want in teh tarik isn’t quite there. Much better to use the 38% cream option described below.Coffee creamer: This didn’t taste much different from regular milk tea. Not quite recommended.Evaporated milk: This is perfectly acceptable in texture and flavor. The only difference is there is slightly less of what I’d describe as a deep sweet flavor in proper teh tarik, which likely comes from the caramel-esque notes of evaporated creamer. If you do go this route, I wouldn’t recommend adding more condensed milk at the end, as it’d make the drink much too sweet.Heavy Cream: This was the best of all. The cream should be at least 38% fat (meaning you should use products labeled in the United States as “heavy cream” or “heavy whipping cream” but not “whipping cream,” “light cream,” or “half and half.” To make up for heavy cream’s lack of sweetness, add up to 1/2 tablespoon more condensed milk to the saucepan in step 3.

Do all of these options sound aggressive as far as fat and sugar content? Yes. Teh tarik is the poster drink for diabetes in Malaysia. But it’s also a beloved beverage, and from observation, I’d say most folks don’t even have one glass of the stuff a week. It’s very much a nostalgic type of treat meant to be savored, not a daily beverage.

Pack tea leaves into a tea filter bag or tea ball infuser.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add tea bag and continue to boil until the color of the tea is a rich amber, about 2 minutes.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Pour evaporated creamer (or heavy cream) and 1 tablespoon condensed milk (if using evaporated creamer) or 1 1/2 tablespoons condensed milk (if using heavy cream) into the tea and continue to boil, occasionally swirling the pan gently, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Remove and discard the tea bag. Pour half of the tea into a kole, second saucepan or a large heatproof measuring cup.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Add 1 tablespoon of condensed milk to each mug. Working with one saucepan (or measuring cup) and mug at a time, pour the tea from the saucepan into the mug. Then pour the tea from the mug back into the saucepan. Continue to do this at least three more times, lifting the pouring vessel higher and higher each time to “stretch” or “pull” the tea during each transfer; the tea should become frothy. Finish with the tea in the mug, then repeat the pulling process with the second vessel of tea and mug. Serve hot. (see notes)

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Special Equipment

Tea filter bag or tea ball infuser


The recipe can be scaled if desired, but remember to pull the tea one mug at a time for maximum froth.

Evaporated creamer can be difficult to find in the United States. From our tests, heavy cream (about 38% fat) is the best substitute we could find, but if you use it, you should increase the condensed milk by about 1/2 tablespoon (1 1/2 teaspoons) in step 3.

If the drinker prefers their drink sweeter, add another 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of condensed milk to their mug and pull the tea again several times to mix.

The vessels that are usually used to pull tea in a mamak shop (and widely available for home use as well) is a steel mug locally called a kole.  If a kole is unavailable, you can get the same results with a a second saucepan, heatproof measuring cup, regular mug, or combination of.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Teh tarik keeps in the fridge for at least 2 days, though the frothy bubbles will dissipate. You can enjoy it cold from the fridge, or pull the tea again to create the froth before drinking.

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