At dinner with friends last weekend, the conversation veered toward New Year’s resolutions. The hostess revealed that “drink more tea” was on her list for 2023. It’s such a lovely aspiration, far better than “get a gym membership” or “eat more vegetables” or “do something about those awful toilet bowl rings.” The resolution to drink more tea suggests not just the act of ingesting a flavorful liquid, but also taking time to pause and savor small, everyday moments. That’s the kind of resolution I can get behind. My toilet bowl rings can stay where they are; I choose more time for tea.
Inspired by our tea-drinking friend, my husband and I chose a teahouse as the ideal setting to write our list of goals and wishes for the coming year. The lists are an enjoyable annual tradition for us, less in the vein of “lose 10 pounds” and more like “get an octopus tattoo.” We went to Ovation Coffee &Tea in Portland’s Pearl District. This airy, modern café, one of four locations in Portland and Lake Oswego, Ore., serves espresso drinks with a North African twist (think pistachio lattes) and Moroccan-style teas in silver teapots with tiny glass cups on embossed silver platters. I ordered the Moroccan Luwessa: Dried lemon verbena leaves steeped in slightly sweet warm milk. It was so comforting, like the warm, honeyed milk my mother used to give me as a child, but more fragrant and invigorating.
I was curious about this beverage and did a little research when I got home. I found lots of information about luwessa (also called luiza) tea made from lemon verbena leaves, but no recipes for steeping it in milk, though the process seemed pretty straightforward at Ovation: fill a tea strainer with dried lemon verbena leaves and cover it with hot milk, wait a little while, and drink.
Milk tea — tea brewed in milk instead of water — is common in many cultures, such as masala chai in India and Pakistan, teh tarik in Malaysia and Singapore, laphet yay cho in Burma and Myanmar, shahi haleeb in Yemen or suutei tsai, a salty milk tea served in Mongolia. Milk tea is also the base for classic bubble tea drinks consumed across Asia and now available at bubble tea cafes around the world, a refreshing concoction of cold, sweet, milky tea poured over warm, chewy tapioca pearls (aka boba) and served with a big, boba-slurping straw.
There’s also milk tea’s dear sister, tea with milk — tea brewed in water with milk added. In coffee shops, you can order a tea latte, or tea with steamed milk; a London Fog, for example, is Earl Gray tea with steamed milk and vanilla. Tea with milk is how tea is consumed in Great Britain and in our house, morning and evening, without fail. In fact, I’m so used to drinking tea with milk that I’m always shocked when I order tea in a restaurant and I get a tea bag and a mug of hot water. When I ask for milk, I’m sometimes given cream. However, full-fat cream can overpower tea’s delicate flavor whereas milk offsets some of tea’s natural bitterness without disguising any flavor. Milk also contains tryptophan, an amino acid that increases serotonin and can make you feel relaxed and sleepy. If you brewed a milk tea with an herb such as chamomile that’s reputed to be calming, well, you might just drop off in the middle of this sentence. Good for you. “Take more naps” should be right up there with “drink more tea.”
I tried brewing my own milk tea at home, using both black teas and herbal mixtures. The basic formula is to pour 2 cups of milk into a saucepan and add 3 to 4 generous teaspoons of loose-leaf green or black tea, depending on how strong you like your tea. If you don’t have loose-leaf tea, use less-fussy tea bags instead, two tea bags per cup of milk. Simmer the mixture on low for 10 minutes and then pour through a strainer into one large 16-ounce mug or two smaller 8-ounce cups. The key is to heat the milk without scalding it, which can produce an unpleasant flavor. (I don’t think scalded milk is all that terrible, but you might. Burnt milk is technically edible but tastes like charbroiled socks and you can’t get that scorched protein off the bottom of your pan.) For a sweeter tea, add a teaspoon of honey to the milk while it’s simmering.
Strike a balance
Mix fresh or dried herbs with black or green tea for a caffeinated flavor combination but be careful about using fruit-based teas or tisanes because the acids could cause the milk to curdle. You can also add spices such as vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, clove, star anise and the like. You can further play with the flavor by adjusting the milk; whole milk will result in a creamy, rich milk tea, whereas skim milk will be less silky but still workable. I struck a balance and used 1 percent milkfat.
For my first experiment, I brewed a smoky lapsang souchong with fresh rosemary. This was objectively terrible. The tea had a sharp resinous flavor, bitter and astringent. Nevertheless, I was eager to try other fresh herb combinations using what’s in my garden, withered though they might be in their winter dormancy.
Next, I tried making sage milk tea. I simmered fresh sage leaves in milk for 10 minutes with a little honey. The resulting milk tea had a mild sage flavor but not much kick. I tried it again with black tea and liked it much better. In fact, all the herbal combinations I tried tasted better with black tea. My favorites were fresh lavender with cinnamon-fig loose-leaf black tea and fresh mint and thyme brewed with Irish Breakfast tea bags.
I encourage you to try different combinations using what you have on hand and whatever herbs and spices you like. Drink it warm or chill it in the fridge for a cold brew. However you make it, milk tea is a comforting, calming treat that will help soothe whatever troubles you; it’s the tea for 2023.