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Thickener in Thai iced tea?

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I'm in Thailand at the moment, enjoying all the fabulous food and ordering from street stalls whenever the stall looks popular. I've been watching the cooking whenever I can. I've seen something added to Thai iced tea that I believe is a thickening agent.

Here's what happens - the vendor adds some tea leaves to a tea sock in a metal container, adds hot water and steeps it briefly. The sock is removed and the tea poured into a big plastic cup. Two powders are then added. One is clearly white sugar, the other powder is also stark white, very finely powdered, and not caked up at all, despite the tropical heat and humidity. These are swirled around with the hot tea briefly, to dissolve, and then the liquid is poured over a big glass or paper cup of ice. After that the condensed milk goes in.

I've seen agar-agar sold in the markets here, but I don't know for sure that that's what the second powder is. I can pretty much rule out powdered milk since it's not truly white and would likely cake up in the humidity. I can't rule out coffee mate or any number of other substances. Though the coffeemate would likely be kept in its original packaging. The powder I'm seeing has been removed from whatever packaging it was originally in and put in a glass jar. This sort of supports my theory that it's agar-agar, since that is sold in plastic bags that would spill the stuff all over if it were being used by a street vendor.

My Thai is nowhere near good enough to tackle asking about this ingredient. Nor would I expect the vendor's English to be up to translating that one. I've no objections to the thickener, by the way. In fact I like it and would like to know how to reproduce it at home.

Any ideas?

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  1. Maybe Tapioca flour?

    8 Replies
    1. re: gnomatic

      It's possible. Is tapioca powder stark white? Have you ever seen it in a *very* finely textured powder? Also, is it used much in Thailand? Agar agar is definitely used all over Asia. I don't know about tapioca...thus my questions.

      1. re: lyagushka

        Tapioca flour is very fine white powder, similar to cornstarch in texture. I know it's used in Thai cooking as a thickening agent, though don't know if it's used in drinks. It's just a guess on my part, since tapioca pearl thai ice tea is a popular combination, using tapioca flour in just tea doesn't seem like a big leap.

        Agar agar is usually used for the gel/jelly like consistency..not so much as a thickener.

        1. re: gnomatic

          Agar agar also needs to be heated beyond its melting point of about 170F before it will thicken a liquid. I agree, probably not agar.

          1. re: babette feasts

            Well, whatever it is is added to the tea when it's very hot, well over 170F. So agar agar should thicken at that point if that's what it is.

            1. re: babette feasts

              Do you know why it's called "agar agar" instead of just "agar"? My Japanese friend doubles it too and I'm curious.

              1. re: pdxgastro

                The English usage "agar" comes from the Malay word for it, which is agaragar, all one word, although some people write it as agar-agar.

                1. re: ninrn

                  Thx.

            2. re: gnomatic

              Tapioca starch, like cornstarch, needs to be dissolved in cold water to make a slurry otherwise it will clump when it comes into contact with hot liquid. So probably not tapioca.

        2. Why thicken iced tea?

          1 Reply
          1. re: Jay F

            I don't know. I can't even be sure that the powder IS a thickener, although it seems to me that the Thai tea I'm getting here, and even the stuff back home is subtly thickened. Nothing dramatic of course, just not normal tea consistency. I used to think it was just the condensed milk adding body, but now I'm not so sure.

          2. If you have a smartphone you could bring up pictures of agar-agar and tapioca and point to jar of mystery stuff then to your pictures. Ie, do sort of a sign-language question. (I'm assuming you're on vacation and don't have forever and a day to figure this out.)

            1. I was going to say it may be powdered milk since usually cream or milk, plus the condensed milk are used. A street vendor may not be able to keep fresh milk or cream from spoiling in the heat. But you think it isn't because of the color. I can't think of a single reason why a thickener would be used.

              1. my guess is some kind of non-dairy creamer like coffee-mate...much cheaper and easier to portion than condensed milk. no reason to assume it did NOT come in a plastic bag (or some large bulk-container) and the vendor re-packages it in glass for ease of use.

                Thai iced tea often has cream/milk AND condensed milk. If you're familiar with condensed milk in drinks (like Vietnamese iced coffee) you can judge to see whether the amount the vendor uses matches with the level of "creaminess".

                1. Could you just ask one of the vendors, or is the language barrier too much? If so, maybe post this query on the China & Southeast Asia board. Someone who lives there might know or be willing to ask for you.

                  1. Maybe bring up Google Translate on your phone and ask the question? I haven't tried it myself but a friend on vacation in France used it with good success...

                    1. order one without the white powder and see how it goes. easy enough to use sign language to communicate "no white powder" and "thank you"

                      1. Just in case anyone's still interested...It's powdered coffeemate. While I'm not hugely thrilled to find that the tea I like so much in Thailand includes a totally synthetic ingredient, at least now I know. I confirmed by simply pointing to the containers of powdered stuff on street vendor stalls (after they'd made my tea) and asking a few of them, "Coffeemate?" They all said yes. The stuff shows up everywhere in individual serving packets, so I guess it's not all that surprising.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: lyagushka

                          Sad discovery.