Beyond Southern Sweet Tea: How Sweet Tea Is Drunk Around the World

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Teri Virbickis)

A mistake had been made. My mother absentmindedly asked for an iced tea at the roadside barbeque joint in rural North Florida. To her chagrin, before she could chase down the waitress and clarify unsweetened tea, a beverage appeared with a glycemic index somewhere between that of a Coca Cola and straight simple syrup.

At 8 years old, I was more than happy to drink the sweetened beverage, the sucrose completely masking any bitterness in the tea that my immature pallet would have rejected. I could see my mom hesitate as she allowed me to drink it, pretty sure the combination of sugar and caffeine would have me trying to climb out of the car windows during the last leg of the long hot drive to Hartford, Alabama. But she relented — it was summertime, after all, and I was about to spend the next three weeks being filled to the brim with sweet tea, biscuits with homemade fig preserves, and heavenly hash. It couldn’t hurt to start the sugar high a few hours early.

Sweet tea has become ubiquitous with hospitality in the American South, but southerners aren’t alone in their taste for the juxtaposition of tannins and sugar. From Senegal to Southeast Asia, people prefer to prepare their tea, whether hot or iced, with a scoop (or more) of sugar. Here is a look at the tradition of sweet tea in the States and further afield.

Sweet Tea in the American South

“True sweet tea is brewed sweet, but if you want to keep the peace, you are going to brew it unsweet and offer your guests simple syrup.” And it has to be a simple syrup, because “no amount of stirring will ever dissolve dry sugar.” This is the gospel of sweet tea in the South according to Sheri Castle, southern food writer, recipe expert extraordinaire, and North Carolinian.

Just how sweet sweet tea is and if it is served with lemon or mint varies widely throughout the region. “I don’t really care if it is sweet or not, but if you don’t offer me lemon with iced tea … that is just ugly!” opines Julia Rhodes, Decatur, GA transplant to NYC.

But how sweet tea became synonymous with the American South is still a bit of a mystery. Southern food historian Robert F. Moss, currently writing a history on the subject, says that iced tea originated north of the Mason-Dixon: “You first start seeing recipes for iced teas, sweet teas, and tea punches in New York and Philadelphia areas after the Civil War.”

These recipes quickly spread to the South, thanks to the national press, where, Moss explains, “it is hotter longer, so of course iced drinks would be popularized, especially as tea became more inexpensive and electricity more widespread.”

The real question is where the preference for sweetness came into the picture. Moss believes “it is something that has really only taken hold in the last few decades of the 20th century.”

Sweet Mint Tea in Morocco

Maghrebi mint tea is often called “Moroccan mint tea,” but all over North Africa and into West Africa, variations on this sweet hot tea are served. An early example of the influence of trade and globalization on cuisine, the tea combines the gunpowder green tea imported from China with sugar from the Americas and locally grown mint or other herbs.

Brewed with boiling hot water, the tea is sweetened by adding sugar during the steeping process to ensure that the sugar completely dissolves in the liquid. Served first thing in the day, as well as after each meal, in the mid-afternoon, and whenever one entertains company, tea is so central to life and culture that many families have a dedicated tea burner or stove.

Not all North and West African countries sweeten and flavor the tea in the exact same way. In Senegal, for example, the tea is poured back and forth from glass to pot to create a thick froth in the tea. In Mali, the sugar will be added in the individual glass before the hot tea is poured. Mint might be muddled in with it as well, but it isn’t as essential to the tea as herbs and spices are in other regions.

While the process varies, everyone agrees that you allow the tea leaves to remain in the pot. The continued steeping changes the taste and strength of the tea with each pour. Tea is typically served in three rounds, described in order as gentle like life, strong like love, and bitter as death.

Iced Tea with Condensed Milk in Southeast Asia

Thai iced tea might be the most famous of the South Asian sweetened teas, but across the region people enjoy hot or iced tea enhanced with sweetened condensed milk. In Myanmar, many people like to allow the sweetened condensed milk to sink to the bottom of a cup of hot tea, leaving it as a treat for the end. In Malaysia, however, the teh tarik is poured back and forth between containers to create a frothy top and evenly distribute the sweetened milk.

Sometimes, though not often, the tea (typically Ceylon or Ceylon blended Assam) is served black with just sugar or flavored with lime. And, typically, this sweet tea is a beverage consumed in restaurants and outdoor food stalls, rather than in the home. “I didn’t grow up preparing it at home,” explains Bangkok native Pittaya Paladroi-Shane. “It was more something we got when we went out because it was everywhere. It is a very social activity.”

Your turn: How do you take your tea? Sweet or not? Iced or hot? Strong like love or bitter as death?