Malaysiana: Our tea drinking culture
Malaysians love tea. Teh tarik has become our symbol of national pride, but in the last century, tea drinking has moved: from the street into shopping malls and now into specialised tea salons.
In 1929, Englishman JA Russell bought a tract of land in Cameron Highlands and started the country’s first highland tea plantations with his company, BOH. The Malaysian family business Bharat Tea also established its plantations not long after. Both companies have survived to this day, with BOH becoming Malaysia’s most popular brand of take-home tea.
Under colonial rule, the English habit of taking afternoon tea caught on among local civil servants and the Malayan upper classes. The tradition has continued: Earlier this year the King and Queen of Malaysia hosted a royal tea party for 3,000 guests at their new palace. At the same time, afternoon tea is a lot more accessible than it used to be, with local restaurants serving up their own versions of the classic English spread of tea, scones and sandwiches.
For most people, however, the heartland of tea is still in hawker stalls, kopitiams and mamaks, and besides teh tarik, other popular variations have emerged. We’ve got teh si peng, the three layer tea ascribed to Sarawak, the spice-scented Masala tea, and some places even serve ‘cham’, a blend of both tea and coffee – every purist’s nightmare.
Then in 2000, Malaysian entrepreneur Tan Chin Nee returned from a trip to Taiwan and, inspired by the Taiwanese bubble tea, decided to start a local kiosk: Yippee Cup. Little did she know that ten years later, bubble tea would be a hit drink among Malaysian urban youth. Both Gong Cha (www.gong-cha.com.my) and Chatime (www.chatime.com.my), two of the biggest Taiwanese bubble tea brands, started Malaysian franchises in 2011. In the space of less than two years, the signature chewy pearls have become a staple of shopping malls.
More recently, another new trend has emerged: a taste for luxury tea leaves, both in supermarkets and in tea salons. The Tea Republic (ttr.com.my), a tiny shop dedicated to fine teas and the culture of tea enjoyment, holds court in Bangsar. Earlier this year, TWG (www.twgtea.com) opened their first tea salon in Pavilion mall. The Singaporean tea retailer is known for its refined and expensive blends, which include a tea that features ‘gold flavouring’ and retails for RM99 (100g). In the wake of the growing appreciation for good coffee in Malaysia, it seems we’re becoming tea connoisseurs too.