A Taste of Home: Sri Lankan Milk Tea
Interview with Ro Silva
Throughout Asia, milk tea has so many variations, yet despite differences in how it’s made, the drink’s enduring popularity worldwide is a testament to its deliciousness and cultural significance. When Sri Lankans get together, for example, one thing is certain: Milk tea will be on the table.
When Sajani and I moved from Sri Lanka to the United States, we noticed that while boba was popular here, the Sri Lankan milk tea we loved was largely absent. Living so far away from home comes with its own unique set of challenges as well as opportunities, and enjoying a warm cup of milk tea always helps us feel like Sri Lanka isn’t too far away after all. While we could find some milk teas for purchase, none of them lived up to our expectations, and Sajani knew we should make the milk tea we were searching for ourselves.
An Expert’s Opinion
As a family, we feel so fortunate to have this shared love of food that’s so integral to our heritage. That’s why, after Sajani and I failed to find a milk tea that spoke to our experiences, we knew we had to call in our top Sri Lankan food expert: Sujatha, Sajani’s Amma. Sujatha is an incredibly talented cook and teacher, and she was thrilled to explain to us how she’s been making the family’s milk tea for years.
There was one slight problem, however: Sujatha makes milk tea by feel and experience, and therefore has never written down a precise recipe for Sajani and me to follow. Instead, we got old-school instructions about how many tea leaves to add, how much coconut sugar to pour in, and what constituted enough milk in the final mixture. We took notes as carefully as possible, using this as a jumping-off point to pin down the exact measurements needed to create — and re-create — the Sri Lankan milk tea we sought. Then we finalized our ingredients list.
Tea Leaves from Sri Lanka
Milk tea is, first and foremost, tea. Choosing one species of tea leaves over another to brew the tea itself will have a fundamental role in determining what the milk tea tastes like when it’s served. Moreover, like with wine grapes, even the same type of tea will express itself differently based on where it was grown and how it was processed. Sri Lanka, with its beautifully varied geography, is able to grow several species of tea at both high and low elevations for an inimitable sense of terroir. And Sri Lanka, which was formerly known as “Ceylon” through European colonization, grows a distinct and robust variety of tea still known today as Ceylon tea, which we chose for the base of Kola Goodies’ milk tea.
Sajani and I love to take a hands-on approach to our product development and actively work to shrink the supply chain, meaning everything we offer is Fresh AF. Our continuous commitment to selecting the highest-quality ingredients, as well as putting a name and face to the people whose livelihood revolves around growing the food that sustains us, led us to Sri Lanka to personally investigate potential sources for our milk tea. After meeting farmers who grow tea leaves on their own small farms throughout the island, we selected two sites from which to source our tea leaves. The first is in Ella, a high-elevation site at 3000 feet above sea level that produces Ceylon tea leaves with a delicate flavor. The second farm is located in Deniyaya, at 1200 feet above sea level, where the tea adds a substantial mouthfeel and bolder flavors.
Trial and Error
Once Sajani and I secured the best possible ingredients, it was time to begin testing milk tea recipe variations based on the directions Sujatha had given us. We tinkered with the amount of tea leaves to steep, the ratio of high elevation to low elevation tea leaves to use, and the proportion of milk to tea that tasted best. We also worked hard to simplify the process without losing its essence. After about six months of dedicated research, we made a genuine Sri Lankan milk tea that was powdered for convenience yet tasted like the ones from memory. It transported us right back to Sri Lanka.
Proud with what we had created, we began to share our milk tea with friends when they would come over to visit. Even our friends who grew up without milk tea loved it, and our friends who did grow up with milk tea felt the same rush of tradition, nostalgia, and connection to family that we did when we drank our Sri Lankan milk tea. Of course, we also had to seek a seal of approval from the expert: Sajani’s Amma. Sujatha took a sip and was thrilled with the result!
Whether you have generations of experience with this beloved tradition or you’re new to its charms, just add hot water and you too can experience a taste of our home.