SE Asia’s Sweetest Thirst-Quenchers

In addition to their lip-smacking culinary repertoire, many Southeast Asian nations offer plenty of sweet, non-alcoholic beverages to tempt visitors as well.

In addition to their lip-smacking culinary repertoire, many Southeast Asian nations offer plenty of sweet, non-alcoholic beverages to tempt visitors as well.

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It’s a common aim amongst travellers to set out on their journeys with a hit list of alcoholic beverages to sample whilst they’re on vacation.

From the finest single malt Japanese whiskey to Thai rum infused with tropical flavours, there is plenty to choose from in Asia – but what about non-alcoholic drinks? These are the delectable concoctions that will satisfy any sweet tooth craving and the creamy creations that can often double up as dessert. Local, family-run eateries or roadside hawker stands are often the best places to capture the true essence of the local flavour, and we’ve put together an irresistible selection of tasty beverages to tickle your taste buds.

Unmistakeably Orange

If you’re in search of a tall, refreshing beverage that will revitalize your senses after a long day exploring the local sights, then look no further than an icy glass of Thai milk tea. Before ordering this drink, it’s best to banish any preconceptions of what a strong, milky tea should be like as this creamy, bright orange beverage is a million miles away from the steaming golden cup of English breakfast tea that you might be used to. This black tea infusion is served at cafes and restaurants across Thailand, although for the freshest and most authentic flavour you’re best off sampling it at a street food stall. To prepare your tea, the vendor will brew one tablespoon of Thai black tea in hot water, creating a small shot of liquid that’s almost scarlet in colour. Once it’s had time to steep, this mixture is blended with a generous lashing of condensed milk and a dash of fresh milk, giving it a sweet, creamy allure. The blend is then poured over ice, ready for you to drink. This beverage also doubles up nicely as a naughty, calorific dessert.

An Irresistible Blend

For those in need of a caffeine boost, then a thick cup of iced Vietnamese coffee (ca phe sua da) should do the trick. Strong in flavour, and chocolatey in its consistency, this irresistibly rich nectar is a true treat for all coffee lovers. A dark roasted blend gives this java its unmistakeably strong flavour, as light roasted varieties are more likely to be overpowered by the sweet kick of the condensed milk that’s added later. A steel filter is filled with coffee and the syrupy mixture is left to drip into the glass below – the process usually takes about five minutes, making this the perfect beverage to sit and people-watch with as you laze away an afternoon at a local café in Hanoi. Once your coffee has finished brewing, the condensed milk is added. Some establishments use a toothpick soaked in fish sauce to stir the concoction, as this brings a saltiness to the drink that cuts though the bitter coffee flavour. The whole lot is then mixed with ice to complete your refreshing beverage.

Naturally Delicious

If you had been wondering what the street food stalls with their own metal crank contraptions attached were serving, you have your answer – sugar cane juice. If you’re on the lookout for a sweet pick-me-up while you’re on the go, then a quick drink of this syrupy yet refreshing nectar could be just what you’re after. The hand-powered crank is used to extract the raw sugar cane juice right before your eyes, pumping it into a plastic cup or an ice-filled bag for your slurping pleasure. It’s a popular beverage across Vietnam, Cambodia and parts of Southern Thailand in particular, and something you’ll see many of the locals enjoying while they’re out and about. While the juice is incredibly sweet, its watery consistency also makes it incredibly refreshing, too – perfect to cool you down on a hot day in the tropics.

Frothy and Fantastic

Southeast Asia is home to a myriad of different tea blends and brews, but a warming cup of Malaysian teh tarik has to be one of our ultimate favourites. This wonderful frothy creation is enjoyed by locals in restaurants and roadside eateries across the country as they chow down on freshly-baked roti and catch up on gossip. Like Thai milk tea, this blend comprises a sweet mix of black tea and condensed milk. However, it’s the preparation process that gives teh tarik its unique allure, and the skill of the vendor making the tea can affect the brew’s consistency and flavour considerably. Once the blend has had time to brew, it is mixed with sweetened condensed milk. It is then steeped to the perfect creamy consistency by pouring it back and forth between two jugs, with the stream lifted higher and higher as the process continues. This procedure – known as ‘pulling’ – gives the beverage it’s characteristically frothy consistency and makes it a wonderfully creamy delight to drink.

Two Birds, One Stone

This coconut creation doubles up as a chilled, refreshing beverage and a sweet, satisfying dessert. Cendol is a traditional snack across Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The snack goes by many names, and is known in Vietnam as bahn lot while Cambodians simply call it lot. In Myanmar, it’s more likely to be referred to as mont let saung while the Thais will call it lot chong. The best part is, you can look forward to trying a scrumptious local variation wherever you go. Essentially, cendol is made from a rice flour concoction that looks like green jelly noodles, mixed with palm sugar, coconut milk and shaved ice. Other tasty ingredients such as red beans, glutinous rice, grass jelly and creamed corn may also be added to give the cendol an extra punch of flavour, depending on where you’re purchasing it.

Top tips

  • If you prefer your non-alcoholic beverages without the extra kick of sugary sweetness, then perhaps the water from a young, green coconut is more suited to your taste buds. Widely hailed in the West as one of the healthiest superfood drinks of all, the natural composition of coconut water will top up your body’s electrolytes – making it the ideal remedy for a hangover.
  • Like Vietnamese coffee, Cambodian java packs a powerful punch of flavour and offers a caffeine hit that makes the brew roughly akin to rocket fuel. If you’re buying a plastic bag of iced coffee at a local street food stand, it often comes with a thirst-quenching bag of tea to wash it down with. This means you get your caffeine boost as well as a highly refreshing drink of iced tea – it’s a win-win situation.
  • Some of the drinks listed above have been prepared in the same way for centuries. If you’re keen to interact with the locals on your travels and learn more about the unique culture you’re exploring, then going to a roadside stall to sample the local fare is one of the best ways to do it.
  • If you’re not quite in the mood for one of the naughty sweet treats above, then never fear – thanks to the abundance of locally-produced exotic fruits across Southeast Asia, a fresh fruit shake stall is never too far away. Pineapple, mango, watermelon, coconut and dragon fruit are just a few of the fruits likely to be thrown into your healthy concoction, and will give you the vitamin and energy boost you need to get through the day.
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