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Among all the other reasons I'm grateful to have grown up in in a big city, I'd be remiss to not thank the bubble tea shops. I lived close to Flushing, Queens and most of my childhood friends were Asian, so bubble tea became a fact of life.
The best shops, of course, had techno blaring from arcade games and more bright neon colors than a Vegas casino. They were after-school hangout spots and date venues for awkward teens. And they served drinks so beautifully sugary you could play DDR for hours on the high.
The bubble tea parlor is the soda fountain of our time. And while I wouldn't trust one to make a proper egg cream, they do one better: Thai iced tea, that orange, condensed milk-spiked elixir like no other drink around.
Really like no other flavor around. The internet tells me that it's made with ingredients like vanilla, orange blossom, star anise, and presumably something to make it nuclear orange when diluted with milk. Which is all well and good, but I'm happy to stick to my Hand Brand leaves and not ask questions. Some things are best left unexamined. Besides, once you have the leaves, it couldn't be easier to make Thai iced tea at home. And Thai tea ice cream.
I had to make Thai tea ice cream at home because so few restaurants and scoop shops did it right. Even the most sugary Thai iced tea should taste, at its core, of tea; the same goes for ice cream. Almost every version I've encountered has tasted more like vanilla or orange (the color, not the flavor) than Thai tea—poor imitations of the real thing. So my version dialed back the sweetness and brewed a full half cup of tea leaves directly into the custard-bound dairy.
The result tastes like the best version of my bubble tea adolescence, grown up enough to not set your teeth on edge, but classically sweet and milky. It's not even a question that you should drizzle on—with a heavy hand—some sweetened condensed milk. The drizzle semi-freezes on contact and becomes something like sprinkles, only a thousand times better.
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About the author: Max Falkowitz writes Serious Eats' weekly Spice Hunting column. He's a proud native of Queens, New York, will do just about anything for a good cup of tea, and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.