Sweet Tea Syrup
One of my favorite things – and part of the reason I started my #GentGoesGlobal series – is discovering cross-cultural connections. Learning about the similarities that cultures share in regards to food fills me with so much joy and wonder.
These similarities develop in a number of ways. One way is, of course, colonialism. When Europeans conquered the world, they facilitated the spread of plants and animals and cuisines to all corners of it. Which would be so cool, if it weren’t for the raping, pillaging, disease, and centuries of racism that came along with it. But hey, we got butter chicken out of it, so that’s cool (he said sarcastically, in case that wasn’t evident).
Fortunately, not all similarities were brought about by force. Independent invention is one of the most fascinating concepts that I learned about while doing an undergrad in anthropology. This simply refers to people in different parts of the world coming up with the same idea – completely independently of each other. It’s how civilizations are believed to have started. One person wasn’t traveling the world spreading the idea that people should stop wandering around and start settling down and planting things; rather, groups of people came to that conclusion independently.
Today’s recipe is, I believe, an example of independent invention. I say “believe” because there’s precious little knowledge on the Internet regarding Middle Eastern immigrants’ impact on the American South. In fact, there’s precious little information on sweet tea syrup in general, outside of a handful of blogs. But let’s back up: what is sweet tea syrup, and what does it have to do with the Middle East?
The Persian Ponderings
You may recall my very first official blog post of the #GentGoesGlobal series on Iranian sekahnjebin. As I was generating the idea for the post, I told my friend and fellow blogger J.C. (of JCPEats) about it. “That sounds like sweet tea syrup!” he exclaimed, which started a whole discussion on cross-cultural comparisons.
It turns out that he has been making a similar recipe for years, and it has been passed down for generations in his family since a farmhand introduced it to his relatives. Instead of mint, the sugary syrup is flavored with black tea, and the resulting concentration is stored for easy access to iced tea whenever the urge strikes.
I had to know more about this, and see if it was in any way connected to the sweet and cooling mint concoction that I was learning about. As I said earlier, an internet search lead to rather inconclusive results. But what I did learn about the history of tea in America shocked me to my lil Southern core.
The Sticky History of Sweet Tea
According to sources that I found, what I thought was an enduring staple of Southern food culture was started in – gasp – the NORTH. Americans began drinking sweetened iced tea as an ingredient in alcoholic mixed party drinks. One of the first recipes for these so-called “tea punches” comes from a cookbook called The Kentucky Housewife published in 1839, which calls for brewed green tea to be sweetened and mixed with champagne. Iced tea itself wasn’t popular until just after the Civil War, when a Chicago newspaper declared the drink more effective than a lager at cooling down the summer heat.
Newspapers around the country picked up notice of the drink, including a New Orleans paper that declared in 1868 that “iced tea with lemon juice is said to be a healthy and popular drink at the North.” Iced tea was sweetened to the drinker’s palate after it was brewed, but was often taken with sugar nonetheless. It wasn’t until ice began to be a commercially viable product around the turn of the century that iced tea was enjoyed down South (after all, without ice to harvest, how could such a drink as iced tea ever be widespread?).
Towards the middle of the century, Southerners began sweetening the tea right after brewing it so that the sugar could easily dissolve into the hot beverage before it was cooled. So while we can’t necessarily claim the advent of iced tea, the way we like to make it is, in fact, ours (or so it seems to be).
A Concentrated Effort
“But what about the sweet tea syrup, I didn’t click on this blog post to read a damn thesis on tea.”
That’s where there is little to no information to be found. I found a patent from 1958 for iced tea concentrate, and another from 1999 for sweet tea concentrate, but those were meant to be used industrially in restaurants. There’s not much about how homemade concentrated syrup came to be, or if it was influenced by other cultures.
So with little info to go on, I’m choosing to see a delightful case of two cultures coming up with similar ways to beat the sweltering heat. The Iranians with their cool mint syrup, thinned with ice water and shredded cucumbers; the people of the southern US with their concentrated sweet tea, ready at a moment’s notice for guests with a little ice and water.
Below, you’ll find the recipe I developed for my own sweet tea syrup. It’s essentially my sekahnjebin recipe with tea bags subbed in for mint, so all of the processes should be familiar if you’ve tried that out. Reach out if you have any questions, or want to talk about connections you’ve made between these recipes and your own life and experiences. I look forward to hearing from you!
Until next time, wishing you good drinking, great eating, and even better living.
Sweet Tea Syrup
- 2 iced tea bags (large bags of black tea)
- 1 cup water
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 Tbsp lemon juice
- In a medium heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat the water to a boil. Place the tea bags in, cover it with a lid, and take it off the heat. Allow to steep for at least 3 minutes, longer for stronger tea.
- When the tea has finished steeping, remove and discard the tea bags. Add the sugar and lemon juice, and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes, or until the syrup coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and allow to cool before pouring into a jar. Store at room temperature.
- To serve, spoon two tablespoons of syrup into a glass. Fill with warm water and stir until dissolved. Add ice cubes to cool the drink, and garnish with slices of lemon. Enjoy!