The Secret of Russian Tea

By , October 18, 2009

It’s the time of year for hot beverages! Especially in October, particularly around Alaska Day, I like to turn to an old family staple, Russian tea.

We learned of Russian tea shortly after my family moved to Sitka, Alaska when I was eight years old. As the former capital of Russian America, Sitka retains the flavor of its days as a colonial town, and for me, that flavor is Russian tea.

My mother was a gracious hostess—but not at all in the high society use of that term. She was not a hostess of pearls, elegance, and perfectly dry martinis. She was a hostess of warmth, comfort, friendship, laughter, confidence and understanding. She did not entertain, she communed. And she always offered Russian tea along with other hot drinks. In fact, she became somewhat known for it. As an adult, I find that many people who use the Russian tea recipe refer to a card listing it as coming from my mother’s kitchen. We drank so much of it growing up, that I grew tired of it. Many years passed before I drank it after leaving home. I still drink it primarily in October, out of tradition, but these days it is for me—next to cocoa and coffee—the ultimate “comfort drink.”

Here is Mom’s recipe:

Combine the following:

2 cups Tang Instant Breakfast Drink
2 cups sugar
1 cup instant tea
1 cup pre-sweetened lemonade mix
1-1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves

Add about 2 full tsps per cup of hot water, or to taste.

You’ll notice that this is an “instant tea” recipe, and one of the ingredients is Tang instant breakfast drink. Purist that I am, I’ve often wondered about the original Russian tea recipe. What did colonial Russians, sitting in the salon at Baranof’s Castle, sip as they looked out over Sitka Sound, perhaps watching for the ship that would carry them back to Mother Russia? Surely it was simply black tea served from a proper samovar, but if it was “Russian tea” as I know it, how was it made?

Researching the question, I discovered many different ways of making Russian tea, also known as Alaska tea. The recipes vary from place to place, particularly along the southern coast of the state—the Aleutian Chain, Kodiak Island, Southeast Alaska—the areas most heavily influenced by Russian occupation. Most are instant, but some use actual fruit juices. Alaska Magazine’s indispensable Cooking Alaskan by Alaskansbook has a section of recipes to choose from.

Years ago, I thought I’d finally found the truly authentic recipe. We had returned to Sitka to celebrate Alaska Day, and of course, we visited Sitka National Historical Park. The visitors’ center has a gift shop, in which I found a cookbook compiled by one of the Russian matrons who continued living in Sitka after the United States purchased Alaska from her country. Flipping through the table of contents, I found Russian Tea listed, and quickly turned to that page, excited to have—at last—found an authentic recipe.

Here, as I remember it, is the entire entry from the book:

“Black tea and rum. If it doesn’t have rum in it, it isn’t Russian tea.”

Well.

Now, as I said, I’m a purist, so the next time I made a mug of Russian tea, I added a dollop of dark rum. The result was exquisite! This is not something my mother ever would have served, being a teetotaler, but the rum mixes perfectly with the citrus and spices. So now, when I pass on my mother’s recipe, as I pass it on here to you, I add the option of a dollop of dark rum, or, more temperately, rum flavoring to taste. And each time I drink my Russian tea, I toast the feisty little Russian matron, whose name I can’t recall, but who taught me how to really make Russian tea.

2 Responses to “The Secret of Russian Tea”

  1. Peggi Sorrell says:

    Hi, I just discovered your blog. It is most interesting. I have a Russian tea recipe, too. It is quite popular here in the deep south. Mine uses the following:
    2 c. Tang
    2 c. instant tea, presweetened with lemon (I use diet tea mix)
    2 tsp. cinnamon
    1 tsp. each cloves and nutmeg
    a small package apricot jello

    Mix together and use about 2 tsp. per mug of boiling water.
    The apricot jello is a surprise ingredient that I think makes it better than not having that. However, I am interested in trying your surprise ingredient (rum) in the next cup I mix. Thanks for enlightening us all to that tidbit. Good luck to you all. Peggi

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Peggi,

    Apricot JELLO? That sounds intriguing! Do you ever have trouble with it congealing if you let a cup sit too long?

    When I was a kid, our family would occasionally drink fresh Jello as a hot drink–we’d mix it up and drink it right away. Once when my parents were away from home, I stayed at a neighbors, but would go home about once a week to check the house. I made a cup of Jello, but got distracted. By the time I remember it, it had set, but I didn’t realize it till I tried to take a drink. I almost put my eye out with the spoon.

    We’ll have to try your recipe this year, ‘long about Alaska Day. Thanks!

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