Making Russian Tea: The Rest of the Story

By , October 19, 2009

They say one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

In writing previously on Russian tea, I came across information that didn’t fit easily into my main thesis, but if that article interested you, I owe it to you to provide the rest of the story.

I confess that my simple plan to share my late mother’s instant Russian tea recipe became ridiculously complicated. After years of making it, using a recipe card my mother wrote for me, I couldn’t find it to pass along! I emailed family, but at this point in our lives, only my sister has very many of Mom’s original recipes. She was traveling at the time, and couldn’t get to the recipe collection. I eventually got it from my father, who copied it from a community cookbook to which a neighbor had contributed Mom’s recipe.

It was important to me personally to include this particular recipe, but there was also a practical matter: most recipes call for a specific amount of lemonade mix, generally “one package of __________ brand lemonade.” In many cases, that particular brand is no longer available, and there’s usually no indication of how much that prepackaged amount would make. Some recipes say “enough to make one quart,” which could vary from brand to brand. I knew that Mom’s recipe included a standard measure, and I needed that amount.

Mom’s recipe turns out to be a bit lighter on spices than some. We are a family that loves our spices, so I compared and contrasted other recipes that would make the same volume of instant powder, but with higher spice content. For the record, a tablespoon each of Cinnamon and Cloves seems about right to our particular tastes.

Before recovering my mother’s recipe, I found many other Russian tea recipes, both instant and “scratch.”  Of course, I was able to find several on the Internet. Surprisingly, most of the people posting the recipe talked of it as a Christmastime drink, and suggested giving jars of it to friends as Christmas gifts. Since I strongly associate the drink with Alaska Day, that struck me as odd. However, when I mixed up a fresh batch of the powder, the smells of citrus, cinnamon and cloves wafting around the cabin emphatically evoked Christmastime! It would indeed make an excellent Christmas drink.

Where truth got in the way of my previous story was that I did find what I believe may be an authentic Russian tea recipe that goes beyond the terse opinion of my beloved Russian matron. It is not instant, of course, and it contains one rather alarming and unexplained ingredient, but I had to try it.

I found it on the Russian or Alaskan tea pages of our Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans book book, which I touched on in the last article. Returning to that section to check for spice amounts, I read that this particular recipe, along with two others, came from the Alaska State Museum, reprinted from 100 Years in the Kitchen, Juneau. While I can find no information on that title, Cooking Alaskan was published in 1983. Since the book referred to had to have been published sometime before that, the 100 years of the title could easily place the recipe in question within reach of 1867, the year of Alaska’s transfer from Russia to the U.S.

Here is the recipe:

6 tablespoons Orange Pekoe Tea
4 whole cloves
1/2 cup sweet cider
1/2 teaspoon red food coloring(!)
2 quarts boiling water
Sugar, honey or strawberry jam

Steep tea, cloves, cider, and food coloring in boiling water for 10 minutes. Strain and sweeten with sugar, honey or strawberry jam.

Why the red food coloring, I don’t know. I would heartily recommend removing that ingredient! I don’t imagine a red tinge would be very noticeable in a black tea mixed with cider, even if one were using clear teacups.

The cider strikes me as more authentic to Russian Alaska than other recipes, which call for orange and even pineapple juice. Russian trade did extend to the tropics at the time, and Sitka, as their major Pacific sea port, may well have seen pineapples, but apple trees grow well in Sitka’s climate, and likely were more readily available than tropical fruits.

A lot of the recipes call for jams or jellies as sweetener. I can imagine using high bush cranberry jelly for that purpose, or homemade spruce honey, which would accentuate the citrus flavor. Either ingredient would be an excellent Alaskan touch.

I also see this does not include the essential ingredient the little Russian matron called for: dark rum. I recommend that as an addition to the above, if only for the sake of true authenticity!

We tried the recipe, and it was good—the combination of orange pekoe tea and cider was very pleasant—but it didn’t taste quite like the instant Russian tea I know. We added a stick of cinnamon to the mix, but it didn’t make a huge difference. I guess it depends on what you’re used to.

So, whether to toast Alaska Day, to celebrate Christmas, or simply to warm an autumn or winter day, this is probably as close as we can get to real Russian tea. Enjoy!

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