The Coolest Cool Drinks
This Summer Reach for Ginger, Lemon Grass and Tamarind to Beat the Heat

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2004

In Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia, the sultry weather calls for the cooling relief of strongly flavored drinks.

Pungent ginger tea -- a popular beverage available at most cafes and from street vendors in Bangkok -- is simple to make at home. Hand-sized roots of the peppery-flavored plant are sliced, crushed and boiled with water. Add sugar or honey to taste. Serve hot or cold. Simple as that.

But be warned: the characteristic flavor of traditional ginger tea is notably piquant -- a far cry from common ginger ale.

"For American tastes it would be too strong. But I love it," says Aulie Bunyarataphan, chef and co-owner of Bangkok Joe's, which opened last summer in Georgetown, and T.H.A.I. in Shirlington. "Back home we call ginger king of the herbs."

With affection for ginger and respect for her customers palates in mind, Bunyarataphan created a ginger-lemon iced tea -- an ideal quencher to accompany her Thai stuffed dumplings and spicy dishes such as green curry on somen noodles.

On my first visit to Joe's, while seated at the pretty dumpling bar made of polished stone, I downed three tall glasses of ginger-lemon tea in minutes. At the same time it's light, tangy and refreshing.

"It's a hit, even with the kids," says Bunyarataphan who is not the only Thai in town making Asian-inspired drinks to beat the summer heat.

Sak Pollert, owner of Rice restaurant on 14th Street NW, says the latest culinary trend in Bangkok is adding matcha -- powdered green tea -- to everything.

"I was there in February and they were adding green tea to drinks, in foods," says Pollert who took the cue and composed a special menu for Rice featuring green-tea-flavored sticky rice and green tea dumplings, pork marinated in green tea, as well as beef topped with crisp green tea leaves. His lemon grass and green tea drink is a slightly earthy, out-of-the-ordinary, thirst-quencher.

"In Thailand, they are doing it for the health benefits of green tea. But for me, it's the fresh taste and the color," says Pollert who grew up on his family's rice farm in northern Thailand.

At Asia Nora in the West End, chef Haidar Karoum makes a subtle kaffir lime-ginger spritzer with leaves from owner Nora Pouillon's very own kaffir lime tree -- perfect for a muggy day.

At the Teaism cafes in downtown Washington executive chef Arpad Lengyel has come up with what he calls the imli cooler: a sour, yet sweet, tamarind-based drink that would be a welcome addition to a summer picnic with, let's say, a curried chicken salad and Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls.

KAFFIR LIME-GINGER SPRITZER
4 servings
The unique aroma and flavor of kaffir lime leaves give this limeade a distinct flavor all its own. For the perfect lime-ginger spritzer, "It's all about adjusting the sour and sweet," says its creator, executive chef Haidar Karoum of Asia Nora in the West End. For an alcoholic variation, Karoum recommends the addition of white rum.

Note: Kaffir lime leaves are highly aromatic, with a strong lemon-lime flavor. The fresh leaves are available at many Asian markets and some grocery and specialty food stores.

1 cup fresh lime juice (from about 8 limes)
1/2 cup Kaffir-Ginger Simple Syrup (recipe follows)
24 ounces sparkling water
Kaffir lime leaves for garnish

In a pitcher, combine the lime juice, simple syrup and sparkling water and stir vigorously. Pour into chilled glasses and garnish with additional lime leaves.

KAFFIR-GINGER SIMPLE SYRUP
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
If there is syrup to spare, Chef Karoum recommends drizzling a little atop sliced strawberries or papaya.

1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
4 ounces fresh ginger root, unpeeled, smashed and cut into quarter-size slices (3/4 cup slices)
8 kaffir lime leaves*

In a small saucepan, bring the water, sugar, ginger and lime leaves to a gentle simmer. Cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside to cool. Cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to infuse the syrup. Strain the syrup, discarding the solids.

IMLI COOLER
8 servings
Imli is the Indian word for tamarind. "That's the ingredient that makes the drink kind of sour and tangy," says Arpad Lengyel, executive chef of the three Teaism cafes in downtown Washington. Add vodka for a tart cocktail.

NOTE: Tamarind concentrate is available at many Asian supermarkets and some grocery and specialty food stores.

8 tablespoons tamarind concentrate*
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from about 3 limes)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup hot water
7 cups cold water
Sugarcane sticks (made from pared and quartered sugarcane stalk) or mint sprigs for garnish

In a pitcher or large bowl, combine the tamarind, lime juice, brown sugar and cardamom. Add the hot water and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and there are no lumps. Add the cold water and stir. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through, 2 to 3 hours. Stir or shake to mix before serving. Serve over ice and garnish with sugar cane sticks or a mint sprig.

GINGER-LEMON ICED TEA
8 servings
Aulie Bunyarataphan, chef-owner of Bangkok Joe's in Georgetown and T.H.A.I. in Shirlington, created this sweet and lemony ginger tea to complement her spicy dishes. At Bangkok Joe's a ginger-lemon iced tea with a 2-ounce shot of Absolut Citron and 2 ounces of Southern Comfort is called a Bangkok Swing.

8 cups water
3 black or Lipton tea bags
1 medium-size fresh ginger root (about 4 ounces) smashed and cut into chunks (about 3/4 cup chunks)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
Lemon wedges and/or slices fresh ginger root for garnish

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the water, tea bags and ginger to a gentle boil. Cook for 15 minutes. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and strain the tea into bowl or pitcher, discarding the solids. Set aside to cool slightly. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through, at least 2 to 3 hours. Serve over ice with a lemon wedge and slice of fresh ginger.

LEMON GRASS GREEN TEA
6 servings
At Rice restaurant on 14th Street NW, owner Sak Pollert pairs matcha -- powdered green tea -- with lemon grass for a very different and refreshing drink. Add Champagne or sparkling wine for a green tea aperitif.

2 stalks lemon grass
6 cups water
1 tablespoon matcha*
8 tablespoons granulated sugar, or to taste
Lemon slices or lemon grass stalks for garnish

Cut the lemon grass into 3-inch pieces and, using the flat side of a chef's knife, smash the stalks.

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the water and lemon grass to a gentle boil. Cook for 8 minutes. Add the matcha and sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Taste and adjust the amount of sugar accordingly. Strain the tea into a bowl or pitcher, discarding the solids.

Set aside to cool slightly. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through, at least 2 hours. Serve over ice and garnish with a slice of lemon or a stalk of lemon grass.

*NOTE: Matcha (MAH-tchah) is a powdered green tea. It is available at Japanese markets and tea stores.

Copyright 2008 Carol Stevens, Shaboom's Kitchen, All Rights Reserved