Russian Tea

America’s choice in outer space under a Soviet name.

What we’ve got here is a drink mix with instant tea, spices, and powdered orange drink. If you search for “Russian tea” and “Tang,” you’ll get a number of iterations, some of which use instant lemonade in the mix, too.

You’ll also get a bunch of websites with really weird speculation about the name. Wikipedia helpfully quotes a 1976 article in saying that the earliest reference to “Russian Tea” was a 1925 cookbook and there’s no relationship to actual Russian tea.

When I read that, I was like:

While there’s no way I could adequately do justice to actual Russian tea without taking up several posts, here’s a basic primer on the Russian style of making and drinking tea. The traditional method involves brewing a very strong concentrate of tea, called zavarka, then pouring some of the the concentrate into a cup and filling the rest with hot water. This allows drinkers to adjust the strength of the brew to their individual taste by changing the amount of zavarka.

Tea is served typically with lemon, sugar, and/or jam. This was in stark contrast to the English tradition of cream, so I’m guessing that’s what made the early iterations of this recipe “Russian.” But how did we get from that to Tang and tea powder? Let’s follow the recipe through the years.

An early American reference to “Russian Tea” is in the December 3, 1882 edition of The New York Times in an article containing advice from a doctor on how to stay hydrated while riding a tricycle recreationally (this has to be the old-time-iest sentence ever on Yesterdish):

[…] The drink which on the whole serves the tricyclist most efficiently is cold weak tea, made a little sweet with sugar if that is liked, but never over-sweetened, for if it be over-sweetened it causes thirst. To some the tea is rendered more palatable by being treated with a little lemon-juice, made in fact into what is called tschai, or Russian tea, but I am not sure that the lemon does not increase thirst, and I know that in some persons it causes acidity and heartburn, and on the whole tschai is not so refreshing as tea simple. Another very nice and more sustaining drink may be made by pouring boiling milk instead of boiling water upon tea, milk tea: this, slightly sweetened, can be carried in the bottle or flask during the journey, and, diluted with water or soda-water at the wayside inn, is at once refreshing and sustaining. — Dr. Richardson, in Good Words.

And here it is in 1884’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book by Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln:

Iced Tea, or Russian Tea.

Make the tea by the first receipt, strain it from the grounds, and keep it cool. When ready to serve, put two cubes of block sugar in a glass, half fill with broken ice, add a slice of lemon, and fill the glass with cold tea.

The water should be freshly boiled. Scald and heat the teapot, which should be of earthen or china, never of tin. Allow one teaspoonful of tea for one cup of boiling water. Reduce the proportion of tea when several cups are required. Put the tea in a strainer, pour through it half a cup of boiling water to cleanse the grounds. Then put the tea in the teapot; pour on the boiling water; cover closely and place it where it will keep hot, but not boil, for five minutes. If cold or lukewarm water be used in making tea, the thein, or nitrogenous substance, will not be obtained.

Here’s a mention from the September 29, 1887 edition of the Cambridge City (Indiana) Tribune:

Cold-water tea, or Russian tea, is usually made by steeping tea in boiling water in the usual way and setting on ice. This gives the astringency that is pleasant when hot with cream, but to many tastes very unpleasant when cold. The better way to make it is easier in hot weather, and so made iced tea is a positive luxury. Four hours before you require the tea for use (or over night, if you choose) put four teaspoonfuls of tea into a pitcher, pour on to it a quart of cold water, cover, and set it in the ice-box. It does not sound as if good tea could be made with cold water, but this is the perfection of cold tea, fragrant without the least bitterness and of a beautiful amber clearness. Sweeten as any other tea. With a little lemon juice and a slice of lemon floating in each glass this makes the fashionable “Russian tea.”

By 1896, Fannie Merritt Farmer was running the Boston Cooking-School, and the version she included in her The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was substantially different than Lincoln’s–including noting that the drink could be served hot:

Russian Tea.

Follow recipe for making tea. Russian tea may be served hot or cold, but always without milk. A thin slice of lemon, from which seeds have been removed, or a few drops of lemon-juice, is allowed for each cup. Sugar is added according to taste. In Russia a preserved strawberry to each cup is considered an improvement. We imitate our Russian friends by garnishing with a candied cherry.

Preserved strawberry, you say? Stick a pin in that and well come back to it.

By the early 20th century, the hot-or-cold lemon tea started to occasionally show up with oranges. Here’s an example from the June 23, 1901 edition of the Syracuse Post Standard:

Russian Tea.

Mrs. J.D.B. requests a recipe for Russian tea served with Jamaica rum.

For Russian tea make the following mixture: Half a pound of Formosa Oolong, six ounces of Ceylon and two ounces of best English breakfast tea: add to this the dried peel of an orange cut into small pieces. Take four good sized teaspoonfuls of this mixture and pour over it a quart of freshly boiled water. Let stand closely covered for five minutes. Put half a teaspoonful of crushed sugar or sugar crystals in each up with half a teaspoonful of Jamaica rum, half a thin slice of lemon, a preserved cherry or strawberry, and pour the tea over these and serve.

And in the June 5, 1905 edition of the Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier, we see lemon or orange and a bit of vanilla:

[…] Many up to date hostesses prefer to sour the tea, Russian style, with a thin slice of lemon; a slice of orange is frequently substituted. When lemon or orange slices are used no cream is added. One hostess sweetens her tea with rock candy, and another adds a very tiny bit of vanilla bean to the tea while it is brewing.

Remember how strong tea concentrate is diluted in the original Russian tea? This method of diluting gave rise to the first iterations of Russian Tea with orange juice in them, where a tea concentrate is diluted with carbonated water.

Here’s an example from the August 24, 1907 edition of the San Antonio Gazette:

A cognate to iced tea, but rather more elaborate, is:

Russian Tea Punch.

For this make a quart of tea, using four teaspoonfuls of Ceylon or India tea to a quart of freshly boiling water, two cupfuls of granulated sugar, two tablespoonfuls of orange juice (tart oranges are to be preferred), five tablespoonfuls of lemon juice and a quart bottle of Apollinairis or other good charged water.

Put tea, sugar, and fruit juice together in a punch bowl with a big block of ice and pour in the Apollinaris jut before the punch is to be served.

The attractiveness of the drink is heightened if cherries or strawberries or raspberries or, failing these, dice of pineapple and orange, swim in the bowl.

About half a cupful of any of them with be sufficient.

And by the August 22, 1914 edition of the Syracuse Herald, the orange was an alternative to the lemon:

A slice from a Seville orange is preferred by many to lemon, for Russian tea. The famous Scotch marmalade, so popular with the English for breakfast, is made from this variety of orange.

If you’re keeping track, one year after that recipe is the point in the timeline where Wikipedia says the recipe first appeared. Which makes me feel like this:

The lemon, orange, and spices co-existed in this version from the September 1, 1942 edition of the Madison Wisconsin State Journal:

If the day is cool, serve this Russian tea with orange or lemon honey toast.

Russian Tea
(45 cups)

1 box stick cinnamon (1-1/4 ounces)
1 box whole cloves (1-1/4 ounces)
3/4 cup honey
3 oranges, juice of the 3 and rind of 1
6 lemons, juice of the 5 and rind of 1
1/3 cup black tea
5 quarts water, boiling

Cook spices, honey and rind with two cups water for 10 minutes. Let stand 1 hour. Strain. Steep tea in the boiling water 1 minute. Then add fruit juice and spice mixture.

As the era of convenience food started in the 1950s, Russian tea wasn’t far behind, using a powdered store-bought product for its orange flavoring. Just not the one you’re thinking of, just yet.

Here’s a version using orange Jell-o from the March 17, 1953 edition of the Mattoon, Illinois Daily Journal Gazette:

[…] Here is the one called Russian Tea:

Using three cups of boiling water, make tea to the strength you would use to drink it, not too strong. Boil together, 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar, and two teaspoons whole cloves. Then dissolve 1 package of orange Jell-o in two cups of hot water and add 2 teaspoons lemon juice. Mix all together, reheat and serve. […]

But in 1957, Bill Mitchell, a food scientist for General Foods, invented a powdered orange drink that hit the market in 1959 to little fanfare. Early marketing attempts didn’t seem to budge the push sales, despite celebrity help:

But we’ve told this part of the story before, in the post for Clara’s energy bars: in 1962, NASA selected Tang powdered drink mix to accompany John Glenn into orbit on the Friendship 7 craft as part of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. America was space-crazy and Tang sales skyrocketed.

By 1966, we had the recipe on this card–here, printed in the May 12, 1966 edition of the Statesville (North Carolina) Record and Landmark:

Tea, hot or cold, knows no seasons at our house. For variety we often make Russian tea and recently we came into the possession of a recipe making the round for instant Russian tea. Make it up and keep it on the shelf. For a cup of hot Russian tea use two teaspoons of the mixture.

Instant Russian Tea

1 large can Tang
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup instant tea

Mix all ingredients well and store in closed jar. Used as needed.

Let’s stop right now and have a cup of tea!

I can’t stop and have a cup of tea yet, because there’s something else very important I need to tell you, should you use the recipe above: in the 1960s, Tang came in 7, 18, and 27-ounce packages. Modern Tang comes in packages as large as (egad) 72 ounces. So be aware, if you go by the package size, they were talking about 27 ounces. Or just use the two cups suggested on our recipe card.

Finally, our departed culinary soulmate recipecurio.com has an undated recipe clipped from a Tang advertisement that suggests, at some point, the company got on board with the trend–but perhaps, given the team it picked in the space race, not with Russians:

From the box of F.J. from Sun City, Arizona. Some cards suggest a family history in Missouri and Kansas.

Russian Tea

2 c. Tang
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. instant tea
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves

Put in quart jar—shake before each serving.

1 heaping tsp. per mug.
1 small tsp. regular cup

From the recipe file of Ferna Mae Jones



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