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A Next-Gen Tea Company Blends Vietnamese American Memories to Create New Flavors

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Kin Leaf Tea founder Violet Diana Nguyen poses with three canisters of her tea blends, in front of an ornamental fan.
For each of Kin Leaf's tea blends, Violet Diana Nguyen draws on memories from her Vietnamese American upbringing. (Violet Diana Nguyen)

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iolet Diana Nguyen has a vivid memory of dismounting from a moped onto the dirt road that led to her auntie’s house in Vietnam, where she sat down to a sumptuous spread of dragon fruit, longan and lychee while her relatives badgered her about her romantic life. 

How do you translate a memory like that into a flavor or an aroma? That’s the type of question Nguyen attempts to answer when she creates tea blends for her new business, Kin Leaf Tea. Frequently sold out since it launched in November 2021, the South Bay company offers blended loose leaf teas rooted in Nguyen’s Vietnamese American upbringing—her memories of pandan waffles and sugarcane juice from San Jose’s food courts and meals shared with family during childhood visits to Vietnam.

The company’s story begins at a place that has become a crucial marker of identity for many of the Bay Area’s Asian Americans: a boba shop. While working as a boba barista on the Peninsula in her early 20s, Nguyen found that the food service industry’s rapid pace, combined with an unlimited access to caffeine, caused her to develop an unhealthy relationship with tea. She would leave work with jitters. At home, Nguyen started to treat the process of brewing hot tea as a ritual, carefully watching the water turn golden. She found that slowly sipping a cup of tea with friends and family inspired thoughtful conversations too. “It really forced me to slow down, make smaller batches and brew them for one or two people,” Nguyen says. “In that moment of brewing, you have to be present.”

Nguyen remains an avid boba drinker, but she sees her new company as a retort to a fast-paced Silicon Valley fueled by caramelized tapioca pearls and 32-ounce cups of syrup-laden beverages. With Kin Leaf Tea, she wanted to combine the creative flavors found at boba shops with a more mindful approach, so she started exploring tea blends—mixtures of teas that may include flavorings like flowers, herbs and fruits. Typically, Nguyen says, these blends tend to use cheap filler ingredients and low-quality tea leaves that produce watery drinks. For example, lychee-flavored teas are often paired with overpowering amounts of rose: “It drove me nuts because I don’t want to drink potpourri on a daily basis.”

Hot water poured from a kettle into a white ceramic mug next to a canister of "Milky Pandan" tea leaves.
The “Milky Pandan” blend is an ode to pandan waffles, a classic Vietnamese treat. (Violet Diana Nguyen)

So, Nguyen set about the task of creating new tea blends using high-quality ingredients. For inspiration, she turned to her Vietnamese American childhood. After all, her aromatic school lunches and the family pictures she took amongst durian trees all served as a marker of difference for her when she was growing up. 

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Her process begins with matching each category of tea—black, white, oolong and so forth—to a specific memory. She asks herself, “What memories do I have, what sweets have I eaten, or what other foods are common in Asian culture or Vietnam?”

For example, the pool of coffee that sits at the bottom of Vietnamese bánh flan cà phê inspired Nguyen’s choice of similarly dark black tea leaves for Kin Leaf’s Black Amber blend. Then, in order to select the specific varieties of black tea in the blend, Nguyen attempted to recreate the flan’s sweetness, roasted flavor and soothing iced-coffee base. She eventually arrived at a mixture that minimized astringency and bitterness while embracing the dessert’s honey and caramel flavor profiles. Slivered almonds complement the tea leaves and add nuttiness. The blend evokes flan, Vietnamese coffee and sweetened condensed milk despite having no added sugar. 

Kin Leaf Tea currently offers three other blends: Abundance, a celebration of the dried fruit and candies shared during the Lunar New Year; Lychee’s Pearls, which evokes fruit platters laid out during family visits; and Milky Pandan, an ode to one of Nguyen’s favorite childhood treats—the aromatic, bright green pandan waffle.

Each new blend requires weeks of experimentation. Sometimes, Nguyen explains, an ingredient’s effects can be unpredictable. Dried dragon fruit produced teas with a vibrant pink color but lacked flavor. Pandan added a pleasant, grassy aroma to oolong tea.

Drawing inspiration from other second-generation Asian American businesses in the Bay Area like Socola Chocolatier, CA Bakehouse and Christine’s Cookie Co., Nguyen believes Kin Leaf is a part of a movement that is changing the way both first-generation immigrants and people unfamiliar with Vietnam understand Vietnamese culture. For instance, Nguyen is a fan of Socola’s “Little Saigon Box,” which uses unexpected flavors like phở and sriracha in its truffles.

On the other hand, when Nguyen told her relatives in Vietnam about the origins of Kin Leaf’s Milky Pandan blend, one of them was surprised that she would draw inspiration from such a common, everyday food. Why turn a waffle into a tea blend? Her response: “It takes a lot of experience with being proud of your heritage.” 

Nguyen, who holds a master’s degree in sustainable international development, explains that academics often reduce developing countries like Vietnam to their agricultural and economic outputs. But second-generation businesses like Kin Leaf Tea believe there’s value in telling stories about their cultures’ everyday flavors. Nguyen struggles to find the right word to explain Kin Leaf’s relationship to Vietnamese culture—elevate, change, reshape? She knows that rich cultural traditions have long existed in Vietnam, but she also believes her worldview can inspire new ways to celebrate those traditions.

For Nguyen, Kin Leaf Tea is all about “changing perspectives, getting people excited about something that has already been there, but showing them how it’s exciting to me because I see it differently.” Her tea blends are a way of publicly embracing dishes that she was mocked for throughout school, even in college. They honor and remix longstanding Vietnamese food traditions from the perspective of a second-generation Vietnamese American who has had to learn to love them.

A lifelong hustler, Nguyen credits her immigrant parents for inspiring her to turn this interest in tea into a business. Wanting to chip in while her mother worked tiring jobs in the fast-food industry, a younger Nguyen would fill up hundreds of water balloons and sell them for quarters. Now, Nguyen hopes that her parents can see Kin Leaf Tea as an expression of gratitude, even if cultural barriers make this a difficult conversation to have

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“I feel that in Asian cultures, it’s very common to not express your feelings or your thoughts,” Nguyen explains. “[Kin Leaf Tea] is me saying [to my parents], ‘This is what I learned from you and your work ethic.’”

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