Live like a local: Tea culture

November 18, 2016 17:10
Silk stocking tea got its name from the sieve inside the teapot that looks so much like panty hose. Photo: Savills

For Hong Kong people, there is one "king of drinks" and that is a steaming hot, irresistible milk tea.

You will find locals sipping a cup at cha-chan teng with a sandwich, egg tart, French toast or instant noodles.

Originating from British colonial rule, the afternoon tea was replicated with "evaporated" milk (which has much of the water removed from fresh milk), along with added sugar for a thicker texture.

The tea became known colloquially as “silk stocking milk tea” as the sieve inside the teapot looks so much like panty hose while Hong Kong people believe that the way it is made helps retain its strength and smoothness.

No one has a definitive method of making milk tea.

From a base of English breakfast tea, blends can include Lapsang Souchong and even Pu-Erh or Green Jasmine.

One thing is clear: Hong Kong's most successful tea makers keep their recipes very close to their chests.

Renowned proprietors of milk tea include Central market’s Lan Fong Yuen, outdoor cafe Sing Heung Yuen, Shui Kee Coffee in Sheung Wan market, Kam Fung Restaurant in Wan Chai, Tai Fat Restaurant in Yuen Long and Bing Kee in Tai Hang.

Serious business

With tea gulped down 2.5 million times per day by Hongkongers, everyone has an opinion about the best place to get their fix.

No wonder making tea is a very serious business.

Named as an "intangible cultural heritage" item by the Hong Kong government, milk tea has even inspired brewing competitions.

Masters of the craft point to every detail, including stove and water temperature, the type of “silk stocking”, i.e. sieve used, and methods of presenting the tea.

When ordering milk tea to take away from restaurants, a wide paper cup is preferred for hot milk tea while a taller one is used for iced variants.

If dining in, hot tea is served in thick ceramic cups that accentuate its smoothness and taste.

Purists swear by porcelain for making tea taste better -- although there is no scientific evidence and this seems to be an anecdotal truism.

Cold versions of milk tea can come in plastic glasses with added ice, or served in a cup or bottle presented within a champagne-style ice bath. The method was popularized by Tai Hing and Tsui Wah, two of Hong Kong's chain cha-chan-teng restaurants known for their gimmicks.

Close cousins

In reality, milk tea has many close cousins that could be regarded as novel including the coffee and tea mix Yuen Yeung, milk tea with red beans of Central’s Wing Lok Yuen Restaurant or nitrogen-frozen milk tea ice cream from Lab Made in Tai Hang.

Whether paired with food (akin to matching steak with red wine) or sipped on its own, milk tea almost always hits the spot -- just remember to spare some time for the gym. A serving can weigh in at around 160 calories.

This is especially true if you are drinking milk tea Cha Chow style, replacing evaporated milk with condensed milk that is in the same style but has added sugar, hence making the milk tea even sweeter.

While considered out of line with health trends, milk tea makes for a timeless and delicious refreshment.

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Head of the Residential Leasing Department at Savills