How milk tea became the fuel for Hong Kong’s engine
Some cities are fuelled by coffee. In Hong Kong, it is milk tea keeps things running. It is a potent nostalgia-infused caffeine hit – and there is fierce competition to brew the best in town.
There are thousands of restaurants offering the full gamut of international cuisines, but the city’s no-frills diner-style cafes, some of them decades old, remain perennial favourites with locals and still do a roaring trade. Known in Cantonese as cha chaan tengs, or tea restaurants, they serve up cheap local favourites, from fried-egg sandwiches and buttery French toast to noodle soups and macaroni.
The standard accompaniment is a milk tea, or “lai cha” – a tangy, deep-tan brew made from blends of black tea strained repeatedly for strength, then mixed with condensed or evaporated milk – similar to the karak chai that is popular in the UAE and other Arabian Gulf countries.
Hong Kong gulps down about 2.5 million cups a day.
At a family-run tea shop called Lan Fong Yuen, on a hilly market street in Hong Kong’s Central district, business shows no sign of slowing after 60 years. Owner Lam Chun-chung says the no-fuss nature of tea restaurants plays a big role in their popularity in such a fast-paced city.
“People are always in a rush. Having a quick bite with milk tea is fast and convenient,” says Lam, who adds that his cafe has much more character than the growing number of sterile coffee shops.
“We represent the grass roots. When you are here you feel a sense of community,” he says.
Customers sit around shared wooden tables, many stopping for just 10 minutes to grab a quick breakfast or midmorning boost.
A tea master juggles steaming pots on an electric stove, straining the hot brews through long, cloth sieves – a key utensil for any serious Hong Kong lai cha joint.
The sock-like strainer gives Hong Kong milk tea one of its nicknames: “stocking milk tea”.
At this cafe, tea is strained seven times to intensify the flavour. Lam taught the current tea master his skills and still drinks a cup or two of milk tea each day. It is an addiction, he says, but also a way to monitor standards.
Milk tea is a local institution and has even made it onto an official list of the city’s “intangible cultural heritage”. Hong Kong’s Association of Coffee and Tea says it is also building a global fan base.
The association has been running Hong Kong milk tea contests worldwide for seven years, and they are growing.
This month, entrants from Hong Kong, mainland China, Canada and Australia competed for the “KamCha” or “Golden Cup” award in the association’s largest tea competition, on home turf.
Local contestant Chen Chi-ping, 44, emerged victorious – he has been making milk tea in Hong Kong “cha chaan tengs” for 22 years.
“Every detail has to be strictly precise – the heat of the stove, the water temperature,” he says.
The fragrance and potency, as well as the thick consistency, make Hong Kong-style milk tea unique, Chen adds.
It has flowed through the city’s vains for more than half a century, according to association chairman Simon Wong, who tells how it was first served on Hong Kong’s docks to sailors and labourers, an earthy adaptation of the weaker version made with fresh milk by the colonial British who governed at that time.
“Hong Kong people wanted something with more punch – so we invented this type of brewing,” Wong says. The strength of the tea and the canned milk made it value for money – few ordinary Hong Kongers at that time could afford fresh milk.
Wong’s father – a tea trader – was a proponent of the new concoction, setting up one of the first cha chaan tengs in Hong Kong. It still exists today.
Mainland China has now also developed a taste for Hong Kong-style milk tea, and immigrant communities around the world are introducing it to new countries, says Wong.
The winning formula? Tea champion Chen and cafe owner Lam agree that it is the passion to make a great cuppa.
“The most important thing is to put your heart into it,” says Chen.
Updated: August 22, 2016 04:00 AM