Walk into a Chinese restaurant for dim sum and the first question you’ll be asked upon being seated is some variation of “What tea would you like?” (飲乜嘢茶 jam2 mat1 je5 caa4). In fact, the act of going out for a meal of dim sum is called “drink tea” – jam2 caa4 (飲茶). Legend has it that teahouses were originally places to stop in and do just that — drink tea — and customers would pay by the amount of tea they drank. But certain entrepreneurial teahouse owners began to serve free snacks along with the tea in the hopes that people would stay longer and order more tea. Eventually the snacks, inspired by the recipes of the emperor’s palace, became more and more elaborate, and came to dominate.
Tea is of course a beverage brewed all over the world, but it comes from just one species of plant, Camellia sinensis, with only two varieties: Chinese (Camellia sinensis var sinesis) and Indian or Assam, (Camellia sinensis var assamica). Especially in the Chinese or East Asian world of teas, you may have heard of white, green, oolong and black teas – there are also yellow and post-fermentation – and their differences arise from where the tea was grown and how the leaves are processed.
Green and white teas are heated on a hot surface (such as a pan, or under the sun) almost immediately after picking. They have not been allowed to oxidise, so they mostly retain their original colours. White teas are usually young tea leaves or buds, whereas green teas are fully-formed leaves. Yellow teas, which are quite rare, are steam heated, whereas oolong has been allowed to oxidise a bit more. Black teas, usually called red tea in Chinese to differentiate it from the darkest post-fermentation teas, are oxidised a bit more again. Post-fermentation teas in China are mostly pu’erh, and they are left to interact with natural bacteria in the air in order to further ferment and develop their flavours, as well as to oxidise further. After the first heat treatment to stop the oxidisation, most teas are later roasted again, and some go through rolling (to further extract moisture) and ageing processes. It is generally believed that the lighter the tea’s colour, the fresher it needs to be, as exposure to air causes oxidisation and causes the tea’s character to dissipate, whereas darker teas, especially pu’erhs, benefit from ageing.
These days, the tea choices offered at regular dim sum joints in Hong Kong are only of average quality and the pickings are slim. When asked what teas are available, servers will usually rattle off a list that includes the likes of shoumei, a white tea (sau6 mei4 壽眉), pu’erh (pou2 nei2普洱), a post-fermentation tea, and tieguanyin or iron goddess (tit3 gun1 jam1 鐵觀音), an oolong. Some might offer tisanes (herbal or floral infusions) such as chrysanthemum tea (guk1 faa1 菊花). If you want to truly appreciate tea, however, you need to skip dim sum and seek out specialty tea shops.
Most tea shops are simple retail outlets with a table or two to taste before you buy, but there are also a few places where you can sit in and enjoy a leisurely session of traditional tea brewing, such as Sun Sing Tea in Causeway Bay and Phoenix Tea in Tsim Sha Tsui. These spots present an array of brewing accoutrements for each table of customers, with a kettle, a flask with a sieve for tea leaves, a tall cup for first enjoying the brew’s aroma, and then finally, shorter cups with a wider rim to sip from, all to be done on a tray that can catch any unintentional splashes and dribbles.
The other variety of Camellia sinensis, assamica, is equally prevalent in Hong Kong, in the form of Hong Kong-style milk tea, simply known as milk tea (naai5 caa4 奶茶 ) locally. Seen mostly in local cafes (caa4 caan1 teng1 茶餐廳 ), but available in almost any eatery in the city, it is very strong Ceylon tea combined with evaporated milk from a can. Believed to have been inspired by the tea-drinking habits of Hong Kong’s British colonists, the much more tannic Hong Kong rendition has become a symbol of the city, with inventive variations such as 茶走 (caa4 zau2), the same tea with sweetened condensed milk; 鴛鴦 (jin1 joeng1), a mix of half tea, half coffee with evaporated milk, and lemon tea (ning5 mung1 caa4 檸檬茶). These beverages remain the caffeine boost of choice for many in the morning or mid-afternoon.
Where to drink
Sun Sing Tea
Room 3201, 32/F Soundwill Plaza, 38 Russell Street, Causeway Bay, 2832 2889
Why we like it: The perfect place to explore the full spectrum of traditional Chinese teas, from light and sweet white teas to the smoothest darkest pu’erhs. Not only can you buy the to take home, you can also sit and brew at your leisure, complete with harbour views. A great way to while away an afternoon.
2/F Kolling Centre, 77 Granville Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, 2366 1988
Why we like it: With comfortable timber tables and traditional Chinese furniture, this is a great place for tea nerds to brew and appreciate teas from Wuyi County in Zhejiang, eastern China, fabled especially for the geographically unique and pristine mountains. The region produces predominantly oolong and black (called red in Chinese) teas.
San Hang Yuen
38 Kweilin Street, Sham Shui Po, 2386 2748
Why we like it: A Sham Shui Po cha chaan teng stalwart that’s been around for almost six decades, this 24-hour joint does a delicious corned beef scrambled egg toasted sandwich, slow-braised pork knuckle noodles, but the café is probably most proud of its milk tea, said to be a mix of more than 60 different types of Ceylon tea.
Cheung Hing Coffee Shop
9 Yik Yam Street, Happy Valley, 2572 5097
Why we like it: Cheung Hing has been in the same post-war building since 1951, serving the Happy Valley community since 1951 with classic Hong Kong-style milk teas as well as bakery items like pineapple buns sandwiching a thick pat of butter (菠蘿油 bo1 lo1 jau4). While it had slowly crumbled with the passage of time, its shine has been brought back by new owners who have lovingly restored and relaunched the café.