It’s strong, creamy and goes down like smooth velvet. The bitter note of black tea lingers for a while, but it’s soon wrapped up in the buttery sweetness of evaporated milk. It’s a drink that feels indulgent, almost like dessert disguised as beverage, innocently accompanying your plate of pork chops and rice. It’s the city’s brew of choice: Hong Kong-style milk tea (gong2 sik1 naai1 caa4 港式奶茶), also known as pantyhose milk tea (si1 maat6 naai1 caa4 絲襪奶茶).
Before you go thinking that this concoction gets its name from actually being made with a pair of stockings, here’s how it is actually made. Dark black tea is strained through a cloth bag multiple times, causing the sack to take on the pale brown shade of women’s silk pantyhose. While traditional Chinese tea drinking leans towards green tea, white tea and strongly oxidized or fermented black tea, more affordable black Ceylon tea is the preferred choice for Hong Kong-style milk tea – a legacy of British colonial rule. Some master tea makers even use a mixture of different qualities of black teas to get the perfect brew, keeping their selection a secret. This powerful blend is then poured into a cup of evaporated milk, creating the rich combination that so many have fallen for.
The addition of milk to tea seems to be one of Great Britain’s most significant culinary legacies, leading to masala chai in India, Swahili chai in East Africa, teh tarik in Malaysia and naai1 caa4 in Hong Kong. While masala chai and Swahili chai get a special touch from the addition of warm spices, Hong Kong’s milk tea is unique in bringing out the natural fragrance of the teas while delivering a mighty punch of caffeine to boot.
Inspired by the British afternoon tea, milk tea was initially served at tea stalls near the docks, for sailors and labourers who something strong that would fuel them for long shifts at work. With fresh milk being expensive, tea restaurants called cha chaan teng (caa4 caan1 teng1 茶餐廳) invented a dense brew and paired it with canned evaporated milk, offering what Hong Kong tea restaurants do best – value for money.
At first, tea stalls simply served tea and a couple of snacks, but with the growth of the industrial sectors of the city, they began serving food to satisfy hungry factory workers at a reasonable price. A good cha chaan teng is judged by its milk tea: if it is too watery or its colour not a perfect shade of toffee caramel, it is not a good sign.
The drink is so ingrained in the city’s identity that it has become a bit of an overachiever. Not only is it drunk by about 2.5 million people a day, it is now officially on the list of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage and also made it into the Oxford English Dictionary as a new word this year. Its international fan base has also been growing, with the Hong Kong Association of Coffee and Tea hosting annual Golden Milk Tea competitions around the world.
The Golden Cup is reserved for the best milk tea maker, but there is a second category for competitors who make the best yuen yeung (jin1 joeng1 鴛鴦), in which the love affair between black tea and milk is interrupted by a mistress – sultry coffee. Hong Kong’s answer to a mocha latte is named after the lifelong loyalty of mandarin ducks. The male duck (jin1) and the female duck (joeng1) are meant to be like yin and yang; coffee and tea somehow complement each other perfectly in this caffeine bomb that will keep you going all day.
Even coffee-chain Starbucks bet on this attractive affair, offering its customers the Yeun Yeung Frappucino Blended Cream in 2010. It didn’t last long though, because it seems that you can come up with all the variations of Hong Kong-style milk tea that you want, but if it isn’t made in an old-fashioned stocking, it ain’t the real deal.
Lan Fong Yuen 蘭芳園
2 Gage Street, Sheung Wan, +852 2544 3895. Open Monday-Saturday 7:00-18:00.
Supposedly the original birthplace of the yuen yeung, this Central cha chaan teng started its life as a dai pai dong catering to the fruit and vegetable sellers of the Central market. Owner Lam Muk-ho is said to have invented the blend of coffee and tea in the 1950s and while today he has passed on the business to son Lam Chun-chung, they still make sure that their tea is passed through the cloth sack at least eight times to ensure its unique smoothness.
Bo Feng Tea Restaurant 寶峰餐廳
Shop A104, 1/F, Ching Long Shopping Centre, Kai Ching Estate, 12 Muk Hung Street, Kowloon City, +852 2383 9636. Open daily, 6:30-23:00.
This little tea restaurant in Kowloon City may not be known for its stellar food, but new chef Chen Chi-ping was the winner of this year’s Golden Cup for the best milk tea in Hong Kong. After 22 years making milk tea in cha chaan teng, he moved on from Tai Hang to his new position. We would go just to savour what judges think is the best in show.
For Kee Coffee Restaurant 科記咖啡餐室
Shop J-K, 200 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, +852 2546 8947. Open Monday-Friday, 7:00-16:30, Saturday 7:00-15:30, closed Sunday and holidays.
This is a one of our favourites in the Tai Ping Shan area, hidden in a corner just around Pound Lane. It is unique in calling itself a coffee restaurant instead of a tea restaurant. They serve your traditional fare of pork chop and fried beef noodles, but with a name like that, it’s all about the velvety yuan yang here.
Shek O Yuen Chiu 石澳元潮
Shek O Village Road. Open for breakfast and early lunch. No phone.
If you’re looking for something a bit off the beaten track, this unassuming Chinese tea house in Shek O is worth the trip. Walk down Shek O Village Road and when you hear the sound of mah-jong playing, look to your left. That’s where you will find 90-year old Mr. Chan preparing one of the best milk teas in Hong Kong. Open for over 50 years, they still make their milk tea traditionally with pantyhose strainer and all. He serves up one of the silkiest mixes we’ve tasted.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.