• Some cities are fueled by coffee, in Hong Kong, it's milk tea that keeps things running. A potent nostalgia-infused caffeine hit, with fierce competition/ (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Some cities are fueled by coffee. In Hong Kong, it's milk tea that keeps things running - a potent nostalgia-infused caffeine hit, with fierce competition to brew the best in town.
Lucy Rennick

21 May 2018 - 10:45 AM  UPDATED 28 Dec 2020 - 2:13 PM

In East Asian countries like China and Singapore, the go-to caffeinated beverage choice is not a piping hot latte or a long black, but rather a refreshingly chilled milk tea. Whether loaded with tapioca balls, brilliant matcha green or topped with cream cheese, milky teas are a now-global drink trend to be reckoned with. 

One country known for its development of an entirely unique milk-tea culture is Hong Kong. 

Each day at 3:15 pm, most Hongkongers head to their nearest cha chaan teng (a Hong Kong-style diner) take a cup of strong, black tea, often served with a splash of condensed milk. Here, lai cha (hot milk tea, or pantyhose tea, as it’s colloquially known – more on this later) is a full-flavoured, caffeine-charged part of daily life for everyone, regardless of class or age

A Cantonese drink with a British history

Milk tea is a remnant from the years (all 156 of them) of British control over Hong Kong, a time when Brits enjoyed classic cuppas out of high-end hotels and restaurants, whose menus were geared mostly towards foreigners. After the Second World War, various cafes and tea houses cottoned on to the trend and adopted the custom to make it more accessible for Hongkongers – the British tea blends were swapped out for stronger varieties and condensed milk replaced regular milk, for a slightly sweeter edge. 

Fast forward to the present day, and Hong Kong-style milk tea is a sight as common as street hawker restaurants in the bustling metropolis. Whether served over ice or steaming hot, an estimated 2.5 million cups of milk tea are consumed across the city each day, and it’s one of only three food items to be enshrined on the city’s list of cultural heritage.  

The Ngan Lung cha chaan teng chain in Hong Kong turns out around 10,000 cups of milk tea to thirsty Hongkongers each day across 20 locations.  

“No matter if you’re having bread, fried noodles, barbecued pork or congee, they all go well with milk tea,” executive director of Ngan Lung Tang Ping-hung tells the South China Morning Post

Masters of the tea trade

Milk tea is so much a part of Cantonese culture, it’s celebrated at the Annual International Hong Kong-style Milk Tea Championship, held each year as part of the Hong Kong International Tea Fair.

High standards notwithstanding, it’s tricky to pinpoint a definitive recipe for Hong Kong-style milk tea. Cantonese writer Kevin Phang puts this down to business savvy, and just a touch of paranoia. “We protect our proprietary recipes with black-site-level secrecy,” he writes on The Take Out.

“Every diner has their own classified method, all claiming to be the best around.”

According to Tang Ping-hung, a good cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea is perfectly balanced across nine elements: taste, aftertaste, aroma, mouthfeel or texture, temperature, colour, milk taste, milk: tea ratio and thickness. Easy, right?

Donald Tse, a Milk Tea ‘Master’ identifies four key steps in the process – infusion, soaking, straining (at least four times) and, lastly, keeping the tea warm.

While Hong Kong tea makers could argue over the optimum blend of tea leaves for the strongest, most delicious brew for hours (most restaurants work with a mix of Broken Orange Pekoe, BOF Fannings, Dust and Lipton), they can agree on one thing: straining the tea through a silk stocking is the best way to properly enhance its flavour, hence the Pantyhose tea moniker.

“The silk stocking is used to improve the astringency of the milk tea,” Tse tells the South China Morning Post. “The bag helps to filter out the tea leaves and bitterness.”

A worldwide trend

But this milky brew’s impact is not confined solely to Hong Kong. In fact, lai cha is usually found wherever you’d usually eat Cantonese food – including Australia. In Perth, Hongkies Hong Kong Kitchen soaks their tea blend in “an iron container for several hours to let the flavour come out,” while Ching Yip Coffee Lounge in the Sydney’s Sussex Street is lauded for its authentic tea offering.

Over in Toronto, an annual tea-making competition sees one lucky winner facing off against international talents in Hong Kong, suggesting the Hong Kong-style milk tea industry is gathering strength all around the world.  

Lai cha is a happy by-product of the meeting of two worlds – an example of culinary cultures melding together and morphing to suit different palates. And, really, who doesn’t love a good cup of tea in the afternoon?

Luke Nguyen's Food Trail brews up some Hong Kong-style tea on this week's episode airing 8pm, Thursday on SBS and then on SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more.

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