Tea, and the city that needs it

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

SOME ci­ties are fu­elled 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.

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. The city gulps down around 2.5 mil­lion cups a day. At fam­ily-run tea shop 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 Hong Kong’s tea restau­rants plays a big role in their pop­u­lar­ity in 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 grass­roots. 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 mid-morn­ing 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 has lent 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 fan­base.

The as­so­ci­a­tion has been run­ning Hong Kong milk tea con­tests world­wide for the past seven years, and they are grow­ing.

Ear­lier this month, com­peti­tors from Hong Kong, main­land China, Canada and Aus­tralia all 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 ar­ter­ies for more than half a cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to as­so­ci­a­tion chair 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, which still ex­ists to­day.

Main­land China has now also de­vel­oped a taste for Hong Kong-style milk tea, and im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties across the world are in­tro­duc­ing it to new coun­tries, says Wong.

The win­ning for­mula? Both tea cham­pion Chen and cafe owner Lam agree – it is the pas­sion to make a great cuppa.

“The most im­por­tant thing is to put your heart into it,” says Chen. –

Pho­tos: AFP

Hong Kong, much like Yan­gon, has a weak­ness for milk tea.

A freshly poured cup waits to be served.

Pedes­tri­ans walk past fam­ily-run tea shop Lan Fong Yuen on a hilly mar­ket street in Hong Kong’s Cen­tral district.

Hong Kong re­gional tea-mak­ing cham­pion Chan Chi-Ping pours hot wa­ter for his brew while com­pet­ing with other par­tic­i­pants in the Hong Kong-Style Milk Tea in­ter­na­tional fi­nal held dur­ing the 2016 Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional Tea Fair.

Tea sam­ples at the 2016 Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional Tea Fair of­fer a wide ar­ray of flavours.

Hong Kong’s tra­di­tional, sock-like cloth strain­ers, or lai cha, sit in boil­ing pots of tea at Lan Fong Yuen.

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