just my cup of tea
2014-05-23, Jenny Wang

Taiwanese-style teahouses are giving Hong Kong’s traditional cha chaan tengs a run for their money. But, local restaurateurs are confident they can stand up to the threat. Jenny Wang reports.

The legendary “silk stocking milk tea” has held the imagination of Hong Kong people for decades. And, of course, those enterprising caterers to the masses in crowded neighborhoods are credited with inventing the popular yin yeung, a mix of tea and coffee unique to Hong Kong. 

The enduring dominance of the cha chaan tengs is being challenged by the rising popularity of the Taiwanese-style tea houses serving a large variety of tea-based drinks and snacks. These establishments, boasting hip decor and staffed by smart-looking young waiters and waitresses, are not your daddy’s tea house.

The new establishments are fresh faces among the top-class milk tea stalls in Hong Kong, introduced from Taiwan last year. From the beginning when staff were seen frantically settling orders and clumsily tinkering with dodgy equipment, to the present, when everything seems in good order, the tea houses have attracted plenty of regulars. Shared tea is literally “shared” by word of mouth.

Its signature Taiwan Milk Tea is a must try. 

The taste is creamy, not stocky, rich but not heavy, is indulgent and addictive. You may well have an impulse to sip it sparingly and spend even longer to appreciate the after taste.

An almost indescribable aroma wafts through the air. It’s a cross between caramel and honey, scenting the environment and sharpening the taste.

The manager, Chan Corey, said: “It’s chao tang (fried sugar) at work.”

If you wish, you can ask for a serving of red beans as an extra ingredient. A mix of mashed and plump gaping-mouthed beans enriches your milk tea.

Taro Milk Ice Blend is a signature offering. Chan said the taro is sourced from Taiwan for its best starchy texture. Blended together with ice, pureed taro and milk prove a perfect union. 

Seasonal fruit drink options are also recommended. All but raw materials, including pineapple, passion fruit, grapefruit, lime and orange, are transported from Taiwan, frozen and well-sealed to retain freshness.

By and large, Shared tea’s milk tea is a good fit for those with a sweet tooth. But you can ask to fine-tune the sweetness and ice according to your preference.


Ample tea-based options

Headquartered in Taiwan, Gong Cha has dozens of stores dotted around the world, including Hong Kong, Macao, Australia, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. 

Utilizing a variety of brewed teas, Gong Cha rings the changes and offers ample tea-based options.

The Milk Tea with Pearl tastes light and fresh but not drab and tasteless. The intensity of tea is level with that of milk, the flavors complementing one another. Chubby pearls taste bland but are playfully chewy. A barrage of pearls through the straw must give a kick. 

Gong Cha Milk Green Tea is the house special. The presentation is special in itself. Plain tea as the base is topped with a dollop of creamer foam. The two layers are separated with the foam afloat on the brew. The tea base can be black tea, Alisan tea, Oolong tea of your choice.

The way to drink it is another great bit of fun. If you drink directly from the bottle, you could feel the tea filtering its way through the froth into your mouth; If you poke a straw right down to the tea, you will catch the original flavor. Or, if you mix the two layers, you can have the fusion version.

Beholding the drink-making streamline over the counter is also a delight. Like bartenders, the “milk tea-tenders” concoct drinks deftly and maneuver shakers artfully. Everything is operated in a rhythmic, organic manner.

In contrast, most Hong Kong tea rooms have resisted change which they fear could offend regular customers. Take Xian Cha Fang. 

It is a low-profile street stall, with unimpressive presence and modest prices. But nestled in bustle department stores in Mong Kok, its vantage point draws continuous business. 

Its original flavored milk tea does not possess much in the way of “woo factors”, but it must make you satisfied at least.

A tint of tea fragrance can be easily made out. While faint and not domineering, the tea’s flavor is thick and calming, a reminder of the old days. Hence its name, Gu Zao (means nostalgic flavor), possibly. 


Shopping spree fix

Sweetener neutralizes tea’s bitterness, and dairy sleekness takes the edge off tea’s dryness.

Such an earthy but tasty milk tea is quite a fix for your shopping spree. 

And, of course, there are the Hong Kong-styled tea room chains that serve everything from wonton noodle soup to filet mignon. At the top of the heap is Tsui Wah that operates a chain of restaurants throughout Hong Kong. More recently, it has expanded into some major mainland cities, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing.

It doesn’t overstate the issue to say that presenting a genuine Hong Kong-style milk tea is quite an art. Compared with Taiwan’s version, Hong Kong-style milk tea gives “tea” a unique statement — apparent on the look, accentuated by the smell, sharpened on the taste.

Palpably mild bitterness and a sense of friction on the palate that sourness creates are reconciled and melted by the silky milk texture. Shortly afterwards, mellow aftertaste coats the tongue.

“Aroma” is high up among the criteria list for judging a cup of milk tea. 

“It must smell like tea. The richer the better,” said Dave Kam, the manager of Tsui Wah Restaurant. “We use mixed tea, in other words, a combination of different kinds.”

Infused tea must be placed on a heating pan to reach a boiling state, with a saucer capped upside down to seal the heat. 

La cha, or called “pulling tea”, is a critical process to unleash the fragrance of tea. Observing how craftsmen perform it is a feast to the eye. 

Finally, after blending the light milk and brewed tea and adding sugar, a cup of soothing milk tea is ready to serve.

The “light milk” refers to the Black & White Milk, a Holland brand, invariably adopted in all but the cha chaan teng.

The specific proportion of tea and milk differs among different restaurants. “It’s a commercial secret, we can’t tell anyone,” Kam said. 

The bitter sweet taste mirrors Hong Kong folks’ outlook on life, while the exquisite craftsmanship in making milk tea is a tribute to their wisdom.

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