No other food or drink symbolizes my Hong Kong experience quite like Lai Cha.
I can’t remember the first time I tried Hong Kong milk tea or Lai Cha in Cantonese. It was probably during the second half of my first year living in Hong Kong, when I began exploring the local restaurants a bit more bravely. And if I had to guess, it was probably in a Fairwood or Cafe de Coral, two of the big canteen-style fast food chains which display their menus on the wall as you walk in the entrance. I hadn’t learnt Cantonese then and it was easy just to point to what I wanted.
No other food or drink symbolizes my Hong Kong experience quite like Lai Cha. It’s the first thing I tell people I miss about Hong Kong. Maybe I’ve a soft spot for it being one of the first things I learnt to order in Cantonese. Maybe I just became full-on addicted to the taste – which is unlike anything else.
Lai Cha is made by brewing black tea through a silk stocking type filter, in a similar way to Malaysian and Singaporean Teh Tarik. Evaporated milk is then poured in straight from the tin, which balances the bitterness of the tea to produce an intense, rich flavor. Most people add sugar but I prefer it unsweetened.
Lai Cha originated in British colonial times when the practice of afternoon-tea was introduced, but it’s a nostalgia for “old Hong Kong” in general, which is fast disappearing beneath new shopping mall complexes and other developments, that makes this drink so beloved. Black & White, one of the oldest Hong Kong brands of evaporated milk plays on this sentimentality to full advantage.
The porcelain cup that Lai Cha is typically served in is as much a part of the tradition. With its extra thick rim and weighty feel it’s like a beefy brother to a traditional tea-cup. Unless the restaurant just ordered new cups, it’s likely yours will be chipped or cracked – hey you wanted “authentic”, right? You’ll get this type of cup in most of Hong Kong’s multitude of cha chaan teng or “tea restaurants”.
Cha chaan teng are cafe-style restaurants that offer affordable set menus. A lot of them still have their original 1950’s decoration and are the ultimate places to soak up a slice of Hong Kong culture. It didn’t take me long to become addicted to having tea-times in a chaa chan teng, as you may be able to tell from these photos:
Lai cha is best boiling hot and in the first few sips, when the full sharpness of the tea leaves and smoothness of the milk bursts through. Early on I noticed Hong Kong people asking for an extra cup of boiling water which they’d pour into the tea when it started to go cold. When I do this myself in other countries – I can’t bear cold tea – I get looked at like I’m trying to get an extra cup of tea for free, but in Hong Kong it’s perfectly normal.
Writing this has made me very sentimental about Hong Kong. The city I essentially grew up in is under real threat from gentrification and aggressive commercial interests. Astronomical rents are forcing out many small businesses in favor of big chains. The chaa chan teng won’t ever completely disappear but I wonder in 10 or 15 years if I’ll be able to enjoy a cup of Lai Cha in quite the same way.
Have you ever tried Hong Kong-style milk tea? Please share your experiences in the comments!