It wasn’t until several months after moving to Hong Kong that I first tried Lai Cha, Cantonese for ‘milk tea’. By then I’d begun exploring the local food more bravely by venturing into the canteen-style fast food chains that dominated the city. Not knowing much Cantonese, it was easy to point to the menu board for what I wanted.
No other food or drink came to symbolize my Hong Kong experience as much. “Lai Cha,” I answer whenever someone asks me what I miss about living there since moving away. Maybe I’ve a soft spot for it, being the first thing I eventually learnt to order in Cantonese.
Lai Cha is made by brewing black tea through a silk stocking filter, in a similar way to Malaysian and Singaporean Teh Tarik. Evaporated milk is then poured in straight from the tin, which balances the tea’s bitterness to produce an intense yet smooth flavor and rusty color. Making a perfect cup of Lai Cha is an art form. Apprentices learn from a tea master, who teaches that the tea must be poured from the correct height, otherwise the leaves full aroma is not released.
Originating in British colonial times, when the practice of afternoon-tea was introduced, it’s nostalgia for a bygone era that boosts Lai Cha’s appeal. As traditional neighbourhoods and family businesses are replaced by shopping malls and trendy developments, Lai Cha evokes fondness for a way of life that is fast slipping away. Black & White, Hong Kong’s most popular brand of evaporated milk, plays on this sentimentality to maximum advantage.
Lai Cha is so much a part of Hong Kong culture (2.5 million cups are consumed every day!) that even McDonalds sells it. But the ultimate place to enjoy this iconic beverage is in the cha chaan teng, or ‘tea restaurant’, in Cantonese. These cafe-style restaurants exist on nearly every street corner, and offer affordable meals and set menus. Many cha chaan teng still sport their original 1950’s decoration, and while at first glance some of the interiors may appear grubby, they’re unpretentious places to cool your feet for a while and watch the locals.
No other food or drink came to symbolize my Hong Kong experience as much as Lai Cha.
The porcelain cup in which Lai Cha is typically served, is a strong part of the tradition. With its extra thick rim and heft, it resembles a beefy brother to a regular tea-cup. Unless the restaurant just ordered new cups, there’s a good chance yours will be chipped or cracked – hey you wanted “authentic”, right?
If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll love the uniquely Hong Kong treats that accompany Lai Cha so well, such as pineapple buns and thick wedges of french toast filled with peanut butter and drizzled with syrup.
I love Lai Cha boiling hot and in the first few sips, when the tea is at its boldest. Early on, I noticed Hong Kong people asking for an extra cup of boiling water which they’d pour into their tea when it started going cold. Now I find myself doing the same in other countries, and get some odd looks in return.
Writing this has made me very sentimental about Hong Kong. Lai Cha and the chaa chan teng won’t disappear any time soon, but I wonder if in ten or fifteen years I’ll be able to savor them both in quite the same way.
Have you ever tried Lai Cha? I’d love to hear in the comments!
Photo of Lai Cha being poured through a silk stocking by I, K.C. Tang, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1221015