Nothing else symbolises my Hong Kong experience quite like Lai Cha.
The first time I tried Hong Kong milk tea, or Lai Cha in Cantonese, was probably during the latter half of my first year in Hong Kong. As I began exploring the local restaurants more bravely, I made my most important discovery, the cha chann teng, literally meaning ‘tea restaurant’. Often still sporting their original 1950’s deco and wooden booth seating, cha chaan teng are the quintessential Hong Kong venue for quick, cheap meals and tea-time sets, of which Lai Cha is a staple accompaniment. It is said that 2.5 million cups are drunk every day.
Lai Cha is almost always served in the same style of thick rimmed porcelain cup, sort of like a beefy brother to a traditional tea cup. The one shown opposite, with the red lines around the rim and on the saucer, is ultra-classic. Unless the restaurant just ordered new cups, it’s likely yours will have one or two chips or cracks – but hey, you wanted ‘authentic’, right? Some of the cups come with very small handles, so when full to the brim you might struggle to hold it with one hand.
Lai Cha originated in British colonial times when the practice of afternoon-tea was introduced.
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.
Black & White, one of Hong Kong’s first brands of evaporated milk, plays on Hong Kong peoples’ sentimentality for the ‘old days’ to full advantage. They even have their own branded tea cups, as shown in the photos below.
Drinking Lai Cha at the correct temperature is crucial. It must be boiling hot for the sharpness of the tea leaves and rich flavor of the condensed milk to hit the tongue and roof of the mouth with maximum satisfaction. Early on, I saw Hong Kong people asking for an extra cup of boiling water which they’d pour into their tea when it started going cold. I always assumed this custom was to revive the tea, but it has additional benefits, such as making the drink last longer and permitting people to occupy their table longer. Having one’s own little space in crowded Hong Kong is the ultimate luxury.
Writing this has made me very sentimental. As well as becoming truly addicted to the taste, Lai Cha was my way into Hong Kong culture. Nothing was more blissful (and still is) than hiding away in the corner of a cha chaan teng, usually at tea-time, with my Lai Cha and toast, absorbing every sight, every sound and basking in the glow of just being, actually being in this incredible, mesmerising city.