HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Amid wisps of steam and the aroma of freshly baked egg tarts, the tea masters at Hong Kong’s Golden Phoenix Cafe brew large pots of the city’s famed milk tea, using “pantyhose” stuffed with tea leaves.
“The tea is superb, smooth and fragrant,” said one veteran tea brewer known as Fatty Ming, in describing Hong Kong’s “Pantyhose” milk tea — a drink born in the east-west melting pot which reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
The drink, a Chinese take on English tea-drinking traditions, is brewed in a long cotton “sock” or filter resembling a beige pantyhose, rather than a female undergarment itself.
Over the decades, pantyhose milk tea has become a city-wide institution, craved daily by regular Hong Kongers as well as film stars and tycoons who flock to the city’s best tea-diners.
“The tea is strong and if it’s well brewed, you feel a great comfort,” said Brenda Lo, a self-confessed milk tea addict.
The blend of Indian and Sri Lankan tea leaves, strained repeatedly over 10 to 20 minutes, makes it difficult to prepare oneself.
“You need experience to do this, not everyone can do it,” said Fatty Ming, pouring the dark liquid into six large teacups.
While Paris has cafes and New York its diners, Hong Kong has its “cha chaan teng” or tea-diners, where pantyhose milk tea is served in often unpretentious and raucous surroundings.
“Every city has certain foods and drinks which reinforce its identity and Hong Kong is fortunate to have pantyhose milk tea,” said Craig Au Yeung, a Hong Kong food writer.
At the famed Lan Fong Yuen tea-diner in the Central financial district, where pantyhose milk tea was supposedly invented in the 1950s, it isn’t unusual to see a whole cross-section of Hong Kong society mingling happily over a milk tea and a snack.
Hong Kong’s leader Donald Tsang recently said: “I like nothing more than popping into a cha chaan teng (for a cup of milk tea).”
Hong Kong-born Hollywood star Chow Yun-fat is also known to drop by in his flip-flops for a hit of the steaming brew.
“You get film stars, the rich, black people, white people, and they all sit together on the same table, talking their talk,” said Lum Chun-yip, boss of the no-frills Lan Fong Yuen.
“This is a place where there are no divides. It’s a common classless place ... This is Hong Kong’s greatest specialty,” Lum added of the city’s egalitarian teahouse tradition.
While China has a great tradition of tea drinking, it was Hong Kong’s early British colonial administrators who first introduced the territory to drinking Western-style tea, mixed with milk, over a century ago.
“Some say Hong Kong’s pantyhose milk tea origins probably arose from areas near British army barracks, where the tradition of having afternoon tea spread to local villagers, and then to the community at large,” said Au Yeung, the food writer.
Despite the global rise of coffee culture as propagated by the likes of Starbucks, Hong Kong’s milk tea tradition and tea diners remain an integral part the throbbing city’s urban fabric.
“It (coffee) hasn’t really toppled pantyhose milk tea’s reputation and stature as “big brother”, said Au Yeung.
“People won’t forget about milk tea just because coffee is more popular, I don’t think it’ll die down. No way,” he added.
Others say the gruff waiters and working-class ambience of pantyhose milk tea haunts are as important as the drink itself, and carry a quintessential Hong Kong vibe that other places lack.
“You can talk as loud as you like (in the tea-diners) and no one will complain,” laughed Pallas Ng, a bank clerk.
“Starbucks is too quiet. We prefer louder places,” she added.
Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by David Fogarty