Dim Sum Dialogues: Chinese Tea

One of my only objectives this weekend was to write an article about traditional Chinese tea. I had been entertaining visions of myself walking down a dark side street in Central and discovering an old wooden tea house guarded by an ancient man with a long wispy beard. I would then bow with respect or give him a secret handshake that would allow me inside access to a tea that the man had just spent hours brewing – and I imagine that it would be the most fragrant and refreshing tea I’ve ever tasted.

So I asked some of my local friends where I could go to get some proper tea, and the most popular response was “well…there’s a tea museum in Central park”…but the recommendations for drinking tea in a traditional tea-house were few & far between. I ended up going to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware (which is now undergoing renovations) to find out more. Although they had a nice collection of 17th century utensils, the overall exhibit was more disappointing than the realization that my vision of ancient men brewing special recipes from long expired dynasties would not materialize.
And I suppose that this is the story of Hong Kong. The practices of conventional Chinese culture have in many ways been paved over by a hybrid east-meets-west society that bears a significant amount of influence from western nations. Sure, the streets of Kowloon and Sheung Wan are still home to the conventional wet markets and local men that sit in the vast recreational parks playing mahjong with their shirts off. It will be generations before this Hong Kong disappears. But simple things like food, fashion sense, and popular culture are a sort of mash-up, resulting in a product that is perhaps unique to Hong Kong.

The formalities of ancient tea preparation have been forgotten for the more relaxed and casual style found in dim-sum restaurants. The term Yum cha (飲茶), or “drinking tea” in Cantonese is primarily used as a verb to describe the act of going out to eat dim sum, showing just how closely tied the act of drinking tea has become to this style of food. In many of these restaurants it’s possible to be served teas like jasmine, chrysantheumum, and oolong – but the preparation is no special ritual. It would be uncommon for people in Hong Kong to only go out for tea, and instead most people would go out for “one bowl of tea – and two pieces of dim sum” (盅兩件) .

One of the most interesting traditions of tea that has evolved in Hong Kong is “milk-tea”. The British colonists that ruled Hong Kong for over 150 years brought with them the age-old habit of afternoon black tea, served with milk. If you’ve ever spent an extensive amount of time in England, then you know that a good cup of tea with milk is the lifeblood of the English. This tradition caught on, and evaporated milk began to replace the regular milk customarily mixed with several black teas at once, giving the tea a rich and creamy taste.

In modern Hong Kong, people drink milk tea with breakfast, lunch, or dinner – and take it hot when the weather favors it, or with ice cubes when the humidity of the summer is unbearable. The signs of a good cup of milk tea are found in how smooth and full-bodied it is, or if it leaves a white residue on the lip of the cup after a sip has been drunk. This is probably the most common type of tea that you’ll find across restaurants in Hong Kong, and definitely worth a try.

If I didn’t know the history behind things like milk-tea, it would be easy to assume that it grew out of a Chinese practice. But the more I try to dissect what makes Hong Kong special, I’m beginning to see just how many cultures have contributed to make this city a multi-cultural melting pot (or rice cooker) that’s slowly developing an identity of it’s own.