Nothing symbolises my Hong Kong experience as much as Lai Cha.
Discovering the cha chaan teng
The first time I tried Lai Cha, Cantonese for milk tea, was probably during the second 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 chaan teng, literally meaning ‘tea restaurant’.
Still sporting their original 1950’s-1960’s decoration and booth seating, cha chaan teng have the feeling of a faded and well-worn US diner. I learnt that the cha chaan teng was where the locals headed for quick, affordable meals and that Lai Cha was a staple accompaniment. 2.5 million cups are downed by Hong Kongers every day and it wasn’t long before I was joining them.
So what is Lai Cha?
Lai Cha isn’t like any other milk tea you’ve tasted. Made by brewing black tea through a stocking filter, as seen in the picture below, and then pouring in evaporated milk straight from the tin, Lai Cha has an intense, heavy and slightly bitter flavour.
Originating in British colonial times, when the ritual of afternoon-tea was introduced, Lai Cha is commonly served in a thick rimmed porcelain cup, sort of a beefed-up tea cup. The cup shown below, with the red lines around the rim and on the saucer, is especially retro and summons nostalgia for ‘old Hong Kong’. Likewise, Black & White, a long established brand of condensed milk, plays upon this nostalgia with the sentimental design of its packaging and branded tea cups. Unless the restaurant just ordered new cups, it’s likely your cup will have one or two chips, but you wanted ‘authentic’, right?
I like Lai Cha best when it’s boiling hot. At this temperature the flavour hits the tongue and roof of the mouth with full satisfaction. Early on, I noticed people asking for an extra cup of hot water which they’d pour into their Lai Cha when it started going cold. As well as reviving the flavor, this custom acts to make the drink last longer, thus permitting people to sit for longer at their table. Having your own little space, even a restaurant table, is a true luxury in such an over-crowded city.
All hail the set menu
As well as à la carte items, cha chaan teng offer breakfast, lunch and tea-time sets, that combine one or more food items and a drink at lower cost. I enjoyed tea-time most because the restaurants were usually less busy and an array of sweet delicacies was on offer. If you want to get really Hong Kong, try the Pineapple Bun, or ‘bolo bau’, with optional slab of hard butter inserted, as seen below.
Another tea-time speciality is Hong Kong style French toast, thick wedges of fried toast drizzled with butter and syrup. Peanut butter is sometimes stuffed inside the toast. A combo set often includes a chicken wing or sausage.
It is definitely all good comfort food, and I noticed that I became quite addicted to it during some of my most stressful times in Hong Kong. My waist line certainly reflected this.
Writing this post has made me very sentimental. As well as becoming a true addict to the taste (picture me at 4.30 pm on any given day, frantically searching for a nearby place, with space to sit, to have my fix of milk tea), Lai Cha was much more than a drink to me, it was my route into experiencing Hong Kong culture more deeply. Nothing was more blissful (and still is) than hiding away in the corner of a cha chaan teng, with my Lai Cha and pineapple bun, absorbing every sight, every sound and basking in the unbelievable glory of being in this incredible city.