Hong Kong is known for many amazing things. There are Hong Kong martial arts films, lavish skyscrapers and exquisite Taoist and Buddhist temples, veiled in plumes and curtains of incense and burning joss sticks. And let us not forget the amazing milk tea. But this is not just any milk tea. We are talking about Hong Kong-style milk tea!
Hong Kong cityscape
The origins of this beverage go back to Hong Kong’s time under British Imperial rule as a colony and trading port. As more British officials moved to Hong Kong, they brought with them many of their customs. One in particular was afternoon tea. Still a practice today in not just Britain, but other countries as well, the practice took root in Hong Kong, also. Generally, afternoon tea would consist of black tea with milk and sugar.
Traditional English afternoon tea
In the 50’s and 60’s the drink became popular among laborers and working class people, who nicknamed it “pantyhose tea” or “silk stocking tea” due to the filter for the leaves resembling a silk stocking. Today, Hong Kong-style milk tea is served at Hong Kong style restaurants and establishments all over the world as well as the tea restaurants and open air markets in Hong Kong. It is so popular and beloved on the island that it is listed as a piece of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Hong Kong.
Milk Tea Today and Why It Shines
Over time, the practice of British afternoon tea was adopted by people all over the island. But with the variation of using not regular run of the mill milk, but condensed milk or evaporated milk instead. What are condensed and evaporated milk? Condensed milk is the result of removing the water from milk. The end product is a thick, white, syrupy and sweet substance that one can buy in cans. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated unless you open that can up, and it can be stored for years at a time. Those who have tried the Vietnamese cà phê đá may have noticed the thick, amazingly sweet milk-like liquid at the bottom. Yup, that is condensed milk!
Evaporated milk, however, is the more authentic way to prepare Hong Kong-style milk tea. Evaporated milk is similar to condensed milk, in that it is also milk with the water removed. But it differs from condensed milk because it does not have any of the added sugar that condensed milk possesses. Evaporated milk is creamier than condensed milk, while condensed milk is sweetened. They are also part of the many reasons that Hong Kong-style milk tea shines!
Hong Kong-style milk tea is served with evaporated milk. Photo: Dickson Lee
What also makes Hong Kong tea stand out from the crowd of other types of tea, milk or otherwise, is the way it is prepared, and the ingredients used to prepare it. Usually 1-3 teaspoons Assam, Ceylon or another type of quality leaf of black tea is used, alongside evaporated or condensed milk. The evaporated and condensed milk give the tea a special level of richness, sweetness and smoothness that are hard to achieve with milk and sugar. As for presentation, a ceramic coffee style cup, or tall cylindrical glass are usually the modes of choice for serving milk tea.
While any type of strainer or filter is permissible, the sackcloth bag, which helped the drink earn it’s nickname of “pantyhose tea”, is a real distinctive feature of this beverage. The sackcloth bag is believed to make the tea smoother. The bag also begins to take on a deep brown complexion after being used to strain so much tea. The same color as stockings!
A worker prepares pantyhose milk tea at the famed Lan Fong Yuen tea diner in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters
The drink has a great deal of charisma in Hong Kong, where people drink 900 million glasses, cups or mugs of milk tea yearly. Milk tea has a lot of the same status and clout as coffee does in most Western countries. And, while milk tea is traditionally a lunch or afternoon drink, people in Hong Kong enjoy it for breakfast or even dinner, too.
The reputation is well earned for this gem of innovation and cultural exchange. But the synergy that’s created between the powerful black tea and the condensed or evaporated milk is what gives this drink such an ethereal taste and feel. When it is hot, it gives the lift, aroma and flavors of black, but without the overpowering taste that can accompany it. When the condensed milk is added, the milk is of course sweet, but the staunch black tea tempers it to not be so sweet you think you are drinking a soda. Hong Kong-style milk tea itself observes the powerful Yin and Yang balance of harmonious opposites. The dynamic and powerful Yin of the black tea. The otherworldly and buoyant Yang of the milk. It is truly extraordinary.
The Different Styles
What is great about Hong Kong-style milk tea, are the different styles and variations on this old favorite. Such as iced or cold Hong Kong-style milk tea. The two styles of this chillier type of Hong Kong-style milk tea differ in how they are chilled. Iced is straight forward, the tea has ice added to the liquid! But for the chilled without ice variety, the tea is chilled in a cup or bottle in the refrigerator, that way no dilution of the taste!
Iced Hong Kong-style milk tea
Another very cool technique is the Yuenyeung, or the milk tea and coffee variation. This fantastic invention is made from about 3 parts coffee and 7 parts Hong Kong-style milk tea. This version too, can also be a piping hot beverage or served iced and chilly, perfect for any season or weather!
Hong Kong-style milk tea, like Hong Kong itself, is a vibrant, unique and dynamic drink. It differs from regular black teas by its distinct sackcloth brewing method. This technique gives the leaves a smoother taste and flow than standard brewing techniques often yield. It stands out from regular milk teas due to the usage of condensed or evaporated milk when it served, too. The use of the condensed and evaporated milk makes the consistency creamier. This drink is truly an extraordinary example of Hong Kong tea mastery. So, if you are ever in Hong Kong, make sure to go pay your respects to the statue of Bruce Lee, wish for luck at a Buddhist or Taoist temple or shrine, and certainly, order up a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea!
Hong Kong-style milk tea served hot
- “Hong Kong-Style Milk Tea.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong-style_milk_tea.
- Pang, Kevin. “Cracking the Code to Hong Kong Milk Tea.” The Takeout, The Takeout, 13 July 2018, thetakeout.com/cracking-the-code-to-hong-kong-milk-tea-1798258450.