Every day at 3:15, it's pantyhose tea time.
From the name alone, it's clear that Pantyhose Tea is more than just another milk tea. This is thanks to its very unique preparation method, which involves straining the tea leaves through a pantyhose-like net (hence the name). A century ago, the drink didn't even exist. Now, in Hong Kong you'll find pantyhose nets at every convenience store, and eager patrons waiting in line at every bakery and teashop for their daily afternoon pick-me-up.
Also known as Hong Kong Milk Tea, Pantyhose Tea is a relatively recent phenomenon in the country; its origin story mirrors that of chai in India. The British ruled Hong Kong from the mid to late twentieth century, and during that period, they introduced their culture of afternoon tea. The classic British version is black tea, milk, and sugar; but in Hong Kong, fresh milk isn't as readily available — milk isn't a big part of Chinese cuisine, and cows aren't nearly as widespread as they are in the West. So, during colonization, condensed or evaporated milk was swapped in, and sweet, creamy Pantyhose Tea was born.
How to Make It
According to Sarah Scarborough, founder of Firepot Nomadic Teas in Nashville, Pantyhose Tea is an everyday, universal type of tea, so the base variety used is usually a Ceylon from a brand like Fanning's, which is widespread and affordable. Ceylon is the best base for Pantyhose Tea, she says, because "it's known for being robust and full in body, but also flavorful and aromatic," essentially strong enough to stand up to the rich flavor of the condensed milk (evaporated is also used, but condensed is more traditional).
The preparation process — as you may have guessed — is centered around the filter, which is not actually pantyhose, but more of a long, polyester sock set on a metal ring with a handle. To make the tea, dried tea leaves are placed in the net, and then the net is then placed in a large percolator. The water is boiled with the net of tea sitting inside, and the tea constantly being agitated to ensure it steeps properly. To serve the tea, glasses — not mugs or teacups — are filled partway with condensed milk and sugar, the pantyhose is pulled out of the percolator, and hot tea is poured into each glass. "Because you are putting the tea on top of the milk and sugar, it dissolves more easily," explains Roy Fong, founder of Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco. "You don't necessarily have to stir it."
Scarborough says the end result is a strong, smooth, velvety tea that tastes like "a creamier version of black tea." One of the tea's signature characteristics, she adds, is "the white foamy layer on top from the fat in the milk, and that is desirable. You'll never find fat-free Pantyhose Tea — you want a certain amount of that fat content to create the thick, strong tea."
The standard pairing for Pantyhose Tea is the classic Hong Kong pastry, the egg tart — it's a crumbly, custard-filled shell that most likely was also born out of British influence. Fong says that people will wait in long lines in the afternoon to get their Pantyhose Tea and accompanying tart.
In Hong Kong Culture
Pantyhose Tea is a very democratic beverage — regardless of class, age, or background, it's something that most everyone in Hong Kong consumes as part of their midday ritual. Scarborough notes that in a place like Hong Kong, where class divisions are quite sharp, the tea holds a very special place in the culture. "It's not like an exquisite tea that only emperors can afford," she says. "It's the everyman's break." In fact, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten became very popular when he, like every other worker in the country, would regularly get in line with the rest of the citizenry for his tea and custard tart.
Fong says that there is a saying in Hong Kong that goes something like, "At 3:15, it's time for milk tea," as that's the standard time when everyone will be standing in line waiting for their milk tea and egg tart. He adds that some bakeries will even time the oven to be ready right at 3:15, ensuring the tarts come out piping fresh.
"Hong Kong is a fast-paced society," Scarborough says. "Pantyhose Tea offers a chance to take a break, relax, and have a conversation with somebody. And most importantly, it's available to everybody."