The Tea Lover’s Guide to Hong Kong
Euna Lam has eaten breakfast at Lin Heung Tea House every morning for 20 years. The dim sum is fresh and well made, she says, but the real reason she keeps coming back has nothing to do with the food. “It’s the water, they keep it hot enough for my tea. And if I don’t have my tea in the morning, I’m not energized, and I can’t do anything.”
Every few minutes, a waiter swinging a ten-gallon kettle darts between tables to refill her cha zhong, or lidded tea bowl, with water just off the boil. The leaves inside—sweet, earthy bo lei (puer in Mandarin) mixed with fragrant aged orange peel—are from Lam’s personal stash, which she totes from home in a baggie and tips into the bowl when she first sits down to eat. As steam rises from the kettle up into the clamorous dining room, I see a dozen other tables getting the same personal treatment.
For millions of Hong Kongers, there’s nothing special about this arrangement. Most of them may be less particular than Lam about what tea they drink, but downing cup after cup of the stuff in the morning is just what you do. In Hong Kong, Chinese foundations, British influences, and homegrown innovations have bloomed into a tea culture unlike anywhere else. If you want to understand the local cuisine, you have to understand its tea.
Just like coffee in any American city, different tiers of tea occupy different levels of Hong Kong society. At the most democratic, virtually every Chinese restaurant will serve you tea by default. At dim sum restaurants like Lin Heung, it’s usually bo lei, which locals appreciate for its palate-cleansing, stomach-settling properties. (Foreigners usually get served pots of jasmine instead; speak up if you want something different.) In cha chaan tengs, grungy colonial-era diners that serve fluffy scrambled egg sandwiches and macaroni-Spam soup, the drink of choice is milk tea: Ceylon or Indian black tea brewed as dark and bitter as blackstrap molasses, then rescued from the abyss with a slurp of sweetened condensed milk, turning it as tawny as toffee, and nearly as rich.
Climb up a few rungs of society and you find yourself in the refined world of British-style afternoon tea, cucumber sandwiches and all. And if you’re a high-rolling tea lover, get ready to dig into the city’s specialty tea market, where vintage pressings can fetch hundreds of dollars a pound. You don’t need to be an expert to jump in, but it helps to know some basics. Tea shop owners welcome newcomers, but in the fast-moving city of seven million, they have little time for dawdling. You can and should ask if you can sit down for a tasting, though some shops will require a small fee, or only offer tastings to people with a serious intent to buy.
Specialty tea in Hong Kong takes two main forms, says Patrick Yeung of Fukien Tea Co., a cramped yet charmingly old school shop his family has run for 70 years. “We drink bo lei for digestion and oolong for the taste.” In this case, oolong—a partially oxidized style where the fresh leaves are bruised and kneaded to enhance the tea’s aromatics—refers to mainland Chinese oolong leaves roasted over high heat until they turn as dark as charcoal. Fukien roasts their high-fire tieguanyin oolong for 60 hours under careful supervision; the smoldering intensity of the finished brew blooms in the back of your throat while the tea’s floral aroma rises to your nose.
“This is the traditional Hong Kong flavor,” he explains, a costly, labor-intensive technique that’s increasingly rare on the mainland, favored by older, experienced drinkers but falling out of fashion with younger ones. The shop also sells a lighter, more buttery roast of the same tea, baked for six hours instead of 60, which offers tea nerds a rare insight into how a single difference in a tea’s processing can elicit vastly different flavors. You can ask to sample both styles for free, in several grades, with only moderate pressure to purchase.
Over at LockCha, a serene restaurant and tea shop near the Museum of Teaware in Hong Kong Park, you have to pay for each tea you taste, but it comes with a menu of excellent vegetarian dim sum well worth eating for breakfast or lunch. Owner Wing-Chi Ip specializes in bo lei, a tea grown in Yunnan Province that tea nerds love for its capacity to age for years or even decades. Hong Kong has long been the heart of the aged bo lei market, and still draws buyers from all over China that seek out vintages from the 80s and earlier that can rup up thousands of dollars a "cake," a 12-ounce disc of tea compressed for easier transport and aging.
LockCha’s menu has more affordable bo lei that you can sample by the pot, from higher quality versions of the "ripe" sok cha that you get in everyday restaurants to antique "raw" san cha full of complex character, with flavors that evoke old leather, baked fruit, and menthol. This kind of tea can and should be steeped repeatedly in the three-ounce pots Lock Cha provides; different aspects of the tea will reveal themselves with each brew, and if you’re tasting with the intent to purchase, there’s no better way to evaluate whether these pricy leaves are worth your hard earned cash.
At the very least, the dining room, done up with antique Japanese furniture and design, is a rare chance to slow down and unspool your thoughts in the clamor of central Hong Kong. Think of the tea itself as liquid courage for you to face the rest of the day.
Where to Drink Tea in Hong Kong
Australia Dairy Company
A totally classic cha chaan teng with great milk tea, terrible service, and comfort foods like steamed milk pudding and fluffy scrambled egg sandwiches. 47 Parkes Street, Jordan
As old-school as Hong Kong tea shops get. Specializes in heavily roasted oolong teas such as tieguanyin and shui xian. 6 Mercer Street, Central
A vegetarian dim sum restaurant and tea shop with fine tea and teaware, with a slower pace than shops elsewhere. Treat yourself to a session of aged raw bo lei, labeled as “green” on the menu, especially the clean, elegant early 2000s Yiwu or 2008 Da Xue Shan, all burnt peaches and sun-warmed daffodils. Ground floor of the K. S. Low Gallery in Hong Kong Park, Admiralty
A decidedly non-traditional cafe in an artsy corner of Sheung Wan with a rotating tea menu (try the local harvest marigold or the dried-fruit-tasting gong mei) and short-but-sweet selection of well made cakes and pastries. An upstairs gallery has an impressive collection of modern teaware. 18B Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan
This no-nonsense shop has been selling tea since 1955. While true tea addicts (and Cantonese speakers) can dig for a wider selection of bo lei elsewhere, Lam Kie Yuen is a good place to start your aged-tea education, with a solid range of affordable, well known raw and ripe cakes. 105-107 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan
A new and beautifully appointed shop specializing in bo lei and other aged teas, such as liu an and some aged oolongs selected by Taipei tea legend Zhou Yu of Wisteria Tea House—plus some gorgeous (but pricey) wood-fired pottery. The staff offer one tea a day for free public tasting; you can negotiate additional tastings of other teas for a fee. 4 Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan