An artist and a chemist making soda and carbonated juices from scratch, using fresh and seasonal ingredients. Fresh draft soda - available at the Brooklyn Flea on the weekends & select bars & restaurants

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hong Kong 'silk-stocking' milk tea - Part 1

I'm in Hong Kong for the next week and am embarking on some research for the soon to be launched winter project of Brooklyn Soda Works. Hint - it will involve a giant tea bag that resembles an overstretched silk stocking.

'Silk stocking' style milk tea is a uniquely Hong Kong phenomenon; influenced by British colonial tea habits - it is a black tea sweetened with sugar and served with evaporated milk, it is available at all hours of the day at 'cha-chaan tengs' (Chinese diners that serve inexpensive Hong Kong style western dishes). It's much more than a simple cup of milk tea though; it has a uniquely fine and smooth texture that is due to the cloth that the tea is strained through repeatedly and the quality of the milk that is added. The reference to hoisery is due to the appearance of the cloth bag after a long period of use and the strong black tea has stained the fabric - supposedly the customers of one of the cha-chaan tengs started referring to it as 'silk stocking tea' and over time, the name stuck.

I've decided this is the year that I will try to make my own. It's a tough project though - it has involved a lot of caffeine and a few attempts to get grumpy old men to reveal their tea secrets. Each tea house has their own secret blend of tea leaves and every year there is a competition to crown the best silk-stocking tea maker. My first stop was to one of usual tea stops, Lan Fong Yuen. Perched on the edge of the market in Central, it was established fifty years ago as a 'dai pai dong' (an outdoor food stall). It's moved indoors but retains a tiny outdoor shack where the tea is made. Lan Fong Yuen has become a staple on the foodie tourist circuit, and its walls are lined with numerous food magazine reviews (if you go, try the pork bun and their French toast as well as their tea).

Their tea is strained 8 times through the large cloth bag and their tea is a secret blend of six different types of tea leaves. They do not use the usual 'Black & White' brand of evaporated milk that other cha-chaan-tengs commonly use, but another brand. The resultant tea is an stiff aromatic tea that manages to not be bitter and is well balanced with the evaporated milk and sugar, with a good silky texture.
The next day I went with my sister to Wanchai, a fascinating older district in Hong Kong Island and meandered through their large outdoor market that sprawls across several blocks in search of two well regarded cha-chaan-tengs (unfortunately because the tea is several times stronger than what you might commonly get in a standard coffee shop, you can only really have one or two cups a day). We settled on Tak Yu (17-18 Kwong Ming Street) a well kept quiet airy cha-chaan tengs tucked away on a quiet street in an up-and coming area where boutiques have started moving in. The staff are friendly and the older gentleman who was manning the tea shack was happy to chat a bit. They use Black & White evaporated milk, which is creamier and denser than some of the other brands. His tea was one of the best I’ve had - very smooth without compromising any of the intensity from the blend of black teas.

The other cha-chaan-teng that is considered a must-try in Wanchai is Kum Foong (or Golden Phoenix). I’ll be making a trip back over in a couple of days.

You'll notice the distinct fabric tea-bag and metal hoop that used - this is as integral to preparing the tea as the actual tea leaves and milk are. I asked the gentleman at Tak Yu cha-chaan-teng in Wanchai (see the photo above) where he got his, and he replied that their were made by hand years ago. The fabric I'm assuming is replaced regularly and a lot of traditional places still make sew theirs by hand. However if you don't feel like soldering your own hoop and sewing your own cotton bags, you can head over to Reclamation Street in Yau Mai Tei area of Kowloon where the street is lined with kitchen supply stores for commercial kitchens and restaurants.
There I picked up a couple of hoops and cotton bags, as well as a steel tea pot to attempt to make my own version.

Yau Ma Tei and the surrounding areas in Kowloon are filled with old historic streets and corners. One place in particular has become a fixture - Mido Cafe. It is a 3 story cafe that dates back to 1950 and lots of its original fixtures still remain from an old cashier to the menu on the wall and the clocks.

It has a great corner spot with a nice view over the public square in front of the temple - the day we were there, a youth group was practicing a dragon dance for the upcoming Mid Autumn Festival (usually in mid to late September). While I wasn't blown away by their milk tea (there was some sedimentation at the bottom) it's a really nice place to hang out for an hour.
iced milk tea for a hot summer's day
Before I even wanted to start making my own blend of tea, I wanted to try one more place - Bing Kee in the Tai Hang neighborhood of Hong Kong Island, conveniently very close to where I live. Tai Hang has experienced a renaissance of sorts - it has always been a close knit quiet residential area with charming older residential buildings and narrow streets but in the past two years a large number of small restaurants, bars and coffee shops have moved in. Bing Kee (on Ormsby Street) is a small outdoors cafe (a 'dai pai dong') that has been around way before any of the artisanal cake shops.
it's another tea-shack! But as well as churning out cups of tea you can also get Hong Kong breakfast staples such as instant noodles with ham & egg.
Note the intensity of the color! A very pleasing cup of tea - great strong tea taste without any bitterness but I think I would have appreciated a bit more of a smooth milky texture.

Anyway, I still have a few places I want to try. I'm still working on my recipe and my technique but will post another blog post in a few days with my results. Stay tuned....