Cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳) are Cantonese cafés that are key to Hong Kong food culture. They are frequently visited by locals for any of the three meals of the day. You can order special dishes daily from the menu on the walls or blackboards, or enjoy staple beverages, snacks, afternoon tea, or proper meals found in these social hubs all over the city.
They are also the birthplace of unique drinks with ingredient combinations boasting skin benefits, a remedy for the common cold, or simply delicious flavours borne of Hong Kong’s multicultural history and here is our guide to specialty drinks that you can find and order in a cha chaan teng.
Cream soda with milk (忌廉溝鮮奶)
Cream soda with milk (pronounced gei lim kau xin lai) might sound like an odd combination of too much dairy together, but it is an interesting drink to order for its flavour and mouthfeel. It is served as half a glass of cold milk with a can of famous Schweppes Cream soda on the side. Patrons can then decide the amount of cream soda to pour into their glass of milk before stirring. It sounds simple but tastes like a bubbly milkshake, combining a sweet, creamy, smooth taste with a hint of carbonated kick.
Stocking milk tea (絲襪奶茶)
Stocking milk tea (pronounced si mut lai cha) is a popular drink order as it is the authentic classic milk tea preparation in Hong Kong. The staple is prepared by straining multiple types of tea leaves into a cup using a chinois. (Pu’erh and ceylon tea are generally used, although the particular proportions differ between restaurants and are regarded as a secret.) A sackcloth bag covers the chinois to better filter the tea leaves, resembling a pair of pantyhose. Most cha chaan tengs use the brand Black & White Full Cream Evaporated Milk as it is made with fresh Netherlands milk, which is why you commonly see milk tea served in a Black & White cow logo ceramic cup representing the brand. Stocking milk tea has a richer, smooth balanced taste of black tea and milk than average milk tea and is a preferred order as a drink.
Cha zau (茶走)
Cha zau milk tea originated from stocking milk tea. The way of making cha zau is slightly different from the classic preparation, as it is made of black tea, condensed milk, and sugar. The ratio of black tea and milk varies between these two versions of milk tea. Cha zau originated from customers requesting milk tea with no sugar added, worrying it would increase saliva production (making their request with the phrase zau tong, or “no sugar”). So cha chaan tengs started using condensed milk as a sugar alternative, which then became popularly ordered due to the resulting rich sweetness and creaminess.
Iced red bean (紅豆冰)
Red bean ice or red bean fleecy is known in Cantonese as hung dau bing. This cold red bean beverage consists of crushed ice with sweet red beans and vanilla ice cream. It is a classic refreshing dessert drink ideal on those hot summer days. This drink is best enjoyed using a big spoon to taste the mix of crunchy crushed ice, red beans, and creamy milk texture. Red bean ice is prepared by first cooking red beans with sugar to form a red bean paste which is then chilled in the refrigerator. After that, the red bean paste, evaporated milk, and crushed ice are combined into the sweetest dessert cup to order.
Hot water with egg (滾水蛋)
Hot water with egg (pronounced gwun sui dan) is a drink seen in traditional cha chaan tengs. As you may guess, the traditional way of serving this drink is by preparing a cup of hot water and dropping a raw egg in immediately before serving. Stir to incorporate the egg before it cooks, and add in white sugar before drinking. This warm, nurturing drink originated due to a lack of food supply in the time of old Hong Kong and was seen as a nutritional beverage. It tastes similar to light egg drop sweet soup. Hot water with egg might seem like an odd drink nowadays, but it is a simple way to grasp the old style of cha chaan teng.
Hot Coke with ginger and lemon (熱薑檸樂)
Hot Coke with ginger and lemon (pronounced yit geung ling lok) is a drink that is commonly believed to relieve cold symptoms. Lemon is rich in vitamin C, and most people have heard Coke contains black sugar. In Chinese medicine, black sugar and ginger tea can improve body circulation and strengthen the stomach and spleen. This drink is bubbly, sweet, and slightly sour, and has a strong spiciness from the ginger. The soft drink’s carbonation is reduced significantly by the boiling process, making it easier on a sore throat. It is prescribed to alleviate cough and congestion, though its effects are not scientifically proven. The remedy is prepared by boiling Coca-Cola in a pot, adding in pre-peeled ginger and lemon slices for a few minutes, and pouring in a cup to serve.
Ribena with lemon (檸賓)
Ribena is a blackcurrant drink that originated from the United Kingdom but has been a nostalgic drink in Hong Kong since the 90s. It is a concentrated blackcurrant juice that comes in non-carbonated or carbonated forms. In cha chaan tengs, Ribena is served with lemon to enhance its fruitiness (pronounced ling bun). It pairs well with soda or sparkling water. The result is sweet, fruity, slightly sour, and refreshing, with anthocyanins that are great for eye and skin health making it commonly known as an ideal drink for children.
Yuen yeung (鴛鴦)
This drink is commonly called yuen yeung. The name of the drink comes from the legend of mandarin ducks always coming in a pair (the Chinese name for the drink and the type of duck are the same) or as a reference to the combination of Western and Eastern drinks, coffee and milk tea. It is made with a 1:1 ratio of milk tea to coffee. This drink is typically smooth and has the sweetness from the milk lingering with a light bitter taste of coffee. It is a drink that gives you a great balance of complementary flavours and a boost of caffeine, a great alternative to order if you are indecisive about ordering between milk tea and coffee.
Almond cream (杏仁霜)
Almond cream (pronounced hung yun seung) is another nutritious beverage that is well known for its skin health benefits. Almonds can improve blood circulation and has anti-aging effects, moisturizing and whitening skin. It is usually made with almond powder added to boiling water and sugar. The traditional way of making almond cream uses two kinds of almonds: sweet apricot kernel and bitter apricot kernel. These two ingredients can help to nourish the lungs and improve coughing symptoms. It is a smooth drink with a silky, milky-like texture as a great alternative to dairy drinks. Some people like to add evaporated milk to enhance its creamy texture.
Black cow (黑牛)
The black cow (pronounced hak ngau) is a classic drink of sweet tooth satisfaction in the summer. It provides double sweetness with the combination of Coke and chocolate ice cream. The speciality of this drink is the coolness from the ice cream mixed with the bubbly Coke that creates the flavour as a magical drink of sweetest treasure. Rocky road ice cream is a wonderful option that is perfect for this drink. The drink is commonly served to customers with ice cream placed on top, creating a creamy, bubbly swirl as it sinks. The black cow is a dessert drink that is loved by children.
We can see the change in Hong Kong through the culture of drinks in cha chaan teng. From classic milk tea to soft drinks, these drinks are rooted in Hong Kong food culture. Order and try out these classic drinks next time you dine in a cha chaan teng to see if they really do offer the health benefits they boast!