My grandmother’s diabetic friend Auntie wanted to treat us to afternoon tea in Hong Kong. “Tea?” I thought. Afternoon tea is so very…British. We’re in Hong Kong. Why are we going for tea? But this, it turns out, is a very different sort of tea.
Afternoon tea is a leftover vestige of the British Empire and is one of your six-a-day essential meals: breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner and “siu-yeh” (a late night snack). It’s a huge deal in Hong Kong and it’s not really tea as we know it. Sure, there’s food and there’s, well, tea, but the food is more likely to be wonton mein (wonton noodles) or char siu bau (barbecued pork bun), than finger sandwiches and scones. You can, of course, get the latter in some of the posher hotels and big Western-style shopping malls, but you’ll find the rest in the Chinese tea houses around Hong Kong. And as for the tea, Hong Kong tea is actually a blend of seven different tea leaves with condensed milk, which gives it a very distinct, mild and sweet flavour.
The tea house we were going to – Sun Ying Kee Cafe on Hysan Avenue, Causeway Bay – is apparently famous. By the time we had arrived, the small venue was already teeming with people who were getting their fill of giant steaming bowls of fragrant noodles; toast smothered in what appeared to be condensed milk; or huge buns, piled high with fried pork, tomatoes, cucumbers and lashings of mayonnaise – hey, I never claimed this stuff was healthy. The decor was a mixture of booths and what appeared to be fold-up cards tables; they’d definitely seen better days, but were very clean.
The staff in such establishments are gloriously indifferent: the young waiter who served us slapped four glasses of complimentary Chinese tea down on the table (which had been poured, or rather ‘sloshed’, into the glasses from a giant pitcher of tea at a side table), then scribbled barely legible characters on his notepad as fast as the words came from our lips. He assumed a three-quarter stance to us, already facing the next punter and ready to rush off. We asked for their famous French toast, Hong Kong tea, lemon tea for me, and a pork bun for Auntie. Moments later, the waiter had returned with cutlery and our tea orders, which he banged down onto the table in front of us, and then our fare arrived, along with a giant pitcher of golden syrup in the centre of the table.
Their French toast is, simply put, golden fried wonder. A giant blob of butter sat in the middle, slowly melting over the surface of the toast. I took a bite and found an unexpected taste. “Is there…peanut butter in this?” I asked my grandmother. “Yes,” she said, then almost immediately, “you’re not allergic to peanut butter?” Probably should’ve asked before ordering, but no, thankfully I’m not. Good thing too, because it was sinfully delicious.
Auntie poked at her pork bun half-heartedly, staring at the French toast which my grandmother was now pouring a seemingly endless fountain of golden syrup onto. Whilst she was pre-occupied in conversation, quick as a flash, Auntie speared a piece of my grandmother’s French toast and popped it into her mouth. My grandmother exclaimed, telling Auntie off, but both of them smiling. They’d been friends for so long that this kind of behaviour was, by now, par for the course. Auntie grinned cheekily, chewing away, then followed up her stolen bite with a mouthful of her pork bun (from which she had removed all traces of anything resembling a vegetable).
We finished up our tea (Auntie spent most of her time watching the pool of syrup on my grandmother’s plate, who in turn taunted her with the last bite of French toast by waving it under her nose) and prepared to pay the bill, which was very reasonable at only HK$30 per head. In the taunting process my grandmother had accidentally flicked a bit of golden syrup across the table which had landed on Auntie’s glass. Never one to miss a trick, Auntie grabbed the glass and licked the syrup off the surface, then dabbed at her mouth daintily with a Kleenex. You get small pleasures where you can. We paid at the front counter and headed out into the brisk January evening – Auntie looked extremely pleased with herself. No wonder she wanted to treat us.
If you’re ever in Hong Kong, Chinese afternoon tea is a must. I highly recommend the French toast – just don’t have it if you’re allergic to peanut butter…and guard your plate from wandering forks.
Sun Ying Kee Cafe, Shop 8-9, Empire Court, 2-4 Hysan Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Open Mon-Sun, 8am-8pm. Nearest MTR: Causeway Bay Station, Exit A.