Photos by Ashley Yue, graphics by Dolly Li and Skyler Rodriguez
Drinks are a serious business in Hong Kong, where lines at famous bubble tea joints can snake around the block just from word of mouth. This is the city that gave birth to its own milk tea, a blend of Ceylon and evaporated milk that reflects the former British colony’s unique mix of Eastern and Western culture.
Hong Kong-style milk tea isn’t the only legacy of colonialism. Many locals grew up with drinks that blend together seemingly mismatched ingredients—cola boiled with ginger and lemon, pickled limes in 7-Up and juice extracted from beef.
Many of these drinks were served at cha chaan teng (茶餐厅), no-frills diners that offered a mish-mash of traditional Cantonese fare and localized Western food, but they were also brewed at home.
Beverage trends have changed dramatically over the years, and the latest fad is an Instagrammable variety of milk tea known as cheese tea. Still, some of the cha chaan teng staples have stood the test of time and remain favorites. Here are some of Hong Kong’s most creative concoctions.
Hot water with raw egg (滚水蛋)
A cup of boiled water, an uncooked egg and a few spoonfuls of sugar for taste—from the 1950s onward, the drink was popular among Hong Kong’s poor as a breakfast item. But as the city developed over the years, the drink became lost in the dustbins of history.
Its nickname, which roughly translates to “a monk jumping into the sea,” refers to the egg yolk resembling the bald head of a monk as it sinks and cooks in the water. The egg white spreads to create a silky pattern reminiscent of a robe. However, the drink is rarely consumed today.
Boiled cola with ginger and lemon (柠乐煲姜)
This beverage is a popular home remedy for the common cold and the perfect drink for a chilly day. The smooth bitterness of flat cola complements the sharp sting of ginger. Lemon adds a touch of tartness.
The drink is still served at most cha chaan teng in Hong Kong. To make it at home, pour a can of cola into a saucepan. Throw in slices of ginger and lemon. Bring the mixture to a boil, and let it simmer for five to 10 minutes. Don’t let it sit for any longer, though, or the cola will caramelize.
Pickled limes in 7-Up (咸柠七)
Savory meets sweet in this classic Hong Kong drink made with salted limes and soda. The tangy concoction is believed to ease sore throats, alleviate coughs and treat early signs of the cold.
The drink is a longtime staple of cha chaan teng, where it’s so well-known that waitstaff often just scribble “07” on their pad when taking the order. (In Cantonese, “zero” and “lime” are homonyms.)
You can also make it at home. Just plop a pickled lime into a glass of 7-Up (or Sprite) and squeeze it with a spoon until it’s as salty as you like. Some people prefer squeezing until the pulp is floating to get the perfect balance between sweet and savory.
The ideal limes would have been salted for at least six months to a year. The older the lime, the richer the taste.
Beef juice (牛肉汁)
Chinese people considered beef to be good for blood flow, but it was also too “hot” for the body. Turning it into juice was believed to soften it a little.
Beef juice was a popular drink before coffee and milk tea became ubiquitous. One Hong Kong mother said she would make it for herself and her daughters when they were menstruating.
Her recipe: put a few slices of raw beef in a bowl of cold water and let them sit for a few hours. The water absorbs the “essence” of the beef.
Then, the liquid is brought to a quick boil. The meat is removed before serving.
Since the juice took hours to make, Bovril, a British meat paste, became a widely used substitute. The thick brown paste would be diluted in hot water. The combination was popular among office workers as an energy drink.
Cream soda with milk (忌廉沟鲜奶)
Many Hong Kongers remember the thrill of going to a cha chaan teng as a child and getting a bottle of fresh milk and cream soda to mix themselves.
The rule of thumb is to pour both parts into a cup at the same time or add cream soda to the milk to prevent it from curdling. Some people substitute milk with vanilla ice cream for a richer taste.
The drink was so popular in the 1970s and ’80s that a movie was named after the drink.
Cheese tea (芝士奶盖茶)
Tea is topped with a dollop of cream cheese whisked with sugar and salt in this popular drink that has taken Asia by storm. The foam is similar to mascarpone but lighter in texture, and it’s meant to hit the mouth first before the tea kicks in.
The drink started in the night markets of Taiwan in 2010. Vendors would mix powdered cheese, salt and whipping cream into a foamy blend and spoon a helping onto a cup of iced tea.
But the fad really took off in 2012 when Guangdong-based HeyTea stepped up the game by using cream cheese instead of powder. Lines flew out the door, and the wait at some shops in China topped five hours.
The trend soon spread to Hong Kong, Singapore and other parts of Asia. Recently, shops in the United States have started serving the drink. Little Fluffy Head Cafe in Los Angeles even offers creamy toppings in flavors such as cheesecake, crème brûlée and tiramisu.