The Story of Pantyhose Tea: Hong Kong-Style milk tea

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As a former British colony, Hong Kong has its own rich and unique cultural history when it comes to tea, and one of its well-known treasures, with over 900 million cups served every year, is Pantyhose Tea. Also known as Silk Stocking Tea, pantyhose Tea is a creamy, smooth but strong beverage combining black tea and milk, prepared in a very unique way, making it one of Hong Kong’s most iconic beverages.

Whereas most of the Chinese specialty teas have a long history dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years, pantyhose tea is a more recent discovery. Adding milk to tea is nothing new and appears to be a remnant of British colonial times where the British tradition of afternoon tea served black tea with milk and sugar. However, the British tended to use more expensive teas, like Indian Assam, as their base making it less popular with the ever-increasing local population. These days traditional milk is often replaced by evaporated or condensed milk, depending on taste.

Although the precise origin of pantyhose tea specifically remains unclear, it is believed that it came about during the 1950s and 1960s when the working classes of Hong Kong started to favor what they called “pantyhose tea” because of the stocking-like mesh filter (sackcloth) the tea is run through. After repeated use, these cloth filters started to discolor and resemble women’s stockings, hence the name. It is argued that a “Mr. Lam”, an owner of an open-air stall (Dai Pai Dong), invented the beverage in 1952. This was recognized by the Legislative Council of Hong Kong in 2007.

The secret of Hong Kong-style milk tea lies in its unique preparation method. A mix of several black tea leaves is often preferred, usually Ceylon, Assam or even Pu’er depending on personal preference. The loose tea leaves are placed in the sackcloth, placed in a percolator with water, and left to boil. Then pulled and strained through the filter several times, removing any of the unwanted waste and debris, and leaving nothing but a silky-smooth texture to the tea.

The precise ratio of milk to tea is exceedingly important in shaping the taste. However, some debate over the sequence in which the tea and milk are combined. Some say that the tea should be added to a cup filled with milk, others claim it should be the other way around. Even so, both methods are recognized as being authentic.

In modern times, the notion of Pantyhose tea has grown beyond its cultural reach in Hong Kong and can now be found all over the world. It is generally an afternoon tea but can be served at breakfast or dinner as well. Pantyhose tea can also be served in a variety of ways, both hot and cold. One variety is simply an iced version of the tea, where, as the name implies, ice cubes are added to the cup. However, the melting of the ice does affect the taste of the beverage, so another way to cool pantyhose tea is simply by placing it in the refrigerator. Another variation is known as Yuenyeung, where milk tea is combined with coffee.

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