A Spot of Tea

Legend has it that the first cup dates from 2737 BC, when Camellia sinensis leaves fell into water being boiled for Emperor Shenong. He loved the result, tea was born, and so were many traditions.

Historically, when a girl accepted a marriage proposal she drank tea, a gesture symbolizing fidelity (tea plants die if uprooted). Betrothal gifts were known as "tea gifts," engagements as "accepting tea," and marriages as "eating tea." Traditionally the bride and groom kneel before their parents, offering cups of tea in thanks.

Serving tea is a sign of respect. Young people proffer it to their parents or grandparents; subordinates do the same for their bosses. Pouring tea also signifies submission, so it's a way to say you're sorry. When you're served tea, show your thanks by tapping the table with your index and middle fingers.

Even modern medicine acknowledges that tea's powerful antioxidants reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. It's also thought to be such a good source of fluoride that Mao Zedong eschewed toothpaste for a green-tea rinse.

Tea Types

Pu'er tea, which is known here as Bo Lei, is the beverage of choice at dim sum places. In fact, another way to say dim sum is yum cha, meaning "drink tea."

Afternoon tea is another local fixation—neighborhood joints with Formica tables, grumpy waiters, and often, menus written only Chinese. Most people go for nai cha made with evaporated milk. A really good cup is smooth, sweet, and hung with drops of fat. An even richer version, cha chow, is made with condensed milk. If yuen yueng (yin yang, half milk tea and half instant coffee) sounds a bit much, ling-mun cha (lemon tea) is also on hand. Don't forget to order peanut-buttered toast or a pineapple bun, often served with a thick slab of butter sandwiched in the middle.

The bubble (or boba) tea craze may have died down a bit, but you’ll still find plenty street stalls selling the popular Taiwanese drink. These cold brews contain pearly balls of tapioca or coconut jelly. There's also been a return to traditional teas with chains such as Healthworks, which serves healthy blends in MTR stations all over town.

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

All that’s good about British colonial architecture is exemplified in the simple white facade, wooden monsoon shutters, and colonnaded verandas of the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware. More than 600 pieces of delicate antique tea ware from the Tang (618–907) through the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties fill rooms that once housed the commander of the British forces.

The best place to put your tea theory into practice is at the LockCha Tea House (2801–7177) in the K.S. Lo Gallery annex of Flagstaff House. It is half shop, half teahouse, so you can sample brews before you buy. Hong Kong Park, 10 Cotton Tree Dr., Central 2801–7177 www.lockcha.comWeekdays 10–8, weekends 10–9 Admiralty MTR, Exit C1.

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