In the crammed streets of Wan Chai, one of Hong Kong’s oldest districts, the unassuming Kam Fung cafe is easy to miss. Unremarkable in appearance, its only distinguishing feature is the slightly impatient queue outside. At intervals, warning shouts order customers cluttering the cafe aisles back into their seats, and a huge steaming tray is hauled from the kitchen onto a shelf in the window. This is a temporary arrangement because the contents, hot cakes, are selling, well, like hot cakes. Within a few minutes everything on the tray is boxed and sold to the expectant queue that forms and melts in time with the Kam Fung cafe oven.
Secure a seat at one of the Formica tables inside by grabbing hold of the lady who boxes the cakes and firmly indicate the size of your party. Any lingering expectations of a genteel afternoon tea? Discard them. A little luck secures one of the petite plywood booths that line the edges of the cafe, but I’m not surprised when I find we are at a shared table. This is a chance to scrutinise what everyone else is eating without having to loom over them.
Hong Kong classics
The Hong Kong classics are what people are here for: chicken pie, egg tart and pineapple bun. In a city where food can sometimes take you by surprise, the pie is sweet, the tart is savoury and there’s no sign of pineapple in the pineapple bun.
What you can expect is that each item will arrive at the table fresh from the oven. The chicken pie, with its distinctive lattice top, is bronzed to perfection. The first dig with the fork reveals the pastry as a crumbly, buttery sweet-crust pâte brisée that sits unexpectedly well with the chicken. It’s a matter of moments before only crumbs remain. Next is the egg tart. Reassuringly familiar, the bright yellow tart beams like a sun on its sky-blue plastic plate. Expecting the sweet taste of a British egg custard or Portuguese egg tart (of which the Hong Kong version is apparently a hybrid), the savoury filling comes as a surprise. Reaching for a cup of tea, I am starting to wonder if I am eating these things in the right order.
Here in a cha chaan teng the only tea is Hong Kong milk tea, a cousin of Indian chai, served thick with condensed milk and sugar, which can be noisily slurped without drawing glances. The final item to sample is the pineapple bun, so called because the golden-brown dome of the crust looks a little pineapple-like if you use your imagination. Soft and fluffy under that pineapple crust, it’s served with a thick slab of butter poking out like a tongue. Petit fours and well-mannered cake stands seem feeble in comparison.
Just a short metro ride from Wan Chai, in Admiralty's Hong Kong Park, there's a very different cup of tea steeping. Housed in a building adjoining the tea museum, the Lock Cha Teahouse is a standard bearer for traditional Chinese tea culture. Taking a chance without a reservation, we are led to a little Qing-inspired table that can seat four, but a carved wooden screen forms a prim barrier between us and a couple already seated. Here there's no danger of pieces of your neighbour's egg tart being sprayed across the table as they emphasise a point to their dining companion.
With a tea menu as long as a wine list, the choice is baffling for those of us whose tea preferences don’t stretch much further than a slight preference for Barry’s Tea. Taking a wild stab we order a flowering tea and an oolong with a hint of ginger. Each table is equipped with its own kettle for conveniently topping up your teapot, and the menu provides intimidating details of the tea type, its fermentation status, ideal water temperature, and brewing time.
Given this level of detail, it’s no surprise when a baffling array of tiny teapots, tea bowls and trays arrive at the table. It’s only later, studying a video in the tea museum next door for clues, that I gain a rudimentary understanding of what I should have been doing. My oolong tea is accompanied by the mandatory tools of, I later learn, the Gonfu tea ceremony. Set down in front of me is a little clay Yixing teapot, a chahai or tea pitcher where the tea should be decanted on its journey from pot to cup, a porcelain brewing tray, a tiny porcelain tea bowl and a tea strainer.
To perform the tea ceremony properly, care is given to sorting the tea leaves, placing them into the pot in the right order, warming the clay teapot with water, washing the tea bowl by rotating it between thumb and finger, smelling the tea, cradling the warm tea-filled cup, and eventually drinking the tea in three sips, before heating more water for the next infusion of the leaves.
Capturing the elegance and calm of the traditional tea ceremony is beyond my capabilities, so I settle for enjoying the dainty scale of the equipment soon lying in disarray around me, and turn my attention to trying to eat a slice of beetroot jelly cake with chop sticks.
Hong Kong is often explored as a hasty pause between long-haul flights, but elbowing your way to a table at a no nonsense cha chaan teng cafe or serenely pouring hot water on closed rosebuds at a traditional teahouse, is the perfect way to steep yourself in the life of the city. So somewhere between a dim sum breakfast and roast goose dinner, it’s worth making room for high tea Hong Kong style.
Kam Fung Café
41 Spring Garden Lane, Wan Chai. Exit B2 at the Wan Chai MTR station.
Cheap enough to try one of everything and take a box of egg tarts with you for later.
Lock Cha Teahouse
Inside Hong Kong Park. Admiralty MTR station.
Expect to pay around €15-20 for two pots of tea and a dessert, unless you’re planning to blow thousands on one of the rare cakes or tea for sale in the shop.