Hong Kong Milk Tea or Bubble Tea? The Best of Both
Tea is a basic drink yet it has a long and rich history and is served in many different ways. If you have never tried bubble tea (also called “boba” or sometimes pearl tea) then you are missing one of the world’s greatest modern beverage innovations. Bubble tea originated in Taiwan and is one of those great, simple pleasures that life offers. Hong Kong has many bubble tea shops but its history includes a greater tea story. Bubble tea is now available in most cities around the world but tea lovers must also try the local classic Hong Kong milk tea. We explore both bubble tea and the more traditional milk tea below.
AND… if there are no bubble tea shops near you or cannot get to Hong Kong for milk tea, be sure to read all the way to the end. You can now enjoy the delight of bubble tea and the warm, goodness of milk tea without even leaving home.
Here’s a little background and history, and some places and ways to explore these two worlds of tea.
Where Does Bubble Tea Come From?
Bubble tea originated at the Hanlin teahouse in Tainan, Taiwan, so the story goes. In 1986, at the Ya Mu Liao market, a teahouse owner, Tu Tsong, was inspired when he saw white tapioca balls and decided to make tea with them. These traditional, white tapioca balls are in the form of pearls, hence the commonly heard alternative name: pearl tea.
After some time, Hanlin started to offer a black pearl version, mixed with brown sugar or honey, but you can still purchase both color of pearls (or bubbles) at several locations.
An alternative origin story is associated with the Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taichung, Taiwan. Its founder, Liu Han-Chieh, while on a trip in the 1980s, observed how the Japanese served cold coffee, and he applied this method to tea.
This new style of serving tea brought expansion to his business, and multiple outlets were established. The growth brought about the popularity of bubble tea, and it was well-known in some parts of the East and Southeast Asia in the 1990s.
How Is Bubble Tea Made?
Bubble tea is a sweetened tea drink — usually but not always served cold — that contains small red bean or tapioca balls at the bottom, commonly called “bubbles” or pearls. It comes in different flavors but typically is served in one of two forms: an iced, fruity tea, consisting of iced flakes, tea, and fresh fruits, or a milkshake-like tea, made by blending iced flakes, water, tea, milk, powdered flavor, and creamer.
The drink has become extremely popular with people, young and old, from Canada and the USA, and in Europe and beyond, especially in areas with bigger Asian communities. But you can now find bubble tea in most cities, large and small, around the world. So, where can visitors to Hong Kong enjoy a tasty and cooling bubble tea?
Gong Cha is one of the old standards (old for bubble tea). For some people this is THE place. And it is easily accessible from most parts of Hong Kong, located in various neighborhoods. Some might say it lacks the originality of some of its competitors. However, their tea is affordable with prices from $18, which is tasty in its own way.
Gong Cha has various locations in Hong Kong.
There are six locations of CoCo in Hong Kong, as of this writing. And you must get to one of them to try this bubble tea, known for it’s fresh, creamy texture. They also have fruit flavours and smoothies, with prices from $18 and $22.
CoCo has various locations in Hong Kong.
One of the favorites here is the red-bean milk tea. A number of the offerings here have an herbal, almost floral taste. It has jelly-like bubbles with a nice flavor just as expected, and prices start in the same range as the other bubble tea shops above.
ShareTea has various locations in Hong Kong.
KOI Thé may seem like just another bubble tea place, however it has oddly coloured, golden bubbles, and comes highly recommended by pearl tea aficionados. They also have the popular and trendy fresh brown sugar milk tea. Their teas tend to start sweet so better to not add sugar (and maybe even ask for “less sweet”). It is situated in a busy part of Mongkok (and other locations), and known for its varieties, taste, and quality. Warning: if you go for the large size you’ll have a lot to drink (and it will definitely too good to stop).
KOI Thé is located at Hung Tat Building, 55 Dundas Street, Mongkok, Kowloon.
TP Tea is a bubble tea hotspot known for its strong, milky flavor and the high quality of tea leaves used. With a wide variety of alternative bubble teas (Yakult green tea, for example) the slightly higher prices, starting at $24, seem more than fair.
TP Tea has various locations in Hong Kong.
With slogans such as ”shake your boo-tea”, and accessories like inflatable flamingo drink holders and their beautifully painted walls, a bubble tea from Flamingo Bloom is not just delicious, it is an experience. This is also the perfect place for your next social media selfie.
Their teas are natural, with no additives, and are freshly brewed throughout the day. The prices run the gamut, from $19 to about $36.
Flamingo is located at 50 Stanley Street, Central, and 18 Cameron Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon.
Rich and Creamy History of Hong Kong Milk Tea
Hong Kong milk tea is a traditional drink that has colonial roots and has been a source of energy (and pride) for most Hongkongers from the second world war.
Known as “yeet lai cha”, meaning ‘hot milk tea”, it has a rich, hearty flavour. Original Hong Kong milk tea can get super strong due to being refined multiple times through a silk stocking, and is made creamy by adding evaporated milk. It delivers a long-lasting tannin jolt derived from the carefully selected mixture of tea leaves.
Hong Kong milk tea is a product of the city’s colonial days. During the British rule, English tea was served at high-end establishments, not affordable to most Hongkongers. But after the second world war the popularity of the English tea was adapted for the traditional street food stalls, and the ingredients were sourced locally. Evaporated milk that is still used today (most argue that Black & White brand makes the smoothest texture) replaced regular milk, and a stronger blend of tea leaves were adopted, to meet the preference of the local tastes.
Many Hongkongers young and old drink this strong, caffeinated and creamy drink daily. This makes it a comforting, must-have part of the local diet and the complex nature of its preparation makes it hard to prepare at home, so it has become a staple of the dining out culture.
Visitors to Hong Kong can learn more about the history of tea by checking out the FlagStaff House Museum of Tea, located in the heart of Hong Kong Park.
Lan Fong Yuen
This timeless HK diner has been popular with locals for more than half a century, attracting both Hongkongers and tourists alike. It is one of the best places to have a cup of HK-style silk stocking milk tea. Their milk tea is smooth and velvety with a pleasant flavor, and its notable for its stained-brown, fine sack cloth strainer.
Lan Fong Yuen is located at 2 Gage St, Central.
Australia Dairy Company
If you want to enjoy your Hong Kong milk tea alongside a delicious breakfast (as most Hongkongers do) then this special Hong Kong style cha chaan teng spot, might be your place. For their breakfast set, they serve moist, scrambled and fluffy eggs with rich buttered toast and macaroni, with chicken broth char siu. This or one of its other milk-based or egg dishes makes a great breakfast for residents or visitors, as it is served any time of the day, and in large portions.
Australian Dairy Company is located at G/F, 47-49 Parkes St, Jordan, Kowloon.
Tsui Wah Restaurant
With more than 20 branches of this classic Hong Kong tea restaurant across the city (and locations in Macau and mainland China, this 24 hour diner-style restaurant is probably the most famous of its kind.
The most popular amongst them is the one located on Wellington Street, close to Lan Kwai Fong. This makes it a hotspot for locals and tourists, and celebrities from nearby clubs as well. Several local celebs have visited the Tsui Wah restaurant, including pop stars Ron Ng, Kau Hung Ping, Daniel Wu, and Bosco Wong. Even though it is a relaxed and casual diner, the restaurant has played a role in various movies, due to its connection to the LKF club culture in Hong Kong.
The prices are a bit higher than some of its competitors but it offers a wide variety of traditional Hong Kong foods, and of course milk tea.
Tsui Wah is located at 17-19 Wellington St (G/F-2/F, Hong Kong House), Central and Various locations
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Milk Tea and Bubble Tea at Home
There’s something special about having these drinks in their original and authentic form and setting. But now people all over the world can experience these beverages in the comfort of their home! Check out some of these quick and easy options for enjoying boba tea and Hong Kong milk tea at home.
Make Bubble Tea at Home
I didn’t realize that a bubble tea kit for home use was even a thing until a friend told me about a bubble tea party she attended. It’s a great idea! And making boba tea at home can save you money too!
Some bubble tea kits are available online but the total cost is often higher (and who wants to pay for plastic cups!?). Also, they don’t always include the best quality materials, so the reviews are mixed. I like the quality to be high and the price to be low! 😉
Buddha Bubbles Boba is a US company and packages and ships all orders from California. Better still, its products are all produced in Taiwan, the home of bubble tea! Taiwan is also a place with very high food quality standards, which is not the case with Mainland China (where many other boba products on Amazon come from).
My suggested DIY bubble tea kit starts with their Milk Tea Boba/Bubble Tea Drink Mix (the smallest, 10 ounce/283 gram pack makes 10+ drinks). This is the classic milk tea flavor that is great hot or cold (with and without boba pearls). But these guys have lots more flavors, like Almond, Chai, Green Coconut, Mango, Matcha / Green Tea, Passion Fruit, Salted Caramel, Thai Tea, and many others.
Also get a pack of their large sized Boba/Black Tapioca Pearls (10 ounce/283 gram). Finally, consider getting some Extra Wide Reusable Smoothie Straws. These reusable, eco-friendly jumbo straws come with 2 cleaning brushes and are perfect for boba tea, milk shakes, fruit smoothies and more. Our planet will thank you.
Instant Milk Tea
There is nothing like rich and creamy, made-to-order Hong Kong style milk tea. But if you are not in Hong Kong right now and still want to have milk tea at home, then these classic “3 in 1 Milk Tea” sachets are a great alternative. Dai Pai Dong Hong Kong Style Instant 3-in-1 Milk Tea is an easy choice. And these instant milk tea powder alternatives are definitely popular with the locals.
Dai Pai Dong is a popular local brand that is widely available here and is a great tasting alternative to authentic Hong Kong milk tea. Importantly, it is also a local-owned and operated company, and their tasty tea products are all made in Hong Kong and distributed directly from here.
Boba Coffee Bonus
OK… so, I am not a coffee person, but a (different) friend from the US said that I have to include this one. In addition to the standard bubble tea variations and fruit juice drinks with boba, there is also a whole world of coffee variations popular throughout ASEAN countries; probably originating in Vietnam. This coffee is known for including sweet and creamy condensed milk.
Now, on the other side of the planet, Cafe Du Monde coffee is also an interesting variation that comes from New Orleans, Louisiana in the southern United States. This is actually a mix of coffee and chicory, and has a really interesting history going back to the American Civil War. The Cafe Du Monde Boba Coffee Kit takes this American original and gives it an Asian condensed milk twist, and then adds modern boba flare to boot. It’s a make at home boba coffee fusion!
A Tale of Two Teas
So there you have it. Will you try a cool, fruity pearl tea (or bubble tea as most western fans call it)? Or will you try a delicious, energizing and creamy Hong Kong milk tea? Will you go out and sample some great classics or innovative new, refreshing beverages, or curl up at home and serve yourself a cup of tastiness? The solution is simple, of course… Try them all!