I am not a coffee person — I tend to avoid the black brew on off-days. Tea, especially a good cup of masala chai, is more of my thing, which isn’t exactly an easy find in Hong Kong. As an Indian ex-colleague always quipped — why doesn’t Hong Kong have any authentic Indian food despite a sizeable South Asian community?
I remember my friend brought me to a little tea house called Teakha on Tai Ping Shan Street one afternoon — we chatted for hours over what I vaguely recalled was some decent masala chai. In a blink of an eye several years have passed and I haven’t had a good cup of masala chai since. In the meantime Teakha II had opened in Sai Wan and quickly closed.
Why didn’t I go back to Teakha again? I might only have a faint impression of the tea, but I remember vividly it cost more than what I typically pay for lunch. Sometimes, like on this sunny Saturday morning, my craving overrides all other concerns, so with my wife and toddler in tow we make the trek to Tai Ping Shan Street. Its appearance hasn’t changed much — still the tiny café with two tables, a few bar stools and a roofed-over outdoor section with a long bench. What has changed is the amount of manpower; unlike my first visit when the owner Nana Chan was pretty much a one-man band, there are already three staff manning the shop when we arrive at 9:45.
The masala chai is now priced at $60, still more than my average lunch. Together with a pot of apple blossom verbena and a pineapple bun sandwich our mini breakfast set me back $180. We patiently wait for the other items as we sip on the herbal tea — patient is a necessity as everything that isn’t teabag takes a long time to prepare. My chai, using Assam tea and a mixture of spices including ginger, cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon, is slowly boiling on the stove.
By combining a quintessential Hong Kong pastry with the Taiwanese staple pork floss, the pineapple bun sandwich captures the root of Teakha and its owner, who was born in Taiwan but moved to Hong Kong at 10, in a nutshell. Also between the buns are scrambled egg, ham and tomato basil salsa. It is a highly messy affair, with the crust and floss and chopped tomato falling off left and right, but the taste is surprisingly in sync.
Twenty minutes since placing order my masala chai finally arrives. Poorly made Masala chai is overwhelmed by sugar and milk, but Teakha’s manages to reveal the complexity of its myriad of spices. It is a little chilly and punchy, tastes you won’t usually find in a cup of tea.
Teakha is definitely overpriced, but unless someone can make a Masala chai anywhere close it certainly has a place in town.
Address: 18 Tai Ping Shan St, Tai Ping Shan
Opening hours: 11:00 – 19:30 (Weekdays, closed on Tuesday); 9:30 – 20:00 (Weekend)
Our second stop is Hoi On Café, opened in 1952 when it was located right by the shore. How long ago was that? The existing ferry terminal, which was built on reclaimed land and seemingly been around forever, has been in service “only” since 1985. The name “Hoi On” means safe passage, but instead of sailors today it is a tourist favourite due to its old school deco. I have never visited — there has never been a reason to, but today I have found the perfect excuse — to show my toddler a living example of local heritage.
The founder died more than thirty years ago, and until 2012 the shop was overseen by floor manager Mr. Wong, who upon retirement moved to Macau to live with his son. Faced with imminent closure, the founder’s eldest daughter Ao Yeung Fung Gyun promptly quitted her banking executive job to manage the family business. Her determination to preserve this piece of history is truly applaudable.
The cause is noble, but Hoi On’s food is, to put it nicely, not very good. It is about what you can expect from the typical neighbourhood cha chaan teng and several notches below even Tsui Wah’s level. I order one of the signature items — toast with scrambled egg, corned beef and scallion — which is ruined by an absurd amount of the latter. I personally like scallion but not to the degree where it completely dominates all the other flavours. The scallion also releases moisture to the toast, which soon becomes soggy. My wife’s rice noodle in tomato soup fares exactly like noodle in Campbell’s soup.
That said, focusing too much on the food is missing the point about Hoi On. Every city needs its old institutions, and I hope this place can survive for 50 more years.
Address: G/F, 17 Connaught Road, Sheung Wan
Opening hours: 7:30 – 16:30; closed on Sunday