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  • Miranda Brown

Creamy Tea in China: A Forgotten History

In 1897, British diplomat and linguist, Edward Charles Parker (1849-1926), summed up conventional wisdom when he declared that Chinese consumed little milk. He did note, though, a curious exception. “A decoction known as nah-ch’a, or ‘milk-tea,’ is drunk at the Manchu court, and is served on state occasions; but it is merely a survival probably of Mongol rule.”


Parker was correct on both counts. The Manchus kept an imperial dairy near Beijing. At the turn of the century, the Chinese also drank little cow’s milk. This, though, was changing: “But of late years the Chinese begun to fancy the sweetened tinned milks of Europe.”


What Parker overlooked, however, was a long history of combining black tea with dairy, one predating the Manchu or Mongol invasions of China. People in China, in fact, had been drinking cream tea for centuries. In this regard, they were no different from their counterparts in Central and Inner Asia.


Seven centuries before Parker, the famous “patriotic” poet, Lu You 陸游 (1125-1210), sang about infusing his morning brew with cow’s milk, churned into butter.


Lu You was not alone in this. Popular Chinese cookbooks from the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries supplied detailed instructions for “pestle” tea (leicha 擂茶). First pulverize soaked tea leaves with roasted sesame seeds, then add Sichuan peppercorns, salt, butter, and sugar to make a paste. Afterwards, pour in brewed tea and stir until the liquid froths, and warm over heat. You can also add ground chestnuts, pine nuts, and walnuts. If butter is unavailable, substitute dry flour.



Dry ingredients for pestle tea


Cream tea had a curious hold on the rich and powerful in China, especially in the South. Some versions of the beverage used ground goji berries, cream, and flour. Other versions, however, were simpler, comprising milk fats and black tea. One late sixteenth-century poet from the South urged readers to take a liberal hand with the butter or clotted cream. His point? The more cream, he wrote, the better. And indeed, most recipes specify that the proportion of dairy to tea should be three to one.


A variety of recipes survive, too, from the early years of Qing rule (1644-1911). In the seventeenth century, a magistrate from Jiangnan instructed readers about how to prepare milk tea. Use low quality tea. Brew it strong and then beat it with a paddle until it acquires a deep red or brown hue before adding sesame paste and butter. Serve salty or sweet.


It isn’t clear when, or if, this tradition died in China. Certainly, Tibetans, including those living in Yunnan, still make the stuff today, with brick tea, salt, and yak butter.


Some versions of pestle tea persist in the Chinese-speaking world, albeit without the milk. Hunanese concoct a savory soup with tea, vegetables, and nuts. Hakkas in Taiwan also prepare a version of the drink with the same name. They use matcha green tea or oolong. Ground nuts and rice also go into the beverage. One contemporary rendition hints of its origins as a dairy-based beverage. Cook use soybeans, ground into a thick “milk.” The drink is sweet.


Simple Cream Tea (seventeenth-century style)


Don’t believe the name. The ‘milk’ (naizi 奶子) refers *not* to fluid milk here, but to butter or clotted cream. Before refrigeration or canning, butter preserved fresh dairy, which was not only perishable but also seasonal. Heating butter will further extend shelf life. When properly stored, clarified butter, or ghee, will last at least a year, if not longer.


People in southwest China still consume churned butter. But in coastal areas, clotted cream became more popular from the Ming dynasty. Foodies in the Shanghai area thought clotted cream went well into strong black tea.


The key to making this recipe is blending until the mixture froths. This will ensure a smooth final product, otherwise the tea will have ungainly clumps of fat that float to the surface of your cup. You can do this with a hand-cranked butter churn. But Tibetans nowadays use hand blenders.


Pu’er, oolong, or any black tea, 1-2 tsp (or to taste)

Butter or clotted cream, 2 tablespoons, room temperature

Chinese sesame paste, 1 tablespoon. (Do not substitute tahini, made from raw sesame seeds. If the Chinese product is unavailable, you can toast the sesame seeds yourself and mortar).

Hot water, 1 cup

Salt or sugar


blender or manual butter churn


1. Brew the black tea for at least 5 minutes. It should be very strong.

2. Combine butter and sesame paste, and blend to mix.

3. Add hot tea and blend.

4. Add salt or sugar.

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