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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

“English Tea” in Sixteenth-Century China

Westerners were struck by the Chinese penchant for drinking their tea without milk or sugar. The English missionary, William Milne (1815-1863), remarked upon the Chinese way of consuming tea in Real Life in China (1857): “When decocted tea [in China] is drunk without any admixture of milk and sugar. These are used only by foreigners, and probably to mollify the désagrémus of the ‘black draughts’ they are so fond of ‘masking.’ As to sugar and milk, the former is superabundant in China, and used for every imaginable purpose except tea-drinking…”

Milne’s remarks resonated with the observations of most Western visitors to China in his time. By the nineteenth century, Chinese rarely mixed black tea with milk or sugar.

Things, however, had been different only two centuries before. The Chinese not only once enjoyed their “black draughts,” but Europeans also had their first taste of milk tea in South China.

The description of the Dutch traveler, Johannes Nieuhoff, who visited Canton in 1655, defies expectations. Tea, of course, was familiar to him. The Dutch had imported it from Japan already for several decades. But the distinctly Chinese manner of drinking “the Herb” was different enough to merit note:

Nieuhoff’s Dutch-language account of China went into print just ten years later, in 1665. A French translation appeared the same year, and an English version followed four years later. Milk tea also turned up in another influential account of China. Representatives of the Dutch East India Company also sipped milk tea in Fuzhou in 1666, which they called “Bean-broth, mixed with warm milk.”

We may never prove that Europeans learned to make milk tea from the Chinese. It is conceivable that they came up with the invention on their own. But tea did not become a popular drink in England until the late seventeenth century. This was decades after Nieuhoff’s influential account of China, begging the question whether the visit with the mandarin sparked an international craze.

Chinese Milk Tea

Chinese cookbooks contain a surprising number of recipes that marry black tea with dairy. The following recipe is a simple one. But one must get the milk right. Chinese milk in the sixteenth century was far richer than anything that we nowadays drink.

In 1917, C.O. Levine and William Cadbury, two dairy scientists, tested the milk of the cattle breeds native to South China. They discovered that while Chinese cows produced little milk, their milk was preternaturally creamy: eight percent fat. The native water buffalo, however, averaged 12% milk fat. Compare this to the 3.25% of today’s whole milk, and you have a virtual milkshake.

To achieve the right level of fat, I mixed a quarter cup of light cream with three quarters cup regular whole milk. This brought me closer to the eight percent that Levine and Cadbury described. The flavor was close to evaporated milk, which has about the same amount of fat.

Not coincidentally, most shops make milk tea in Hong Kong with evaporated or condensed milk. While the usual explanation is that the use of canned milk reflected the lack of resources or refrigeration, culinary preferences also must have played a role. Milk, of course, is nowadays widely available on the island. Yet people in Hong Kong continue to make their milk tea with the canned product and complain that European milk tea is too watery.

Black tea (pu’er or oolong), 1-2 teaspoons

Evaporated or condensed milk, ¼- ½ cup

Boiling water, 1 cup

A pinch of salt or sugar (optional)

1. Steep the tea with the boiling water for 5 minutes.

2. Strain the tea of the loose leaves.

3. Heat the milk gently, until it is hot. Then pour the tea into the heated milk.

4. Add salt or sugar to taste.

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