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Fine art of 'pantyhose tea' survives

HONG KONG -- The battered menu in the neighborhood eatery includes most of the classic café fare: coffee, sodas, buttered buns. But there's also something truly strange for visitors: pantyhose milk tea.

The brew is so named because it's prepared by repeatedly straining the drink through long, brown filters that look like pantyhose. Making the tea, a traditional and elaborate process, is revered almost as a work of art in this former British colony.

Pantyhose tea is regarded as the smoothest, silkiest version of Hong Kong's favorite drink -- creamy milk tea, which is made with evaporated milk and a heavy dose of tea leaves. It's nothing like weak, watered-down English tea.

Creamy tea is of obscure ancestry. Many say it's an Anglo-Chinese child born of the colonialists' national drink and the southern Chinese penchant for strong black tea.

The result, sipped hot or iced at every hour of the day, is so popular that even McDonald's offers a version of it.

But owners of the old- fashioned Chinese café Lan Fong Yuen, the shrine for creamy tea fanatics, say no one does the traditional pantyhose tea way like they do.

The tiny eatery has sold pantyhose tea to regulars and curious tourists for more than 50 years, ever since owner Lam Muk-ho stole the method from a chef hailing from China's tea-growing island of Hainan.

From there, Lam, now 80, fine-tuned the recipe with his sons until they found the perfect combination -- a ''secret" blend of five teas and evaporated milk.

But the painstaking straining process is the key to velvety tea, said Lam's son, Chun-chung.

Five or six large kettles, each containing a big, finely knit filter stained burnt amber by tea leaves, brew in a special hut set up outside the shop.

At the first sign of boiling over, a kettle is lifted from the fire, the filter taken out, and the steaming ruby liquid is poured through the filter into a jug. The strained tea is then immediately poured back into the same filtered kettle and brewed again.

The beverage is ready only after this process has been repeated seven to eight times, said Lam Chun-chung.

''This way, the color is evenly distributed and the tea feels smooth to your throat, like aged wine," he said. Inferior creamy teas are bitter and astringent, and sometimes leave an unpleasant sour taste in the mouth, he said.

Janet Tsang, a 32-year-old office worker and occasional customer, testified to the difference. ''The tea here is much stronger and smoother. A lot of other places use tea bags now, and I really don't like that," she said.

The liquid, hot but not unbearably so, glides thickly down the throat, leaving a robust, lingering flavor. Its texture is satisfyingly creamy, but to those used to English tea, the thickness of the evaporated milk could be cloying.

Tiffany Wong, an avid creamy tea drinker from Australia who is in her 20s, gushed about her first taste of pantyhose tea.

''You can't get this anywhere outside Hong Kong," she said. ''Every shop here brews from its own special recipe, and every time it tastes a bit different. That's why it's so special."

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