I like coffee,
I like tea,
I like the boys,
And the boys like me.
My grandmother used to sing this goofy little rhyme to me when I was a kid. It turns out, though, that Nana didn’t like coffee at all. She’d occasionally have a cup of tea, but it was my grandfather who was the confirmed coffee drinker.
I thought about my grandparents and this childhood verse as I set off across Richmond to explore a drink that seemed more exotic to me than the stuffed cabbage in my nana’s stuffy pink-walled kitchen: yuanyang – a drink from Hong Kong that’s a blend of coffee and tea.
Coffee and Tea – Together?
For many caffeine-lovers, the idea of mixing coffee and tea is sacrilegious, if not downright horrifying. You drink coffee or you drink tea, but not both. And certainly not both at the same time, much less mixed together. But in Hong Kong, and in many Hong Kong-style cafés in Richmond, a blend of coffee and milk tea is a popular beverage.
The origins of yuanyang (known as yuenyeung in Cantonese) are somewhat murky. In the same way that Hong Kong cafés developed in the 1950s as a mash-up of Asian and western food culture, this coffee-tea blend seems to have originated around the same time, combining classic Chinese tea with the coffee that was popular abroad.
This coffee-milk tea blend is traditionally made by mixing sweet milky tea with brewed coffee, although instant coffee sometimes stands in for the brewed version. It can be served hot or iced. While it often comes presweetened, some purveyors make it unsweetened, so you can add sugar to your own taste.
Coffee-Tea at Richmond’s Hong Kong-style Cafés
In Richmond, the most common place to find mixed coffee and tea drinks is at one of the city’s traditional Hong Kong-style cafés.
Iced mixed coffee & tea at Copa Café (Photo: Michael Kwan)
365 writer Michael Kwan says that he always gets this coffee-tea mix at Hong Kong-style cafés. He recommends the “iced Hong Kong-style mixed coffee & tea” at Alleluia Café and also enjoys the version at Copa Café. You can try mixed coffee milk tea at the 24-hour No 9 Restaurant, which writer Ed Lau likes for late-night eats, although you’d likely sleep better if you have your caffeine-rich coffee-tea earlier in the day.
Hot milk tea + coffee at Deer Garden Signatures (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
On my coffee-tea sampling tour, I stopped in for lunch at Deer Garden Signatures. You can accompany their signature fish soup (which you embellish with your choice of meats, fish, veggies, or noodles) with a hot or cold coffee milk tea.
While the soup was a hearty filling meal, my silver-hued mug of hot “milk tea + coffee” tasted like mild instant coffee with powdered milk. It arrived unsweetened, with sugar to add at the table, but I couldn’t detect any underlying tea flavor. If you’re used to Starbucks or other darker brews, it tastes like training coffee.
Food Court Options
The busy food court at Aberdeen Centre (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
The next stop on my coffee-tea tour was the busy food hall on the third floor of Aberdeen Centre, where several vendors serve coffee-tea beverages along with their meals.
Steamed fish with Hong Kong-style tea and coffee at Leung Kee Cantonese Food (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
At the popular Leung Kee Cantonese Food stall, you can add a “Hong Kong-style tea and coffee drink” to any “combination plate;” it’s $1 for a hot version or $1.50 for the iced option. After standing in a fast-moving line-up ten people long on a rainy Saturday, I tried an unusual dish labeled “steamed fish with bean curd and black olive on rice,” along with a cold coffee-tea. My sweet milky drink resembled an iced coffee that was nicely balanced with a slight tannic note from the tea.
Several other Aberdeen stalls offer coffee-tea drinks, including Mambo Café, where the east-west meals like “baked pork chop rice” include a hot beverage (you can swap in a cold version for 50 cents more). Teppan Kitchen, which sells Japanese-style platters of beef, pork, chicken, fish, or eel on rice, offers a coffee-tea mix, as does Café D’Lite Express, which is known for its Hainanese chicken rice.
Coffee Bubble Tea and More
You can find coffee-tea drinks at several cafés and bubble tea shops as well, including “coffee milk tea” at Leisure Tea & Coffee on Alexandra Road and a “half coffee, half tea milk tea” at Fair Bee Coffee & Tea in the Lansdowne Mall.
Coffee bubble tea at Pearl Castle (Photo: Carolyn B. Heller)
At Pearl Castle, a lively Taiwanese café, I sampled “coffee bubble tea,” a sweet, creamy iced coffee drink with chewy tapioca pearls. While it may not be Hong Kong traditional, I could get addicted to this sugary summery beverage, although I might order it half-sweet next time to reduce the sugar buzz.
Coffee + Tea = A Happy Couple?
I remembered my grandmother and her coffee-tea rhyme again when I learned the meaning of yuanyang, the Chinese term for this coffee-tea drink. Comprised of the characters for “male duck” and “female duck,” yuanyang is an expression that means a “happy couple.”
Like the seemingly unlikely blend of coffee and tea, my tea-drinking grandma and my coffee-quaffing grandpa were married for more than 60 years. So even though my grandparents never mixed their coffee and tea together like we can do in Richmond, perhaps with her silly rhyme about coffee, tea, and love, Nana was onto something.