Local cafés and diners—referred to in Cantonese as cha chaan tengs—are deeply woven into the fabric of Hong Kong’s DNA and remain the city’s pride and joy for tourists and locals alike. You can sit down for a whole meal or just pop in for a casual drink. However, with most menus written in Cantonese and daily specials scrawled haphazardly on walls, we do agree that sometimes it may seem daunting to make your order at a cha chaan teng, especially when you’re not familiar with the intricate codewords and slang often used by servers. Not to fear—here’s our guide to the most quintessential drinks you can find and try in these local Hong Kong diners.
Before we dive into the host of different beverages, here are some tips and phrases to know, should you wish to customise your drinks when ordering. Most of the time, you can decide whether you want your drink to be hot (熱, pronounced as yit) or cold (凍, pronounced as dong). Additionally, there are three components you can control, which are applicable to the majority of traditional drinks: the addition or removal of ice (冰, pronounced as bing), sugar (糖, pronounced as tong), and milk (奶, pronounced as naai). You can ask for less (少, pronounced as siu), more (加, pronounced as ga), or none at all (走, pronounced as jau).
The most common drink you can find in a cha chaan teng is the ever-popular milk tea (奶茶, pronounced as nai cha). Hong Kong-style milk tea is made with strong black tea and condensed milk, so it’s sweeter, smoother, and creamier than your average cup of black tea with milk. It’s usually served in a teacup if it’s hot—like the classic Black & White branded ceramic sets you’ll often come across—or in a tall glass if it’s cold.
This particular drink is more commonly known as yuen yeung—which is how you should order it when you’re in a cha chaan teng. Named after a pair of mandarin ducks, this is the drink to have if you simply cannot decide between milk tea and coffee—so why not have both? It is usually one part coffee and two parts milk tea, resulting in a unique combination that is sure to give you a caffeine boost. The first sip is always sweet, followed by a subtle, bitter aftertaste.
An all-time favourite in the humid summers of Hong Kong, red bean ice (紅豆冰, pronounced as hung dau bing) is a drink made with sweetened red beans, a dash of evaporated milk, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and crushed ice. It comes served in a chilled metal cup and played a quintessential part in many Hong Kong childhoods. While some people like to drink it as it is, we recommend grabbing using the spoon to crush the red beans and mix everything first before gulping it all down for a full mouthfeel!
Classic lemon tea is the local Hongkonger’s go-to drink if they’re looking for something quick and easy. Same with milk tea, the lemon tea (檸茶, pronounced as ling cha) is usually served in a teacup if hot and in a tall glass if cold. For those used to the sweet, sweet flavours of packaged Vita Lemon Tea found in convenience stores, bear in mind that this drink is the real thing—and that means it has a lot less sugar, making it an acquired taste. Use your spoon to mush up the lemon slices thoroughly before drinking to really extract its flavours. Too sour? We also like to ask for sugar syrup to be served on the side so we can sweeten our ling cha according to our own tastes.
Many who grew up in Hong Kong will be hard-pressed to forget the nostalgic taste of Ribena. This popular blackcurrant drink concentrate originated in the UK but has made an indelible mark on the tastebuds of Hong Kong’s youth in the 1990s. While you can purchase the concentrate in any supermarket—to be mixed with water or sparkling soda water for a refreshing, sweet juice—when served in a cha chaan teng, you can have it spiced up with slices of lemon! We like to have our Ribena with lemon (檸賓, pronounced as ling bun) served super cold with extra lemon slices for a full blast of fruitiness.
As its name suggests, the yeet ling lok usually comes hot and actually doubles as an informal Chinese remedy for cold and flu symptoms. It is said and believed amongst locals—though not scientifically verified—that the steam from the hot drink will clear the sinuses, the caffeine from the Coke will reawaken the senses, the spiciness of the ginger will warm up your body, and the lemon throws in some extra vitamin C. Hey, in this day and age, we’ll try anything.
One of our guilty pleasures is the curiously named Black Cow. Pronounced as huk ngau, this indulgent drink is made with a scoop of chocolate or Rocky Road ice cream floating in a cup of ice-cold Coke. Needless to say, this drink is always popular with kids. The name, of course, refers to the contrasting colours of the dark Coke and light ice cream.
Cream soda with milk may sound like a bizarre combination but together, it creates a magical flavour that is one of the quintessential cha chaan teng beverages. Served cold as a half glass of milk, you pour in the accompanying cream soda while stirring at the same time. The end result is a sweet milkshake that somehow reminds you of whipped cream—you will know what we mean once you try it. But first, you must wrap your tongue around the pronunciation of the drink’s name, which is gei lim kau seen nai.
A great drink for anyone with a cough or a sore throat, a ham ling chat is a glass of Sprite or 7-Up with ice cubes and preserved salted limes. Limes are placed in jars and lined with salt to help with the pickling process and are said to alleviate symptoms of a sore throat. Seems like cha chaan teng drinks are fans of fermented flavours!
Made with malt extract, sugar, cocoa powder, and whey, Ovaltine (translated into Cantonese as 阿華田 and pronounced as O Waa Tin) was first developed in Switzerland but became hugely popular in England. It was then brought over to Hong Kong by British officials and became a fixture on the menus of our beloved local diners. You can have it hot or cold, though it usually comes without sugar, so you can add your own desired amount when it arrives. We personally prefer its original, malty flavour without any additions.
Milo is another malted chocolate drink that can be found in a cha chaan teng. Originated in Sydney, Milo (translated into Cantonese as 美祿 and pronounced as Mei Luk) was actually marketed as a sports drink before the general public rediscovered it—though we really couldn’t tell you why, as there seem to be no particular health benefits associated with it, aside from “essential vitamins and minerals.” The chocolate taste is stronger in Milo than in Ovaltine so it’s up to you to decide which one you are in the mood to order. Both Milo and Ovaltine can be bought as beverage mixes in supermarkets if you want to bring a taste of cha chaan tengs into your home.
Unlike Ovaltine and Milo, there’s no chocolate blended in with a cup of Horlick’s. It is, instead, a mixture of milled malted barley, wheat flour, and other dairy powders, so it claims to be an even healthier alternative. Known as hor lik or hou laap hak in cha chaan tengs, staff combines Horlick’s powder with milk and serves it either hot or cold. Along with Ovaltine, Milo, and Ribena, Horlick’s is a historical remnant of our colonial past that has become a quintessential part of Hong Kong culture and flavours.
In some select cha chaan tengs across Hong Kong, you will see a massive drink dispenser filled with a milky-white liquid. It’s soy milk, of course! Made by crushing soybeans and blending them with water, soy milk in dispensers (pronounced as dau joeng) is usually made fresh—a popular choice as a breakfast drink. Another form of soy milk can be found in glass bottles, with the bulk of it produced by beverage brand Vitasoy (known in Cantonese as Wai Ta Nai). A local company that dominates the Hong Kong manufacturing scene, the glass-bottled milk is much more reminiscent of old Hong Kong rather than boxed milk we see in convenience stores nowadays.